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On Methods: What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches?

Adar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D. - In the world of research, there are two general approaches to gathering and reporting information: qualitative and quantitative approaches - Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring Editors Note: We are very fortunate to have Adar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D. our new Methods Editor, sharing with us her considerable expertise on research methods. Dr. Ben-Eliyahu completed her doctorate in developmental psychology at Duke University, where she honed very strong skills in methods. She is currently a MacArthur Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Prior to arriving at Boston, Dr. Ben-Eliyahu was a post-doc in the Activation Lab at the Learning Research & Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Enjoy!

Understanding different types of research:
What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches?

Adar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D.

In the world of research, there are two general approaches to gathering and reporting information: qualitative and quantitative approaches. The qualitative approach to research is focused on understanding a phenomenon from a closer perspective. The quantitative approach tends to approximate phenomena from a larger number of individuals using survey methods. In this research corner, I describe methods that are generally used in each strand of research. Each approach has its benefits and detriments, and is more suitable to answering certain kinds of questions.

Qualitative Approach

The qualitative approach to gathering information focuses on describing a phenomenon in a deep comprehensive manner. This is generally done in interviews, open-ended questions, or focus groups. In most cases, a small number of participants participate in this type of research, because to carry out such a research endeavor requires many resources and much time. Interviews can vary from being highly structured and guided by open-ended questions, or be less structured and take the form of a conversational interview. Because of the investment in this type of research and the relatively few number of participants, findings from qualitative research cannot be generalized to the whole population. However, such research serves as a spring board for larger studies and deeper understanding that can inform theory, practice, and specific situations.

Example from youth mentoring research:

Ahrens, DuBois, Garrison, Spencer, Richardson, & Lozano (2011) used semi-structured interviews to outline themes of mentor characteristics and factors that youth perceive to influence mentor relationships. They spoke with participants on the phone and asked them open-ended questions. In identifying barriers and facilitators for relationship initiation and maintenance, Ahrens et al. provide important points of inquiry to be used in a larger scale survey-based research. One of the cautions in using qualitative approaches is that the findings apply only to this small group of 23 individuals. This research was crucial in providing evidence that these factors should be examined and further elaborated through quantitative methods prior to making any wide-range recommendation.  (Click to read a summary of this study HERE).

Benefits of the qualitative approach:

Using open-ended questions and interviews allows researchers and practitioners to understand how individuals are doing, what their experiences are, and recognize important antecedents and outcomes of interest that might not surface when surveyed with pre-determined questions. Although qualitative research can be thought of as anecdotal, when pooled across a number of participants it provides a conceptual understanding and evidence that certain phenomena are occurring with particular groups or individuals.

  • Allows identification of new and untouched phenomena
  • Can provide a deeper understanding of mechanisms
  • Gives a one-on-one and anecdotal information
  • Provides verbal information that may sometimes be converted to numerical form
  • May reveal information that would not be identified through pre-determined survey questions


  • Cannot generalize to the general population
  • Challenges in applying statistical methods
  • Difficulty in assessing relations between characteristics

Quantitative Approach

The quantitative approach to gathering information focuses on describing a phenomenon across a larger number of participants thereby providing the possibility of summarizing characteristics across groups or relationships. This approach surveys a large number of individuals and applies statistical techniques to recognize overall patterns in the relations of processes. Importantly, the use of surveys can be done across groups. For example, the same survey can be used with a group of mentors that is receiving training (often called the intervention or experimental groups) and a group of mentors who does not receive such a training (a control group). It is then possible to compare these two groups on outcomes of interest, and determine what influence the training had. It is also relatively easy to survey people a number of times, thereby allowing the conclusion that a certain features (like matching) influence specific outcomes (well-being or achievement later in life).

Example from youth mentoring research:

Grossman and Rhodes (2002) examined duration of matched relationships in over 1,100 Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor-mentee matches. Because the information they used was survey-based and numerical, they were able to employ statistical techniques examining how duration of match was related to different outcomes of interest.

In using a variety of statistical techniques, they concluded that “youth who were in [matched mentoring] relationships that lasted a year or longer reported improvements in academic, psychosocial, and behavioral outcomes” (p. 213). If Grossman and Rhodes had not used survey-based quantitative research, they would not have had such a large sample of matches and therefore could not generalize to matches in general. In addition, with a smaller number of participants, it is challenging to apply some statistical techniques to examine emerging patterns across such a large group of mentored matches. The current rule of thumb to using complex statistical modeling is that you need a sample of at least 130 participants. However, for more complex modeling that controls for characteristics, a larger pool of participants is needed.

Benefits of the quantitative approach:

Using survey methods across a large group of individuals enables generalization. For example, if policy makers wanted to instantiate a policy about mentor training, they would likely require some evidence that this training actually works. Interviewing a few individuals, or conducting a focus group with forty matches, might be reflective of specific cases in which the mentoring training worked, however, it would not provide strong evidence that such training is beneficial overall. Stronger support for successful training would be evident if using quantitative methods.

  • Enables gathering information from a relatively large number of participant
  • Can conduct in a number of groups, allowing for comparison
  • Allows generalizing to broader population
  • Provides numerical or rating information
  • Informative for instantiating policy or guidelines
  • Lends to statistical techniques that allow determining relations between variables


  • Difficulty in recognizing new and untouched phenomena
  • Caution in interpretation without a control group

In summary, the qualitative and quantitative approaches to research allow a different perspective of situations or phenomena. These two main approaches to research are highly informative, especially if used in combination. Each approach has its benefits and detriments, and being aware of the methods used to gather information can help practitioners and policy-makers understand the extent to which research findings can be applied.

More straightforward explanations to essential research concepts & terms:


58 Comments on "On Methods: What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches?"

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  1. Madie says:

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  2. chapaulinge godfrey says:

    Hi madam Adar!hopeful you might be fine,i read you article on approaches to social research when i was looking on the difference between quantitative and qualitative research approaches basin on social issues,your work is helpful to us,i wish you long life and great success in educational career.

  3. Jasmine says:

    Thank you for this article I found it very helpful during my graduate studies. I can’t help but giggle with you:

    Lends to statistical techniques that allow determining relations between variables (think of better word)

    I don’t mean to be impolite but was this your personal note during editing that made it to the page? I will take my time machine back three years to say, “the word is correlation!”

  4. omary magongo says:

    inshort you have done a very worth job

  5. Samia says:

    very useful, Great job Jean

  6. Khairullah says:

    Thanks for sharing this to the point article .

  7. Francis Anno Ekiru says:

    Dear Dr. Ben-Eliyahu,

    This article is precise and to the point! As a doctoral student of Unicaf University, it resonates well with the insights I already have in regard to Research approaches. Great effort.

    Keep it up. Thank you!

  8. suldan says:

    what is advantage of qualitative,and disadvantage ?

    • Tiya Amanda says:

      Bernard, HR. (2002) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press

  9. maxmillian makota says:

    Thanks you for more materials

  10. Zakayo says:

    Great article.

  11. It was really helpful. I just loved it. Thanks a lot. But i would like to have more examples related to research topics

  12. Pochie says:

    Thank you for this very knowledgable article…it helps me a lot in my assignment…

  13. learny says:

    great insight

  14. Muhwezi Crypan says:

    thank you for this grateful explanation that has helped me to do my coursework

  15. JULIUS says:


  16. seabe kapinga says:

    Thank u very much, this article has helped me a lot with my assignment. I am really greatful

  17. Haftom says:

    Really I would like to thanks sir for your wonderful explanation on both qualitative and quantitative approaches of research. I have learn a lot of things and used as a great input in my assignments as well. keep it your wonderful momentum.
    saying this , i do have one question that i need to your reflection

    Q1: According the sensationalists perspective a model is constructed by Morgan (1998), for combining qualitative and quantitative methodologies, how he was developed the the priority sequence model and what it does mean? what are the main components of the model?

    waiting your positive say please?

  18. damalie waiswa says:

    Great input to my assignment.

  19. Kennedy Kombe says:

    Thank you so much for this in lighting information in research; am an undergraduate second year student at Mulungushi University, Zambia, Africa perusing my studies in Bachelor of Social Work.

    • Mrope Erick says:

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  21. Dennis Nelson says:

    how does a person dictate the nature and the types of a research approach?

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  24. godfrey ohikhuare says:

    This information is very easily understandable.

  25. justice says:

    school work

  26. Carol harrison says:

    I hope you dont mind this intrusion but could i ask your opinion on the best way to collect both qualitative and quantitative data using digital technologies please

  27. Judy Chambers says:

    Nilsa, I agree with you completely. I’m approaching the dissertation phase and this information will keep me on the right path.

  28. shallom says:

    its been of great help.i thought i would never understand the two concepts but now i do.thanks alot.

  29. ADONADAGA Justin says:

    The best are few!!! You are the best!!! I will always refer to this website for my research needs

  30. A. Bisle says:

    Thanks for the info,
    Quite educative

  31. Gift Chipunza says:

    Thank you,the explanation is candid.

  32. vidéos cul says:

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  33. Thank you so much for the article DR. Adar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D. I like the language, it is easier to understand and it make so much more sense to me now. Thanks a million!
    Myriam Baltazar

  34. mapotla says:

    its for the first time visiting this site and am so impressed the way you explore qualitative and quantitative approach.

  35. Gertrude says:

    Thank you very much for the article . It was very informative and cleared all of the information gaps about the two approaches.

  36. kennedy olotu,IRDP,DODOMA,TANZANIA says:

    Thanks for your important significant knowledge concerning research.

  37. Littah Jones says:

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  38. virginia lingwalanya says:

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  39. virginia lingwalanya says:

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  40. asi sham says:

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  41. Abel says:

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  42. marrtin says:

    very educative materials, it has helped me with my Term paper

  43. Samuel Adamtey says:

    Hello Adar.
    Thanks for the education but permit me to ask for this clarifications. First, is the TYPES of research different from the research Methods used in carrying out a research? Secondly, is survey the same as qualitative research? lastly, can questionnaires be administered either by mail or in person ( not as interview guide)in collecting data for a qualitative research? In other words are questionnaires a research instrument or data collecting instrument for a qualitative research?
    Thanks for the opportunity to learn.

  44. fozia says:

    whole information is useful and easily understandable.

  45. Wendy Ames says:

    I’m going to assign this article to students in my “J494: Strategic Communication Research” course at the University of Oregon this term. We are transitioning our discussion from quant to qual next week and this will offer them great insights into how and why both types of research could be relevant and valuable.

    Thanks you!
    Wendy Ames

  46. rabiya says:

    very useful, thanks a lot!

  47. Nilsa Fleury says:

    It is a very interesting approach that could clarify my research that I have done and apply to my dissertation sbout mentoring. Thank you,

  48. Moti says:

    Adar, I enjoyed much your article and the classification you made is very important in my opinion.
    It seems that quantitative approach should follow the qualitative approach. Only careful selection of the variables of the qualitative analysis will result better quantitative results. The selection of the right variables will be based on a small sample of individuals that will help with identifying the proper variables or the promising ones to go through the analysis that could lead to selected action or treatment.
    I would like to see more of articles in the area of analysis.

    • Adar says:

      Thank you for your comment, Moti.
      I think that in general, you are right that using qualitative research to inform quantitative research design is a good idea. However, researchers and practitioners don’t always have the means to do so. In these cases, choosing variable or characteristics based on research that has already been conducted is a good idea, and can be quite informative and efficient.
      Best, Adar

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