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One of the first things you should consider when developing your study is what method you’ll go with: qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods.
In order to choose the method most appropriate method for your study there are a few questions you should ask yourself.
What type of data are available to me?
The first thing you should consider is the type of data you have available to you. It’s much easier to work with data you already have (such as archival data) or that which you’re sure you have access to than it is to plan a study hoping the data you need will show up. What are your research questions, and are they better aligned with qualitative or quantitative data? If you’re doing a study on individuals’ perceptions or experiences surrounding a phenomenon, you’ll probably need to gather rich, detailed qualitative data in the form of interviews or focus groups. However, if your focus is a more generic attribute or characteristic (such as stress, anxiety, self-efficacy, leadership style, etc.), quantitative may be the way to go.
A quick note on instrumentation… if you select a quantitative method, always endeavor to locate an existing instrument to gather the data you need. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to! Developing and validating an instrument involves pilot testing (which is like doing a whole, separate study). If time is of the essence, I don’t recommend creating your own quantitative instrument.
What sample is available to me?
In addition to differences in data characteristics and collection methods, qualitative and quantitative research have different sample size requirements. Generally, quantitative methods require larger samples, while qualitative researchers can get away with much smaller samples. In qualitative studies, sample size is determined by saturation; the required size of quantitative samples is determined by a calculation of power. If you only have access to a small sample or you’ve got very specific inclusion criteria that will significantly limit the participants available to you, you’re probably better off with a qualitative approach. On the other hand, if your sample is more generalized and you have access to the tools needed to gather a large sample (such as online survey distribution), quantitative may be the way to go.
How comfortable am I with different types of data?
Next, ask yourself how comfortable you are collecting and analyzing different types of data. If you shirk from numbers and the thought of using SPSS makes you want to leap into traffic, a quantitative method probably isn’t your bag. There are pros and cons to working with each type of data and it seems that students sometimes select a qualitative method because they think the analysis process will be easier – but be warned, this usually isn’t the case. Qualitative data requires special treatment that can be incredibly tedious and time-consuming. Fortunately, regardless of the type of data you decide to work with, there are plenty of analysts and statisticians available to assist with the data analysis, if you get stuck.
What about mixed methods?
In some cases, you might want to integrate both quantitative and qualitative data into your research. Mixed methods are particularly awesome if you’re following a case study design. The integration of quantitative and qualitative data can also be useful for triangulating findings. Often, mixed methods studies produce impressive and robust findings – just be aware that this type of study is very labor intensive.