Bridging the Gap; The different strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative approaches to research

Bridging the Gap: The strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative approaches to research. Their underpinning technical, epistemological and ontological considerations and implications for the conduct of a research project.

By Partson Musosa Phiri-Cert.Ed; Dip.Ed.(SpEd); BEd (ZOU): MEd (Hull): EdD (Hull)


Research, is an enterprise dedicated to finding out. No matter what one might want to find out though, there are likely to be many ways of doing so. People have for long been concerned to come to grips with their environment and to understand the nature of the phenomena it presents to their senses (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2000; Eichelberger, 1980). Literally, research may mean to search repeatedly or to examine something from different points of view. It is in this sense therefore, that ‘research’ can be understood as meaning examining something ‘carefully’, ‘intensively’, and ‘closely’, ‘critically’ in order to discover a phenomenon we did not hitherto know existed or to confirm or reject our previous assumptions (Sikes, 2003); it is the most successful approach to the discovery of truth or knowledge (Cohen et al, 2000; 5).

In the educational sense, Bassey (1999; 39), defines research as a “….critical enquiry aimed at informing educational judgments and decisions in order to improve educational action”. In the context of this essay, educational research is according to Anderson and Arsenault (1998; 6), defined as “a disciplined attempt to address questions to solve problems through the collection and analysis of primary data for the purpose of description, explanation, generalization and prediction”.

An Overview

A notion from Hitchcock and Hughes (1989) suggests that inquiry emanates from assumptions. Hence, different researchers may claim different assumptions about the nature of truth or knowledge and its acquisition (Cohen, et al, 2000; Gall, Gall and Borg, 2003). The major question, however, which has thus tended to divide educational inquiry, is threefold. Whether the differences between these assumptions, are associated with;

  • Firstly, different ways of constructing reality (ontology), which Denzin and Lincoln, (1998; 201) say tend to ask questions of “how things really are” and “how things really work”. (Ontological questions are those that tend to relate to matters of real existence and action, Denzin and Lincoln, 1998; 201).
  • Secondly, different forms of knowledge of that reality (epistemology), since epistemological questions tend to ask what nature of relationship exists between the inquirer and the inquired and posit that if “real” reality is assumed, then the position of the inquirer must be one of “objective detachment or value freedom” in order to be able to discover the how things really are or work (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998; 201).
  • And, thirdly, particular ways of knowing that reality (methodology). Methodological questions are those that tend to ask how an inquirer can go about finding out whatever he or she may want to believe or know (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998).   

 Sale, Lohfeld and Brazil (2002), Cohen, et. al., (2000) and Denzin and Lincoln, 1998, select an order that seems to reflect a logical primacy and thus observe that ontological assumptions tend to give rise to epistemological assumptions. These, in turn appear to give rise to the tendency to focus on techniques and procedures for getting the research done.  Because of these tendencies, a researcher’s position can sometimes have a strong bearing on the outcome of any inquiry (Wiersma, 2000).

However, Walker and Evers (1988), observe that educational inquiry can be conducted through different methodology, whose range includes among others, controlled laboratory experiments, participant observations, action research, historical studies and logical analysis. These methodologies, unfortunately, tended to establish two separate and oppositional schools of research, whose emphasis on epistemological and ontological arguments have commonly engaged in attempts to justify the use of one or the other method, rather than simply stating the varying positions and perspectives contained within the broad traditional research paradigms. A paradigm, as defined by Bassey is;  

A network of coherent ideas about the nature of the world and the functions of researchers which, adhered to a group of researchers, conditions the patterns of their thinking and underpins their research actions (1999; 42).

To Denzin and Lincoln (1998) a paradigm may be viewed as a set of basic beliefs that represent a worldview that define to the holder the nature of the world, the individuals in it, as well as the range of possible relationships to that world. These beliefs guide action and “deal with first principles or ultimates” Denzin and Lincoln (1998; 185).   

Differences in perspectives on paradigms have, over recent decades, generated a polemic and antagonistic discursive debate (Gorard, 2002; Creswell, 2005; Burgess, Sieminski and Arthur, 2006; Morgan, 2006); with defenders of the positivist (quantitative) paradigm mounting a myriad arguments that the proposition of an alternative paradigm and especially, the constructivist (qualitative) paradigm, should not be taken seriously (Guba and Lincoln, 1989). Literature in educational research seems to recognize this, and tends to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative research through a demonstration of loyalty to one or the other (Pring, 2000). Quantitative and qualitative paradigms are often viewed as oppositional and hence, tend to invoke the different epistemological questions noted above (Pring, 2000). This dichotomy seems to have led researchers to being taught only one type of paradigm and consequently, researchers may become comfortable with their expertise in managing either qualitative or quantitative methods but not both. Unfortunately, the skill to integrate this research expertise across traditional paradigmatic boundaries seems often frustrated (Casebeer and Verhoef, 1997). The consequence of that appears to have been that the two major paradigms to research are seldom viewed complementary or combined and their respective strengths ignored for pragmatic use by adherents of either approach (Casebeer and Verhoef, 1997).

This article then describes and compares and contrasts the qualitative and quantitative paradigms. The strengths and weaknesses of either paradigm that seem to exist between them will be examined. An evaluation as to whether the paradigms are under girded by epistemological or ontological assumptions or technical issues will be drawn. Implications of the quantitative versus qualitative debate will be examined in the light of how a research project can be conducted in a pragmatic way. The conclusion will reflect on the salient aspects of this essay. But first, definitions of some key terms that are axiomatically a part of such discussions shall be examined. Other related terms shall however, be defined as the essay progresses.

Definition of Terms;


As a philosophy, ontology is concerned with assumptions about the variety of phenomena in the world. It is a theory of the nature of reality (Delanty and Strydom, 2003); it is a theory of being and is concerned with issues of what exists and also refers to the claims that a particular paradigm makes about reality or truth (Hitchcock and Hughes, 1989).

In simpler terms, ontology is about what exists, what it looks like, what components make it up and how the components interact with each other (Hitchcock and Hughes, 1989). Likewise, as with epistemology, these issues can sometimes have a major impact on methodology, and any contrasting ontology of human beings in turn can, sometimes demand different research methods (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Cohen, et. al., 2000). In summary, ontology tries to investigate;

  • Characteristics of the common sense physical and perceptual world (Delanty and Strydom, 2003).
  • Whether reality, as a phenomenon, is a mentally constructed entity (Delanty and Strydom, 2003).
  • Characteristics of the beings that populate the world (Maykut & Morehouse, 1989; Delanty and Strydom, 2003).
  • Whether the relationships between these beings or individuals are hidden and require significant inquiry (Maykut & Morehouse, 1989; Delanty and Strydom, 2003).


Wiersma, (2000) concurs with Delanty and Strydom (2003) and define epistemology as the study which investigates the possibility, limits, origin, structure, methods and truthfulness of knowledge and how knowledge can be acquired, validated and applied. Walker and Evers (1988) put it simply that, epistemology is concerned with how phenomena can be made known to the researcher. According to Brewerton & Millward (2001), the term refers to the inquiry of what differentiates defensible belief from opinion. Epistemology can sometimes also have a major impact on the data collection choices as well as on the methodology in a research process (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1995; 19). In summary too, epistemology tries to answer the following questions:

  • What is the source of knowledge? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • Can knowledge of the world be gained? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • Can knowledge of reality be established by some empirical evidence? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • Can knowledge of reality be deduced from premises? (Maykut and Morehouse, 1989; Gall et al, 2003)
  • What are the presuppositions of knowledge? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • What are the methodological problems of knowledge? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • What are the problems of validating truth? (Delanty and Strydom, 2003)
  • How can knowledge be communicated to other human beings? (Burrell and Morgan, 1979).

 These questions sometimes also have direct implications for the concerns of researchers as any contrasting epistemology of human beings sometimes can demand different research methodology (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). The same methodological concerns can also apply as to ontology defined above.


Methodology is often confused with method. Methods can be equated to tools and techniques used to accomplish a task whereas methodology, according to Guba and Lincoln (1998) refers to the overall guiding principle. In the context of paradigms Guba, and Lincoln (1994) define methodology as a distinct way of approaching educational research with an exact comprehension  of the purpose, focus, data, analysis and the relationship between data and what they make reference to.

 Characteristics of the quantitative paradigm

The quantitative inquiry can be more defined as a collection of numerical data (Eichenberger, 1980; 101). According to Ary, Jacobs and Razavieh (1972), the quantitative paradigm is built upon the ‘positivist’ foundation, and is perceived by some as the scientific approach to inquiry. Husen (1988) and Pring (2000) observe that epistemologically ‘positivism’ was widely viewed as the predominant frame of reference to empirical inquiry since the mid-nineteenth century; hence the seeming dominance of the quantitative paradigm in educational research.

 Quantitative researchers purport that all phenomena can be reduced to singular and fragmentable variables that represent the truth or reality (Keeves, 1988; Sale, Lohfeld and Brazil, 2002). Reality, in everyday language, can mean the state of things as they actually exist. In the context of research, the meaning of reality can mean the state of things as they are or appear to be rather that what one may wish them to be, whether observable, accessible or understandable by science, philosophy, theology or any other system of analysis. In this sense, reality may include both being and nothingness, although essentially, “to exist” is often restricted to being (Sale, Lohfeld and Brazil, 2002).

 The ontological stance of the quantitative paradigm is that data are in numerical form and can be classified, measured in a strictly objective way and are capable of being accurately described by a set of rules or formulae, or procedures which make the data clear and independent of human perception. Quantitative researchers tend to claim only one reality. A quantitative researcher tends to investigate phenomena without influencing it or being influenced by it (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Brewerton & Millward, 2001). In other words, they claim that there should be a clear distinction between the researcher (subject) and the researched (object). This is what Miles and Huberman (1994) refer to when they say a quantitative researcher tends to remain objectively separated from the subject matter. Sometimes quantitative researchers tend to make propositions of cause and effect between events within a value free framework (Brewerton & Millward, 2001).  The quantitative paradigm is usually regarded to begin with a predetermined theory. A theory, by definition, is a general statement that tends to organize knowledge and can be testable and confirmed (Brewerton & Millward, 2001; Cohen, et. al. 2000). Researchers seem to know clearly in advance what they look for (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Researchers argue that they can demonstrate how the theories are derived from their hypothetical assumptions (Gall et al, 2003). Traditionally and technically, quantitative research tends to utilize techniques such as observation, experimentation, survey for investigation (Gall et al, 2003), and tools such as questionnaires, or equipment to collect the numerical data (Miles and Huberman, 1994).

The sample size in quantitative research, generally tends to be relatively larger, especially in surveys, than in qualitative research so that statistical methods are used to ensure samples are representative enough of the population they are drawn from. The ideas of reliability and validity are considered important in quantitative research. In terms of reliability, the results tend to be (supposedly) consistently generalizable to the larger population, over time and in context and value free situations (Weirsma, 2000). Bassey (1999) defines reliability as the extent to which research findings can be repeated. Hence, it is deemed that a quantitative study can be replicated given similar methodology and circumstances (Weirsma, 2000; 259). Validity can be defined as the extent to which a research finding purports to measure what it measures (Zeller, 1988).  Validity can be internal or external. Internal validity is concerned with cause and effect. External validity is concerned with the extent to which cause and effect relationships can be generalized to other contexts (Bassey, 1999) Generalization of results can be predictive of future situations.  There is a variety of ways researchers can take in order to establish the validity of their research. Types of validity can be construct, concurrent, discriminant or predictive validity (Zeller, 1988). However, this essay will not dwell to explain each of the types of validity. In summary, the main features of the quantitative approach are;  

  • Facts are to do with the world’ and therefore ‘objective’, and values and concerns must not be allowed to interfere with the process of discovering facts (Pring, 2000)
  • There is dualism between the researcher and the respondent. (The researcher and the respondent are independent in the way they relate) (Pring, 2000)
  • Assertions about the world and hence the validity of knowledge claims are about observable and measurable phenomena. Furthermore, different observers, give their possession in common to a reasoning faculty and because of that, they should come to the same conclusions about what they observe (Zeller, 1988).
  • The social world is not different from the natural world and therefore should share ‘a common logic and method of enquiry since there are order and reason, patterns and cause and effect (Scott and Usher 1999; 13).
  • Findings are sometimes a direct result of cause and effect. (Bassey, 1999).
  • Reality is tangible, singular and fragmentable (Brewerton & Millward, 2001.
  • The results of the research can be generalized over time and are not affected by the context (Bassey, 1999).
  • It is deductive in nature; reasoning is guided by numerical “sense” (Ary, et. al., 1972; Gall et. al, 2003; Cohen et al, 2003).

 The above is a description of the characteristics of the quantitative paradigm. The following section will describe the features of the other paradigm- the qualitative paradigm.

 Characteristics of the qualitative paradigm

The qualitative paradigm appears to be epistemologically founded on the interpretivist and constructionist philosophy. Historically, the qualitative tradition emerged as a result of the growing disillusionment and discontent with the products of the quantitative enquiry (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Salomon (1991) notes with concern that,  

The realization that discrete, often manipulated events and complex environments require different research approaches has led to the growing acceptance of the qualitative perspective to research as if it were the better way to handle complex and dynamic environments (1991; 11).

Essentially, the basic assumption guiding the qualitative paradigm is that reality is socially constructed by people active in the research process (Pring, 2000; Schwandt, 1994; 118). This paradigm emphasizes that reality is a product of the values of researchers and researchers cannot be independent of it. Phenomena are viewed holistically. Complex phenomena are irreducible into independent components (Weirsma, 2000). Qualitative research takes everyday experience and ordinary life as its subject matter and asks how meaning is constructed and interaction is negotiated in natural practices. Human action “…is inseparable from meaning, and experiences are classified and ordered through interpretive frames and pre-understandings mediated by tradition” (Scott and Usher, 1999; 24). The task of research then becomes to work with, and make sense of the world consensually in a holistic fashion. In qualitative research,

situations are interpreted and, whilst these interpretations looked at ‘objectively’ may be faulty or misleading, they reveal for researchers the shared and constructed nature of reality – and this would have been missed had the researchers been ‘objective’ in the positivist sense. (Scott and Usher, 1999; 24).

 It is perceptions of the individuals being studied that are important (Weirsma, 2000; 198). The above quotation takes into cognizance the multiplicity and complexity of ‘life world’ of individuals which can be used as a basis for critiquing the quantitative research by qualitative researchers. Qualitative researchers believe that the world exists but different people construe it in very different ways (idealism) and ‘organizations are invented reality’ (Cohen et al, 2000; 9).

 The qualitative perspective emphasizes the distinction between the natural world and the social world and hence, methodologically, the ways of investigating the social world tend be different from those of the natural world (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1989).

“Phenomena in the world are perceived as somewhat a loosely constructed model…one in which there is some flexibility in prediction” (Weirsma, 2000; 199).    Qualitative researchers suggest that history with its emphasis upon interpretation of the past through oral life narration provides a more suitable baseline from which to begin investigation of the world. Human beings are viewed as capable of choice and have the ability to act upon the world and to change it in line with their own needs, aspirations or perceptions (Miles and Huberman, 1994).

 Educational research therefore, has to confront directly the ways which individuals’ subjective experiences are manifested in what they do and say (Gall et. al, 2003). Qualitative researchers therefore, take seriously the question of language and semantics and give priority to first unraveling actors’ description of events and activities in a qualitative fashion rather than focusing upon observers’ descriptions in a quantitative fashion (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1989). Individuals’ interpretation of events is considered important (Miles and Huberman, 1994). No wonder therefore, direct, first-person accounts provided by actors themselves feature in most qualitative researches (Clough, 2002). Qualitative researchers are deliberately open minded and ask questions that are open ended and are prepared to change direction or take a developmental view and accept the possibility of using a variety of sources of data since the world is so complex (Hitchcock & Hughes, 1989).

At the ontological level, the qualitative perspective asserts that there are multiple realities or truths (Sale, et al, 2002; Pring, 2000). The multiplicity is based on the researchers’ mental construction of what is considered to be true. There could be as many realities as there are researchers (Pring, 2000) but ultimately, reality or truth is constructed in a social context (Sale, et al, 2002). Hence, truth or reality is dynamic; it is in a constant state of change (Pring, 2000). Truth is a product of the values of the researchers because it is negotiated among other researchers within the research. According to Pring (2000), truth ceases to exist outside the research activity. In other words, there is nothing outside a researcher’s mind to which the perceived truth can be compared with. Epistemologically, the researcher is the data collecting instrument and hence, access to truth cannot occur externally to a researcher’s mind (Miles and Huberman, 1994). The researcher and the researched are interactively engaged. Miles and Huberman (1994) note that the researcher tends to become subjectively immersed in the subject matter. The researcher may only know vaguely in advance what she or he is seeking. Although qualitative data is richer, the findings are less able to be generalizable.

 Absolute claims to knowledge cannot be made and the claims to knowledge tend to be border on uncertainty (Bassey, 1999). Bassey (1999; 52) refers to general claim statements of such nature as “fuzzy generalization”. The language used in making fuzzy generalizations tends to be carefully selected and is quite evidently different from that used in quantitative research which tends to be scientific and abstract (Bassey, 1999; 52).

A fuzzy generalization tends to replace the certainty of a quantitative generalization. For instance, ‘it is true that …’ or “it is true in x% of cases that …’ is replaced by the uncertainty, or fuzziness, of qualifying statements, such as ‘it is sometimes true that …’.

The generalizabilty of the findings cannot be applied to a wider population except to the particular context from which the research was conducted. Qualitative research tends to be difficult to replicate because of its occurrence in the natural setting. Consequently, Wiersma (2000; 211) observes that the traditional ideas of reliability and validity of research may present some difficulties for qualitative researchers. Nevertheless, Weirsma (2000; 211) contends that “…a well organized, complete persuasive presentation of procedures and results enhances external reliability”.

 The distinctions in features between the quantitative and qualitative paradigms described above can be synthesized, interpreted and presented in a comparative form as shown in the table below. From the comparative analysis, the differences become apparent or can be implied. Strengths and weaknesses of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms that arise need to be recognized and known so that a most suitable method can be applied to a research project. However, most writers appear to be silent on specific strengths and weaknesses. Presentations have tended to dwell on the characteristic distinctions as described above and illustrated in the table below. Therefore, the possible strengths and weaknesses of the approaches noted could be identified from inference

Quantitative Paradigm

Ontological aspects

  • Begins with hypotheses and theories
  • Manipulation and control 
  • Uses formal instruments 
  • Experimentation 
  • Deductive 
  • Component analysis 
  • Seeks consensus, the norm 
  • Reduces data to numerical indices
  • Abstract language in reporting

Epistemological Aspects

    • Facts have an objective reality 
    • Primacy of method 
    • Variables can be identified and relationships measured 
    • Takes an outsider’s point of view

 Research Purpose

    • Generalization is scientific 
    • Prediction 
    • Causal explanations are scientifi

Qualitative Paradigm

Ontological aspects

  • Ends with hypotheses and grounded theory 
  • Emergence and portrayal 
  • Researcher as instrument 
  • Naturalistic 
  • Inductive 
  • Searches for patterns 
  • Seeks pluralism, complexity
  • Descriptive language in reporting

 Epistemological Aspects

  • Reality is socially constructed 
  • Primacy of subject matter 
  • Variables are complex, interwoven, and difficult to measure
  • Takes an insider’s point of view 

Research Purpose

  • Generalization is fuzzy
  • Interpretation  is consensual
  • Understanding actors’ perspectives

Researcher’s role is

  • Detached and impartial  
  • Objectively  portrayed

Researcher’s role is

  • Personal involvement and partial.
  • Empathetic understanding

Characteristic features of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms. An adaptation from Gall et. al., (2003)

Strengths and weaknesses of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms

Despite differences in outlook of the two paradigms, the under girding assumptions of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms appear to result in distinctions that tend to go beyond the epistemological, ontological and methodological commitments.  Evidently, there appears to be implicit strengths and weaknesses of the quantitative and qualitative paradigms, although most writers do not seem to explicitly expose them. The supposed strengths and weaknesses are thus, discussed in conjunction with the identified differences in the section that follows. The differences as  synthesized, amalgamated, summarized and inferred  from various sources and enumerated below, shall be interparadigmatically analysed and evaluated critically in order to explicitly expose some strengths and weaknesses (although from the vantage from which  I write, I may find weaknesses of the quantitative paradigm more overwhelming).

 1.         The quantitative paradigm assumes that a researcher should adopt an aloof, detached objective and independent stance from the researched participants and their environment. Whereas the qualitative researchers tend to deny this and prefer a blurring of the distinction and assert that they can become personally immersed and involved with the research participants to the extent of becoming subjectively empathetic ((Lund, 2005 Pring, 2000), This distinction seems to be a weakness of the  quantitative paradigm as the outsider view brought to bear on in a quantitative  inquiry by a researcher may have little or no meaning within the contexts of the studied individuals, societies or cultures (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998). Qualitative data are therefore, useful in bringing to bear the views of the researcher and the researched.  

2.         To quantitative research, educational reality is tangible, singular and is in fragmentable variables and relationships and connective patterns between variables can be found. Whereas qualitative research makes holistic observations of the total educational context and focus is on empirical indicators from which interpretations are made ((Lund, 2005; Gall et al, 2003; 25). Also, to the quantitative paradigm,  reality is a correspondence between the research and what exists independently of the researcher. While to qualitative researchers, reality is a consensus negotiated among the informed constructors; what is researched is only understood only within the minds of the researchers thereby, precluding generalization. Hence, problems of one setting cannot be generalized to another. The research findings are a result of creation of as opposed to discovery (Lund, 2000; Pring, 2000).These distinctions seemingly exposes a weakness of the quantitative approach because according to Denzin and Lincoln (1998; 197)

 Precise quantitative approaches that focus on subsets or variables necessarily “strip” from consideration, through …controls or randomization, other variables that exist in the context that might, if allowed to exert their effects, greatly alter findings.   

 Although this seems to mean that quantitative research designs may increase the rigor of a study, they tend to weaken its generalisability, because findings can only be properly applied to similarly “stripped” and controlled situations such as a laboratory experiment (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998). However, Hammersley, (1992) contests this assertion later in this paper). Nonetheless, at the present time, it is argued, that qualitative research with its holistic approach can redress the disequilibrium by providing vital contextual information which most quantitative inquiry appears to lack (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998).   

 3.         While quantitative research tends to work from preconceived hypothesis and theories to determine the kind of data to be collected, and that the validity and reliability systems are measurable, qualitative researchers discover concepts and theories (Gall et al, 2003; 25) and their validity and reliability systems are contingent upon the researcher’s perceptions regarding reality (Winter, 2000). This aspect seems to be strength of the qualitative over the quantitative approach because according to Denzin and Lincoln, (1998; 198), for theories to be valid, they should be qualitatively grounded.

4.         Quantitative researchers study human behavior and other observable external phenomena in both natural and artificial settings whereas qualitative researchers study action humans create in natural settings (Gall et al, 2003; 25). This distinction can be viewed as a weakness of the quantitative approach.  Hence, qualitative data can provide a wealth of insightful information into human behaviour (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998).  

5.         At the reporting level, quantitative researchers use statistical methods to analyse numerical data by preparing impersonal and objective reports of findings showing tables and figures from which statistical inference procedures are used to generalize findings from a sample to a defined population; Whereas, qualitative researchers prepare interpretive verbal reports with citations, pictorial representations that reflect the researchers’ mental constructions of the presented data. These reports take into cognizance that readers are likely to form their own constructions from the report. Findings are fuzzily generalized and these can be used only to probe for other comparable cases. (Sowden and Keeves, 1998; Bassey, 1999; Wiersma, 2000; Sale et. al., 2002; Gall et. al., 2003).  This distinction may serve to show that although quantitative generalizations are probably meaningful statistically, they have no applicability to the individual cases in the sample. For instance to say 35% of students in a college failing a language test have dyslexia is incomplete evidence that a particular student presenting similar failure has dyslexia.  Therefore, it is held that qualitative data can aid to avoid such vagueness (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998).  

 Intraparadigmatic analysis and evaluation of the Quantitative-Qualitative debate; Implication for conduct of a research project.

Having examined the outlook of both paradigms and their differences both in characteristics and in their methodological features; (although, according to Bryman (2004), the connection between methodology on the one hand and ontological and epistemological commitments on the other, seem not perfect), it may be pertinent to attempt to close the schism between them; and to challenge the assumption that they represent two distinct and oppositional stances to research.

This, of course, in my opinion, is not to deny the existence of the differences, but to suggest that the two paradigms do not belong to separate research realms and that they can be used sensibly and reasonably within the same enquiry with considerable success.  Hammersley (1992) in trying to defend this stance argues in several ways in which the quantitative paradigm has been compared to the qualitative paradigm. Making a distinction between the two, however, it seems, is of little value. The initial argument would be that both qualitative and quantitative researches make use of terms that relate to number and words that it may not be correct to say that accuracy and precision of findings is only expressed numerically, as in quantitative studies (Hammersley, 1992).

Secondly, validity claims made by the qualitative researchers that much quantitative research is ecologically invalid could be misleading in that valid and representative data can be collected in a “stripped” (Denzin and Lincoln, 1998), controlled and artificial setting and also that qualitative observers affect the natural setting they study thus rendering it more or less unnatural (Hammersley, 1992). 

 A third assertion is that qualitative researchers focus on meaning; while quantitative researchers tend to concentrate on behaviour.  Hammersley, (1992) seems to deny this claim and notes that qualitative researchers focus on meaning and also examine behavours. He further argues that traditional quantitative methods such as surveys also seem to frequently focus on meaning. An epistemological concern that seems to challenge the use of one approach at the exclusion of the other is that of the natural science/ social science divide itself. Hammersley (1992) argues that most qualitative researchers, who stress the interpretive and meaning making capacity of the participants, more frequently align to the models of natural science methods and may sometimes be involved in the hypothesis and theory testing adherent to quantitative researchers. Also quantitative researchers can move from observation to theory construction. Scott and Usher (1996; 60) seem to qualify this, and observe that in all kinds of research, can be found elements of both deductive and inductive reasoning.

 Reichardt and Cook (1979), Patton (1990), Rudestam and Newton (2001), Johnson and Onwuegbuzie (2004), Creswell (2005) and Morgan (2006) among others, also contend that there are several viewpoints as to why quantitative and qualitative methodology can be combined successfully. A new generation of researchers tends to overlook the seemingly under girding assumptions behind the quantitative /qualitative debate. In their view, the epistemological and ontological distinctions between them have become obscured such that researchers are left to implore that the differences are merely technical (Sale, et al 2002). In fact, claims from some, for instance Miles and Huberman (1984) and Sale et. al., (2002) are that researchers should not be preoccupied with the epistemological issues of the quantitative-qualitative debate mentioned above, because it may not be resolved in the near future, and that epistemological unity does not get research done.

 This may serve as evidence of moving more towards methodological integration of both approaches and it now appears very compelling for me to adopt a pragmatic approach in a research inquiry. Reichardt and Rallis (1994) concede the likelihood of harmony between the two paradigms in a practical sense. However, current arguments in various literatures appear to insufficiently attend to the actual practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative research methodology in a single study. Accordingly, Carey (1993) posits that the quantitative and qualitative research techniques are merely tools to carry out relevant and valuable research. What works is what one can do. A pragmatic stance is therefore, what appears shall be my position when I conduct my study of students and college principals’ perceptions of service provision for students with special educational needs within their institutions

 The Blend: A Framework for intergrated methodology- Pragmatism

It appears therefore, that for a study one could conduct, one would focus on the seemingly obvious compatibility and commensurability of the research paradigms which Phillips (1990); Schofield (1990), Shadish (1995), Eisner and Peshkin (1990), Punch (2000); Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, (2004) discuss in combining methodology in a pragmatic sense. This third way of thinking may be viewed as a dialectical blend of the traditionally original two paradigms, used in order that research may enjoy the benefits of both number and words and at the same time (hopefully) avoid the shortcomings of either paradigm (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998). A claimed purported key feature of this blend is “…its methodological pluralism or eclecticism, which frequently results in superior research” (Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004; 14). This quotation seems to embrace what appears to work practically. Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) observe that in recent years, researchers have increasingly applied this mixed methodology in the same research project. The two paradigms can be combined especially on techniques of sampling, data collection and data analysis and triangulation Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998). The basic feature of triangulation, according to Denzin (1978; 308) “… will be the combination of two or more different research strategies in the study of the same empirical units.” According to Haase and Myers (1988), the two paradigms can be reconciled because both seem to share the same aim of understanding the realm in which we live. King, Keohane & Verba (1994) assert that both qualitative and quantitative research seem to share a unified logic. Both approaches appear to apply the same rules of inference. Epistemologically, the commensurability of the paradigms depends much on the shared tenets of theory, although there ought to be some shared concepts and standards of justification, meaning, and truth in terms of validity and reliability (Walker and Evers, 1999).  

The compatibility of the two paradigms arises from a perception that they share the shortcomings of knowledge (Sale et. al., 2002). Reichardt and Rallis (1994), contend that the paradigms are also unified by a shared obligation to accepting and improving the human condition and a universal objective of disseminating information for pragmatism. They also share dedication for rigor, precision, and critique in the research process. In fact, Casebeer and Verhoef (1997) argue that qualitative and quantitative methods should be viewed as part of a continuum of research with specific techniques selected and based on the research objective. For areas of research, like education it is useful to combine research methods, because the complexity of phenomena may require data from a large number of perspectives (Clarke and Yaros, 1988). Therefore a multi pronged qualitative and quantitative approach to gathering data can be seen as a more applicable method.  


This essay described the quantitative and qualitative paradigms to research. An intraparadigmatic analysis was made in order to expose the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Although the approaches are different based on their epistemological inclinations, they seem complementary of each other in the various ways discussed. However, in spite of the concerns of some researchers, over the potential incompatibility of the “warring” paradigms Tashakkori and Teddlie (1998) observe that researchers have increasingly applied mixed methodology in the same research project. Technically what seems to work, it appears, is pragmatism; that the two paradigms can be combined especially on techniques of sampling, data collection and data analysis and triangulation. Their epistemological dimensions should be ignored because thinking of them seems to block progress in a research process. Issues of validity and reliability were discussed. The assumptions associated with different ways of constructing knowledge (ontology) and the different forms of knowledge of reality (epistemology) do not seem to matter in a research process. What seems to work and of concern is the particular ways of knowing reality (methodology).

However, despite the stark differences between these approaches, there are similarities that cannot also, be ignored. The similarities of the quantitative and the qualitative approaches take the following dimensions.  They can both be used for answering a research question. Data of both approaches are gathered from the same world. Each of the two approaches can identify phenomena from the same environment. Both approaches make use of analysis and interpretation of data through words. Although, the methods of reporting findings differ, in the end, they both must arrive at a judgment; one statistical and the other of a descriptive narrative nature. Most importantly, both approaches can contribute to creating bodies of new knowledge.


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