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Don't panic: Qualitative vs. Quantitative

The Psyc/Soc Student's Guide to Fourth Year by Hope Christie and Karl Johnson

Qualitative vs. quantitative

Remember the psychology module Data Analysis from 2nd year? Well you probably should have paid attention – the quantitative abilities of sociology graduates has been rather lacking for most of living memory, and university is where the problem starts.

...qualitative data collection and analysis should not be considered as the 'easier option'.

There is a misconception that if you hate statistics, or could never get to grips with SPSS, then a qualitative study is the way to go. This is incorrect. Firstly, you cannot avoid statistics or SPSS forever, at one point or another you will have to use it and you’re better to try and get to grips with it while you have your supervisor there to help you with it. Secondly, qualitative data collection and analysis should not be considered as the ‘easier option’. You may need less participants; however there are other things you need to consider. If you are conducting interviews, you need to consider the length of time it will take you to conduct and transcribe them. You then need to analyse these interviews – either by pen-and-paper or using software such as Nvivo. Both methods have their pros and cons; pen-and-paper has the possibility to be slightly chaotic depending on how many themes you pulled out. Although in saying that, one of Hope’s colleagues who is a 3rd year PhD student has used this method throughout their entire PhD and swears by it! Nvivo does require a bit of work to learn how to use it; however, the company that owns it have put together a wealth of tutorial videos that you can find on YouTube. Hope used Nvivo as part of her Masters.  One big thing to be cautious about with Nvivo is the file size can become rather large and you may run out of space on your desktop. If this happens, your file may crash and then not open (this happened to Hope on more than one occasion). Fortunately, Nvivo does ask you to save your work every 15 minutes or so, but our advice would be to ‘save as’ as well and create a backup file that hasn’t crashed and will open when you ask IT for more space on your desktop.

You're probably thinking “I didn't take sociology to do maths!” ...well, it'd actually really help you in the long run, so have a serious think about it. I realised in my Masters that my research data needed to be quantified, and that running it through SPSS would turn up some interesting results to go alongside my qualitative analysis, but I realised too late in the day, and my project was poorer because of it. 

Don't be afraid of stats. I'm not saying you need to conduct a multi-variate Whedon's constant analysis*; but it won't harm your chances of a better piece of research (and so a better grade) if you can prove genuine significance in your data.  

*Not a real thing. But then you knew that, didn't you? Please say yes.
Psychologists, please note that qualitative data is just as valuable as quantitative. 

Although quite a few of your lecturers may have told you otherwise over the years…

A mixed method study may be too complex to do for your dissertation, but equally you shouldn’t shy away from qualitative methods if you feel your research would benefit from this more. There are several psychology lecturers that would be happy and willing to supervise a qualitative project, all you have to do is ask!