Is qualitative research scientific, or is it merely relevant?

A qualitative/ quantitative divide permeates much of social psychology, however I think this divide should be seen as a continuum. At one end is quantitative research marked by sharply defined populations and variables, and well-specified theories and hypotheses. At the opposite end of this continuum is qualitative research, which rejects all quantitative research stands for; there are no notions of population and variables and definitely no hypothesis testing!

Johansson and colleagues (2003) conducted a study to compare primary care and hospital physician’s appraisal of quantitative and qualitative research abstracts, with the goal to analyse what they put into ‘scientific accuracy’. Findings indicated that quantitative research were assessed as more scientific rather than clinically relevant whereas the opposite was true for qualitative research abstracts.


Shuval and colleagues (2011) noted that qualitative research appears to be gaining acceptability in medical journals, suggesting that it is wither being considered as more scientific, or that the idea of scientific accuracy is less important and other realms of research are equally as valid.

In order to combat the apparent lack of scientific methods for qualitative research, lately researchers have combined both types of methods when collecting their data. Moffatt et al. (2006) found that combining quantitative and qualitative methods leads to a more ‘robust study’ and is much more useful than relying purely on type as it leads to richer data.

Referring back to the question, I don’t think that qualitative research is scientific as a whole. Yes there are parts of it that seem scientific for example certain measurements used can act as a reliability indicator if the study is ever to be replicated. However on the whole qualitative studies are hard to replicate, as generally they concern one person (case studies) or a very small selective sample of people.

On the whole I don’t think of qualitative research as scientific although I do think it holds a much stronger position than ‘mere relevance’.


11 thoughts on “Is qualitative research scientific, or is it merely relevant?

  1. I strongly disagree with you there and I believe that it as scientific as quantitative methods, and is it not better for your research to be answering a question rather than simply testing a hypothesis. If you find a different effect than what you were trying to test in quantitative research then your research would be deemed not valid, but there isn’t really that problem with qualitative methods because you are looking to see what you have found, so whatever you find can be included.
    Also, case studies don’t really need to be replicated, they can give us a greater understanding of something that is unique, and possibly rare, to a certain individual, for example someone with a certain brain lesion or someone with a very rare genetic disorder that not many poeple have much knowledge about may have a case study done about them to inform the scientific community and to help others who may present with similar problems.

  2. I believe whether qualitative data/research is scientific or not, or even if it exists at all depends on the mind set of the person. Even if qualitative research is seen as unscientific it should not be avoided as Patton (1990) states combining quantitative and qualitative research methods is easy for a well versed researcher and all research has a qualitiative grounding to it anyway as stated by Donald Campbell, so is it really that un scientific? Or is it you are following the same methodology of your own views and then applying these views to your research methods?

    • Personally I think that if you are going to conduct scientific research then anything unscientific should be avoided like the plague. If we start nip and tucking methods to fit your ideas then even though we have a scientific principal to our research, it will be contaminated by unscientific measure altering the scientific creditability of the conclusions. Therefore I think it must be decided what is scientific and what isn’t before we start combining the true and describing research in ways that just isn’t valid.

  3. Ion03 this is exactly the opposite to what you said on the last blog I commented on. Fran, I think you make some excellent points in your blog and I especially enjoy the concept of a continuum for research. Hybrid studies (employing quantitative and quantitative methods) are an excellent example of how discrimination of one method over the other is pointless. We can learn from both. Statsblog2011, excellent points, especially about lesion studies. I think one of the superior characteristics of qualitative research methods is its flexibility.
    “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation
    to the foe whom he is facing.”
    ― Sun Tzu
    May not be wholly relevant to behavioural science… or maybe it is, but the key message – being flexible and flowing with ones subject can prove to be useful

    • Yeah it is totally opposite of what I wrote in other peoples blogs but my opinions change constantly. Also seeing as these comments get marked it is a lot more fun to disagree with someone and to start an arguement than it is to agree with their view 😛

      (Don’t grade this comment Kat)

      • 😀 I haven’t graded it, but you’re definitely right – change opinions as much as you want to, especially if it gets debate going, because “being flexible and flowing with ones subject can prove to be useful.”

  4. I disagree with the idea that quantitative and qualitative research methods lie along a continuum. Yes it is true that they both have disadvantages and advantages: with qualitative methods we can get precise measurements to answer why something occurs where as with quantitative methods we can gain a fuller, more detailed picture of how something occurs. It is also true that for certain research we can merge the two together in the same study, but I wouldn’t say that this constitutes as a continuum. The idea of a continuum suggests that the factors involved in the an methods are both the same. However this is not true, there are factors in qualitative data collection that do not affect quantitative data collection such as what people say and do (both can be very different) and culture. Therefore I find it difficult to believe that these methods could be theoretically place on a continuum as the factors for deciding which method to use are very different and it isn’t just a magnitude of factors that dictate a researchers decision.

  5. I agreed with Ion03 and Jack that it depends on the researcher as well as the purpose of the research. Although qualitative has it’s disadvantages and advantages, I believed that both qualitative and quantitative should used it together. According to Miles and Huberman (1994), qualitative and quantitative research methods need each other more often which also agreed by many other research. It is the fact that qualitative and quantitative data are closely related to each other. For example, think about a very common quantitative measure in psychological research- self esteem scale. Even the researchers who develop such instruments had to make countless judgments in constructing them, such as how to defined self esteem, what kind of context should be in the scale, etc. Besides that, the participants also make judgments when completing the scale, which makes the process qualitative in the same time it is quantitative. Therefore, I believed that both quantitative and qualitative approach should use it together, as it covered both approach’s weakness.

  6. I disagree with you on this one, i think that qualitative measurement is completely scientific! I know that to most people it is the lack of numbers in qualitative data which allows people to think that it is unscientific, however, there are methods such as coding which us numbers to correspond with words or phrases in the transcript, and then it is these codes which are analysed. Also, qualitative data erases the error which can often occur in analysis of data, for example on SPSS ( because lets be honest, how many of us actuaklly have a clue what we’re doing on that? :P) Also, reliability can be increased by having multiple researchers and therefore more rich data can be collected. I would argue that it is no more or less scientific that quantitative data, merely different.

  7. Pingback: Homework for Wendy! « Psyched Up

  8. Your blog comes back to the question we have discussed time and time again, is psychology a science? I personally feel, you can’t measure emotions and feelings completely through numbers and statistics, and because of that, I don’t think psychology is a straight science; it is a science of human behaviour and thoughts, which is impossible to test without some qualitative measurements. If you were to test a phenomenon like autism which is a huge spectrum, it is almost impossible to do it through statistics, but as its part of psychology (which is a science of the brain) I think it should be referred to as scientific research.

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