Qualitative or Quantitative – Which research method is better?

My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering and my first job after college was to work as a design engineer where we dealt with a lot of numbers and data to make design decisions.  For my years in college and the initial years at work, I was basically taught to rely on numbers heavily.  We basically took it for granted that numbers were facts and we used facts to make decisions and that was the only way to make decisions.

As I moved from a design engineer to a manager in operations at Learjet while pursuing a master’s in industrial engineering, I got exposed to writing business cases to justify capital expenditure to make improvements in manufacturing operations.  We needed the numbers to justify the cost for making the change while also the narrative to help an executive understand why we wanted to invest in making the change and how it would impact the quality of life of the workers.  The business case relied as much on telling the story from the point of view of a worker, as on the numbers required to get the approval from management to move forward with the requested capital investment required to make the change.

Much later in life, I got an opportunity to be in sales, where it was mostly about the story and very little to do with numbers.  Most of the time the sales story had the company’s and salesperson bias into the story, and we needed the reference of other clients, but rarely did we have to show real numbers the prospect clients as to how this product made an actual difference for existing clients from a measured numbers standpoint.

The reason I share my background is because based on my industry experience, I used to be a quantitative person and over time and as a learning from my first two classes in qualitative research, I think I prefer the qualitative research method over the quantitative research method for a number of reasons.  For the purpose of this blog, I am going to limit it to the following three key reasons:

  1. Engagement: There are several components of qualitative research and what I really like is that several of the components imply engagement in the form of fieldwork and naturalistic engagement, processes and relationships engagement and inductive engagement to allow the researcher to really understand the context of environment and participants as part of the research.  This engagement brings a lot of context in the research and makes it personal.
  2. Methodology: The methodology of qualitative research stems from the fact that there is no one single version of the truth or reality.  This allows qualitative research to be very dynamic and allowing the researcher to change directions as more information is acquired over time.  The methodology also allows the research to be descriptive and analytical with the collection of data via surveys, interviews, etc.  The flexibility of the research supports my fundamental belief of continuous learning.
  3. Researcher: In qualitative research the researcher is viewed as an instrument allowing for gender, socio economic status, race, etc. to become a part of the study which makes the study so unique and interesting as seen from the eyes of the researcher.  The personality of the researcher with the biases that they have are an instrumental part of the research since no matter how much you try you cannot get the bias out of qualitative or quantitative research.

Based on my experience in the industry, I believe that the same set of numbers can tell several different stories based on how the question is phrased. We see the results of data manipulation to tell different stories in paid conferences or research papers that identify the leaders in the market and a lot of the times it is tied to the paper or conference sponsorship levels.  If you ask the right question, the data will give you a correct answer eventually.

This is why, even though, I was initially raised to be a quantitative person but based on my first 2 classes and initial analysis, I like the qualitative approach better.   In qualitative approach, the researcher does not have to hide behind the numbers, they already admit that that this is view from the researcher point of view.  The current view is based on the information provided and if more information is provided, the researcher is willing to evolve.  Even though my business and engineering peers might look down at qualitative research, I think if done properly, a good qualitative research would be done by engaging with people in both a descriptive and analytical manner to get the context as well as the data to back up the context.