When to Use Qualitative Methods

When to Use Qualitative Methods

This module describes when to choose qualitative methodology in research and explores the difference between qualitative and quantitative research.

Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast quantitative and qualitative research methods
  • Describe when qualitative research methods should be used to examine a research problem
  • Provide examples of the appropriate use of qualitative research methodology


The previous module provided an overview and general definitions of qualitative research, as well as several examples. This module will expand upon that and delve more in depth into the differences between qualitative and quantitative research and how to select the appropriate methodology for your research problem. Begin by watching the YouTube slideshow below. "Empirical Studies: Qualitative vs. Quantitative", contains a set of slides that provide information about both methods and when to choose each method, including a discussion of what factors to consider.


The following table compares and contrasts key characteristics of qualitative and quantitative research and is useful in helping researchers evaluate their research problem. Researchers should begin by asking themselves the following questions:

  • What type of question am I asking?
  • What type of data will I need to collect to answer the question?
  • What type of results will I report?


For example, a researcher may want to determine the link between income and whether families have health insurance. This is a question that asks, "how many" and seeks to confirm a hypothesis. The methods will be highly structured and consistent during data collection, most likely using a questionnaire with closed-ended questions. The results will provide numerical data that can be analyzed statistically as the researcher looks for a correlation between income and health insurance. Quantitative methodology would best apply to this research problem. Another researcher is interested in exploring the reasons that people choose not to have health insurance. This researcher wants to know the various reasons why people make that choice and what the possible barriers may be when people choose not to get insurance. This is an open-ended question that will not provide results that will lend themselves to statistical analysis. Therefore, this an example where qualitative methods should be applied.

The following chart may be useful in answering these questions and determining the appropriate method for your research problem.


qualitative chart.JPG


Suggested Readings

Creswell, J. W. (2012). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage Publications, Incorporated.
Dey, I. (2003). Qualitative data analysis: A user friendly guide for social scientists. Routledge.
Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook. Sage.
Judd, C. M., McClelland, G. H., & Ryan, C. S. (2009). Data analysis: A model comparison approach . Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods . SAGE Publications, Inc.
Quinn, G. G. P., & Keough, M. J. (2002). Experimental design and data analysis for biologists. Cambridge University Press.
Rich, M., & Ginsburg, K. R. (1999). The reason and rhyme of qualitative research: why, when, and how to use qualitative methods in the study of adolescent health. Journal of Adolescent health, 25(6), 371-378.
Sofaer, S. (1999). Qualitative methods: what are they and why use them?. Health services research, 34(5 Pt 2), 1101.

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