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17 Sep 2020


Research seeks to answer different questions. Some research asks, “Is a certain medication effective for reducing depression symptoms?” Other research asks, “How does a person diagnosed with depression view their life?” Research doesn’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to answering such a variety of questions. Rather, research methods differ based on the question they seek to answer. Although there are many specific research strategies, most fall under two broad categories: quantitative research and qualitative research. These two categories seek to answer different types of questions, yet they are strongly linked to each other.

Quantitative (quantitative like quantity, so think “numbers”) research is the category that most people think of when they visualize research. Quantitative research seeks to answer questions about the relationship between variables, connect variables over time, or organize lots of data into smaller groups or categories. One trick for spotting quantitative research is that these questions are often phrased as close-ended questions. For example, “Does owning a pet enhance a person’s well being?” will have a “yes or no” answer. To answer questions in this category, numerical data are collected and analyzed for patterns, connections, and average scores. These data are often collected with many participants, sometimes as many as thousands of people. This means that findings from this large sample may be more widely applicable to the population, rather than only applicable to the people in the study. So, researchers might collect data on participants who own pets and about the participants’ well being. The findings (e.g., whether owning a pet enhances well being) may be applicable to other people outside the study who also own a pet. These studies offer a high-level understanding of what is going on, like viewing a forest from a helicopter to see all the major areas of the forest, such as the entrance and exit points. Because it offers a high-level understanding, quantitative research generally cannot explain findings with much depth.

If quantitative research seeks to answer questions about certain variables, qualitative research seeks to understand what those variables are in the first place. Qualitative research explores concepts, opinions, or experiences that provide an in-depth understanding regarding the topic of interest. These research questions are often open-ended, such as, “What are people’s experiences of owning a pet?” and do not have “yes or no” answers. To answer these questions, data are often collected in the form of interviews using open-ended questions or recording interactions. These methods require in-depth information to be collected, which often takes longer to gather and analyze; therefore, these studies tend to have relatively few participants compared to quantitative data, sometimes as few as ten people. So, researchers might collect data on participants who own a pet by interviewing them regarding their experience of owning a pet. The findings (what experiences people report regarding owning a pet) may be applicable to other people outside the study who also own a pet, but because there are fewer people’s experiences examined, we cannot be so sure of this. These studies offer an in-depth understanding of what is going on, like walking through the forest to see all the paths, animals, and plants, allowing us to examine the details of a variable or experience.

Although quantitative and qualitative research differ from each other, they use these unique positions to inform each other. Findings from quantitative research may inform what questions qualitative research might ask, and findings from qualitative research inform what questions quantitative research might ask.

In our example, quantitative researchers want to know whether owning a pet enhances a person’s well being. Qualitative researchers might then ask about other areas of a person’s life that might be enhanced by owning a pet. This research might find that owning a pet provides an opportunity to care for another living creature, and that care consists of responsibility, empathy, and nurturance. The findings may also provide some context for what exactly constitutes each of these variables (responsibility, empathy, and nurturance), giving some insight on how to measure them. Quantitative researchers might read these findings and think, “Interesting. Instead of only measuring well being, we should also measure responsibility, empathy, and nurturance when we study people who own pets. We might develop new ways of measuring these variables with the information provided in this qualitative study.” This informative cycle is both circular (meaning it can start with either quantitative or qualitative research) and endless (as each method both answers questions and prompts new questions).

Both quantitative and qualitative research are important to understanding military and veteran families. Military REACH translates both types of research into Translating Research into Practice (T R IP) Reports for our stakeholders, including military and veteran families, helping professionals, military leadership, and policy makers. You can search for “quantitative” or “qualitative” in the dictionary on the Military REACH website to learn more about each of these research categories.

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