Research methods and research data in psychology can be placed into two basic categories: quantitative or qualitative.
Qualitative research gathers information that is not in numerical form. For example, diary accounts, open-ended questionnaires, unstructured interviews and unstructured observations. Qualitative data is typically descriptive data and as such is harder to analyze than quantitative data.
Qualitative research is useful for studies at the individual level, and to find out, in depth, the ways in which people think or feel (e.g. case studies).
Analysis of qualitative data is difficult and requires accurate description of participant responses, for example, sorting responses to open questions and interviews into broad themes. Quotations from diaries or interviews might be used to illustrate points of analysis. Expert knowledge of an area is necessary to try to interpret qualitative data and great care must be taken when doing so, for example, if looking for symptoms of mental illness.
An interest in qualitative data came about as the result of the dissatisfaction of some psychologists (e.g. Carl Rogers) with the scientific study of psychologists such as the behaviorists (e.g. Skinner). Since psychologists study people, the traditional approach to science is not seen as an appropriate way of carrying out research, since it fails to capture the totality of human experience and the essence of what it is to be human. Exploring the experience of participants is known as a phenomenological approach (re: Humanism).
It is argued that to focus on isolated pieces of behavior, as is most often the case in studies interested in collecting quantitative data, is rather superficial, and ignores the social context within which behavior takes place. Given that psychological research is something which happens in a social context, the objectivity of the researcher, central to traditional methods, is seen as essentially false within psychology.
As people studying people, researchers necessarily have attitudes and values which they bring to their research. It is therefore more honest that researchers' attitudes and values should be acknowledged, and form part of the context of research.
A good example of a qualitative research method would be unstructured and group interviews which generate qualitative data through the use of open questions. This allows the respondent to talk in some depth, choosing their own words. This helps the researcher develop a real sense of a person’s understanding of a situation. However, it can be time consuming to conduct the unstructured interview and analyse the qualitative data.
Quantitative research gathers data in numerical form which can be put into categories, or in rank order, or measured in units of measurement. This type of data can be used to construct graphs and tables of raw data.
Experiments typically yield quantitative data, as they are concerned with measuring things. However, other research methods, such as observations and questionnaires can produce both quantitative and qualitative information.
For example, a rating scale or closed questions on a questionnaire would generate quantitative data as these produce either numerical data or data that can be put into categories (e.g. “yes”, “no” answers). Whereas open-ended questions would generate qualitative information as they are a descriptive response.
Experimental methods limit the possible ways in which a research participant can react to and express appropriate social behavior. Findings are therefore likely to be context-bound and simply a reflection of the assumptions which the researcher brings to the investigation.
Minichiello, V. (1990). In-Depth Interviewing: Researching People. Longman Cheshire.
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