Skip main navigation

Qualitative or quantitative? Which is which?

If you’re new to research terminology, here’s an easy way to distinguish between your L’s and N’s.
Woman standing with a pensive expression
© Deakin University and Griffith University

If you’re new to research terminology, here’s an easy way to distinguish between your L’s and N’s.

Qualitative = qualities (descriptions).

Quantitative = quantities (numbers).

So, the knowledge produced by qualitative research is not ‘how many?’, but ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’. This makes qualitative research an exciting and engaging form of research.

Qualitative research

As you know, qualitative research is the focus of our course. It investigates people’s experiences and draws meaning from their stories. It may explore a particular culture, viewpoint, issue, perception or event. Because it collects information in the form of words, pictures and even objects, the data gathered is open to interpretation and highly complex. Logistically, the process of data collection and analysis associated with qualitative research is time consuming and labor intensive. For this reason, it’s not usually feasible to include as many participants as you may be able to in a quantitative study. That being said, the nature of the data it can uncover is significantly richer.

Quantitative research

On the other side of the coin, quantitative research focuses on collecting numerical information. What is being researched has already been quantified and predefined. It answers research questions relating to ‘how many?’ and because it deals in numbers, the data can be more easily analysed using statistical analysis. This type of data is also less time consuming to collect from individual participants, making it logistically easier to employ larger sample sizes.

Choice of method

For example, if you’re looking to determine demographic information about a group of people in a particular workplace (such as age, family status, highest level of education, income level etc.) you could use a quantitative approach, such as a survey. On the other hand, if you wanted to understand what could promote greater levels of work satisfaction and engender company loyalty from the same group of people, you would need a qualitative approach. You would likely set up interviews or focus groups among the staff to generate rich, descriptive data to answer your question.

Test yourself

Review the pairs of example questions below. Can you identify which one is more suited to a quantitative approach and which one requires a qualitative approach?

(a) Why are violent video games addictive?
(b) Are the sales of violent video games increasing?

(a) What are the barriers to hand washing in aged care facilities?
(b) What proportion of disease outbreaks in aged care facilities were associated with poor hand hygiene in the past 12 months?

(a) How does social media impact on teenagers’ perceptions of body image?
(b) How many hours per week are teenagers spending on social media?

Did you choose qualitative for all the (a) questions and quantitative for the (b) questions? You are correct!

While this course is devoted to all things qualitative, we’ll be investigating quantitative research approaches in the next course in this series: Why Numbers Matter: Quantitative Research. As you’re about to discover, neither method answers everything and in many instances you may choose to use a combination of both.

Let’s look at some specific examples.


Consider how you could determine the academic success of Mable Park High School, in Australia. If we were only to do so quantitatively (eg by measuring the number of successfully graduating students over a period of years, or the percentage of students achieving high grades), we may miss out on a large piece of this school’s success picture.

Qualitatively, we could also consider academic success at this school in terms of different outcomes by gathering the stories of pregnant teenagers undertaking the school’s Power Program. The program provides support for girls to finish their high school education, when they may not have otherwise. By systematically gathering and analysing their stories we can understand how this support represents academic success in a different way. Sometimes we can’t just look at the numbers when we’re trying to understand qualities such as value, success or improvement. As the sociologist William Cameron (1963) stated, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


In the political arena, you may assume it’s just a numbers game, however the statistics are only part of the equation. Read the article The Government Has Numbers – Can Labor Develop a Story? As the author, Peter Lewis, says: ‘While numbers get the glory and the easy headlines, it’s actually the stories that do the heavy lifting and determine political futures.’

Your task

Select the comments link below and post your thoughts on what you think the value of qualitative research is in our society.


Cameron, W.B. (1963). Informal Sociology: A casual introduction to sociological thinking. New York: Random House

Lewis, P. (2018). The government has numbers. Can Labor develop a story? The Guardian.

© Deakin University and Griffith University
This article is from the free online

Why Experience Matters: Qualitative Research

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now