Qualitative ResearchQuantitative Research

Quant versus Qual: No longer meaningful?

image of a chimney sweep tipping his hat to say helloAre the categories of quantitative and qualitative research still meaningful?

Many market researchers refer to the categories of qualitative and quantitative research methods when describing our profession. Some specialize in one or the other, some equally cover both. It’s a perfectly fine categorization that is universally used.

But is it time for a refresh? Our profession has changed in recent years; shouldn’t our way of defining it?

Quant and qual was accurate when 80% of market research projects were surveys or focus groups. But those days are gone. With all of the methodologies we use today, it is more precise to think about “directed” (asking) and “observational” methods. And the cool thing is that these actually blend quant and qual.

Consider the following examples:

  • Directed methods (in which we ask people questions) include surveys (quant), webcam interviews (qual), facial analysis (debatable if this is qual or quant), or idea voting platforms (qual).
  • Observational methods include ethnography (qual), self-ethnography (qual), and social media analysis (debatable if this is qual or quant).

What do you think? Do you feel your profession is best categorized as quant or qual? Directed versus observational? Or something else entirely?

The way we define and discuss our profession is important. It’s part of how we convey the value of our work to others, especially to those who may be outside of our profession. Are we doing ourselves a disservice when we refer to quantitative and qualitative research? Might it make us sound out of touch with current thinking about research methods?

Let me know what you think in the comments section below. If I get enough responses, I will write a follow-up.


Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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3 thoughts on “Quant versus Qual: No longer meaningful?”

  1. I think it is an ol way to describe our profession, when people try to qualify themselves as a kind of “technician” .
    I prefer use “research professional intelligence”. After all, our job starts with the analyse of the problem in order to recommend the best methodologie and techniques: qual, quanti or mixed . Isn’t the analyses we make over a bucnh of numbers a qualitative approach?

  2. Hey Katherine,
    Love your updated site and your question in this post is timely.

    The qual/quant “research technique” distinction is a vestige (and contributes to the ambivalent perceptions of MR reflected in CEO surveys). Surveys of marketing researchers’ interests and researchers’ resumes still focus on which qual and quant techniques they’ve used, as if the tools used were “accomplishments” in themselves. (This makes as much sense as choosing a carpenter based on what saws are in her toolchest.)

    I moved away from the qual/quant distinction in 2002, in my work, as leader of AMA seminars and in a white paper cited by the Malcolm Baldrige Quality committee. Far more useful to my clients is knowing how to advance clients toward the business results they’re trying to achieve. For example, is the objective to explore what’s influencing customer choices, conceive ideas or validate and refine them?

    A/B testing in the digital world (i.e., experiments with social media ads and posts, search engine marketing, email marketing, lead magnets, autoresponders, etc.) figure into the mix along side organic qual and quant now. Executives I’ve worked with distinguish value with consultants who put their clients’ interests first and recommend the right techniques to use, even if that technique is not in consultant’s capability set.

    I realize what I’m describing complicates “distinctions”. Perhaps we need simpler distinctions for researchers, like Angie’s list, by years in business, business results they’ve helped clients achieve and client satisfaction scores.


  3. As an instructor of research methods in the discipline of communication studies, I find any of these labels partial and inadequate. Some of that is simply the generic limitations of language and labels. Quantitative and Qualitative as labels emphasize the nature of the data. Directed and Observational emphasize the role of the researcher. I’m not sure we’ve made significant progress in either of those labels. Merrigan and Huston use the labels Knowing by Discovery, Interpretation and Criticism and three paradigms of inquiry with specific methods fitting within each. I’m not sure I have the answer, but to me what would be most helpful is an approach that emphasize the nature of the RQ rather than the data or the role of the researcher. In my class I use the phrase “making sense of . . . . ” and then talk about secondary research as “making sense of existing information” and qualitative research as “making sense of subjective experience” and quantitative as “making sense of measurable responses” It’s not perfect but helps them see that it is the goal (what do I want to make sense of) that should be at the center of the methodology.

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