Methodologies and methods: the qualitative-quantitative continuum


The methodology refers to an overarching research strategy or design, a plan of action, a process that can be used to try to understand the world.

A methodology can be quantitative (tends to be oriented by objective epistemology) or qualitative (tends to be oriented by constructionist epistemology).


Refers to the procedures used to gather and analyse data related to a research question or hypothesis. Quantitative methods for instance include surveys, questionnaires, tests that measure, observation that is structured and measures something. Qualitative methods include interviews, focus groups, text analysis.

A methodology or a method by itself is not valid or invalid, only the claims you make can be valid or invalid.

The quantitative – qualitative continuum

This page explores the nature of qualitative and quantitative research. A brief overview of differences, strengths and weaknesses is provided. It is important however to note that representing these two research methodologies as two extremes is artificial and may not always be useful.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research developed  in social and human sciences as a reaction to the view that human beings can be studied in the same way objects are studied (Minichiello & Kottler, 2010).

Qualitative research emerged from very different traditions, disciplines; as a result very diverse approaches to qualitative research developed.  This is way qualitative research can seem confusing. In this session we will attempt to address some of the confusions.

Many definitions for qualitative research exist.

Qualitative research is multi method in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin & Lincoln 2004, p. 2).

Qualitative research is

  • Naturalistic – studies phenomena in their natural settings. People in their environment.
  • Interpretative – focuses on understanding the way people interpret and make sense of their experiences and the world in which they live. Acknowledges the many ways to acquire knowledge, which can be complementary
  • Inductive
  • Flexible
  • Inquisitive
  • Reflective
Qualitative research: advantages

  • Context taken into account
  • Responsive to local situations, conditions
  • Based on the participants’ categories of meaning – is about people’s personal experiences – more adapted to needs of people studied
  • Allows in depth study
  • Can look at complex phenomena
  • Dynamic (can account and responds to change)
  • Can inductively generate a tentative but explanatory theory about a phenomenon
Qualitative research: disdavantages

  • Bias caused by closeness – unscientific
  • Subjective
  • Lack of a priori – anything goes
  • Researcher influences participant
  • Knowledge produced might not generalize to other people or other settings (i.e., findings – might be unique to the relatively few people included in the research study).
  • Low credibility with administrators (because of tradition, but also because quall research uses small samples, does not easily allow to make quantitative projections
  • Data analysis can be very time consuming

Why chose a qualitative approach?

  • Because methods reflect your view of the world
  • Because the research question best suits a qualitative approach
  • Because of pragmatic reasons (training, supervisor)

Qualitative research tends to fit (but not automatically align) with the following research paradigms:

  • Critical realism (post-positivism): rigorous qualitative techniques. No testing of hypotheses, but allows knowledge to emerge.
  • Constructionism/interpretivism: dialogue with participants to construct reality together.
  • Critical theory: conversation and reflection with participant to challenge assumptions.
  • Transformative- emancipatory: favours a mixed approach to offer a broader understanding.

Common methods used

  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Observation
  • Qualitative content analysis
  • Diaries
  • Photographs, videos

Understanding in qualitative research

Hermeneutics is about understanding. Qualitative research has to take into account various levels of hermeneutics:

Level 1: the level of understanding of participants in a study

Level 2: the level of understanding of the researcher – how the researcher understands what the participant understands. To access participants understanding requires reflexivity, self awareness

Level 3: how a reader of the research understand what the researcher understood

Useful online resources

Yin, Robert K. (2015). Qualitative research from start to finish. Guilford Publications. Available as e-book from the UC Library .

Quantitative research

Philosophical assumptions underpinning quantitative research are that reality is external and objective – positivism. Quantitative research quantifies data

Common features of the quantitative approach

  • Generalisable
  • Can establish causality
  • About hypothesis testing and falsification of theory
  • Uses representative samples
  • Concern is with measurement
  • Assumes a controlled environment and tends to exclude external factors
  • Assumes controllable variables
  • Replicable
  • Reliable
Quantitative research: advantages

  • Provides data that can be projected to generalise information
  • Can be easily translated into easily charts and graphs, which are often very effective as they project an impression of scientificity
  • Can study large samples
Quantitative research: disadvantages

  • Quantitative research tends to force data into categories
  • It is not always easy to collect large samples (particularly as a research student working solo)
  • Accused of being deterministic and reducing all things to numbers
  • Vulnerable to statistical error. Bad sampling and analysis can completely undermine the accuracy, validity of a quantitative research project.

Why choose a quantitative approach?

Use a quantitative research methodology if

  • You have a scientific (positivist) approach to knowledge.
  • You believe in an external law abiding world, that your job is to discover the laws and theories that govern the world and subject them to testing, verification or falsification
  • You accept that objective approaches be used to investigate the social world
  • You believe in determinism
  • You are interested in causes and their influence on outcomes
  • Your aim is to describe causal relationships
  • You believe that it is possible to predict outcomes from a discrete set of known variables
  • You are interested in developing numeric measures for your variables

Use a quantitative methodology when your problem calls

  • For identifying factors that determine/influence an outcome
  • Does one intervention work better than another?
  • What are the best predictors of outcomes?
  • You want to test a theory or prediction
  • You want to generalise the findings to a population

Do NOT use a quantitative methodology when

  • You do not know the relevant variables
  • A phenomenon is poorly understood
  • You want to explore a phenomenon in depth, to provide rich thick description that elaborates multiple meanings, and shows how meaningful action is constructed in situated social encounters

Quantitative research strategies

Qualitative research tends to fit (but not automatically align) with the positivist, and post-positivist (falsification) research paradigms.  Research tends to be about examining relationships between variables.

Major quantitative research designs

  • Case study design
  • Comparative design
  • Co-relational studies
  • Cross sectional design
  • Experimental design
    • Simple experiments
    • Complex experiments with many variables
    • Longitudinal study design
    • Modelling
    • Quasi-experimental strategies
    • Survey design

Quantitative research often looks at causal relations, which can be used to make predictions. Research often includes exaining the strength and significance of these relationships

Quantitative research can also be descriptive, used to explore or find correlations.

Common quantitative methods

  • Surveys
  • Interviews using constructed closed ended questionnaires
  • Standardized observation
  • Quantitative content analysis
  • Rating scales, e.g. 5 point Likert scale of strongly agree/agree/neutral/disagree/strongly disagree
  • Experiment –  e.g. to test the impact of an intervention
  • Quasi experiment
  • Random assignment of subjects to treatment conditions
  • Double or single blinding

watch video iconQuantitative vs.Qualitative Data

Resources for quantitative research

If you need to re-engage with the basics, many resources are available. UCReD, UC’s Researcher Development Program offers regular workshops around statistics. Workshop notes can be made available. Course materials from Excel sessions facilitated by Intersect can be accessed here.

Online courses are advertised on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website . Free online training is also offered  offered by CourseraHarvard edXopen2studyStanford Online. Check also the Free Online course page on the Good Universities website, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open Courseware.

Another useful resource is the Research Methods Knowledge Base.

Mixed methods

The use of mixed methods (mixing quantitative and qualitative research methods) is increasingly fashionable in research. Mixed methods is seen as a pragmatic approach that has ’greater power to convince a reader/examiner of the quality and value of your findings’ (Cooksey & Mc Donald, 2011, p 199). Mixed methods assumes that a methodology is chosen simply for its capacity to address research objectives.

Combining quantitative and qualitative research allows (Bryman, 2004)

  • triangulation
  • fill in gaps
  • use of one methodology to facilitate another
  • combining static and process focussed features
  • gain perspectives of researcher & participant

Mixed methods involves collecting data in a simultaneous or sequential manner using methods drawn from both quantitative and qualitative traditions. When doing this it is important to be clear about how different data sets co-operate.

Mixed methods: advantages

  • Balances strengths and limitations of quantitative and qualitative
  • Facilitates view from different perspectives
  • Enhances credibility among a wider group
Mixed methods: possible issues

  • role of theory in relation to research (deductive or inductive)
  • epistemological orientation
  • ontological orientation

Using mixed methods requires

  • Broader skill set
  • Broader experience
  • Time and resources
  • Acceptance and understanding of mixed methods

watch video icon Alan Bryman on qualitative and quantitative research


It is important to work out what is best, most effective, for what you are trying to do. The integration of both methods, based on the use of the strengths of each method, is becoming more common. This acknowledges that qualitative research can better answer certain questions in certain conditions, while quantitative research can better address other questions. But some researchers are still convinced that qualitative and quantitative methodologies cannot be combined because the assumptions underlying each tradition are so different.




“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

References and resources

Booth, Wayne C., Colomb, Gregory G and Williams, Joseph M. (2008).  The craft of research. University of Chicago Press.

Bryman, A and Bell, E. (2011). Business Research Methods. Oxford University Press

Burrell, G. and Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organisational analysis: Elements of the sociology of corporate life. Heinemann: London.

Cooksey, Ray & McDonald, Gael (2011), Surviving and thriving in postgraduate research. Tilde University Press, Prahran

Cook Thomas D & Reichardt Charles S (eds. 1979). Qualitative and quantitative methods in evaluation research, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Cresswell, JW., & Plano-Clark, V.L. (2011). Designing and conducting Mixed Methods Research (2nd Ed). Sage: Los Angeles.

Crotty, Michael (1998). The foundations of social research : meaning and perspective in the research process, St Leonards, NSW : Allen & Unwin.

Denzin, N & Lincoln, Y. (eds.) (1994). Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Goodrick, D. (2011), Qualitative Research, Design, Analysis and Representation, unpublished notes from workshop presented at ACSPRI Canberra 2011

Greene, J. (2007). Mixed methods in social inquiry. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Guba, E.G and Lincoln, Y.S. (1994). ‘Competing paradigms in qualitative research’.  In Denzin N.K. and Lincoln Y.S. (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research, 105-117.

Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, (2004). ‘Mixed methods research: a research paradigm whose time has come’, Educational Researcher  33,14-26,

Maxwell Joseph A. (2010). ‘Using Numbers in Qualitative Research’. Qualitative Inquiry 2010 16, 475

Minichiello, Victor & Kottler, Jeffrey A. (2010), Qualitative Journeys. Student and mentor experiences with research. Thousands oaks: Sage.

Morgan, David L.(2007), ‘Paradigms Lost and Pragmatism Regained:Methodological Implications of Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Methods’. Journal of Mixed Methods Research 1/1, 48-7.

Neill, James’ site which presents a good overview offers resources to look at

Onwuegbuzie, A.J. & Johnson, R.B. (2006). ‘The validity issue in mixed research’. Research in the schools, 13/1, 48-63

Teddlie, C., & Tashakkor, A. (2009) Foundations of mixed methods research: Integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches in the social and behavioral sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage.

Winter, Glyn (2000). ‘A Comparative Discussion of the Notion of ‘Validity’ in Qualitative and Quantitative Research’, The Qualitative Report 4/3 & 4, March, 2000, available at