Quantitative v Qualitative methods

Every now and then I observe robust discussion about the merit of quantiative vs qualitative methods for M&E.  Some people seem to feel passionately about one or the other.  The pragmatic reality that both approaches have merit in different contexts, and can complement eachother, is recognised by Patton (1997, p 266), who states that the debate about evaluation paradigms “has run out of intellectual steam“.

My own experience suggests that the distinction between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ is, in practice, a bit academic.  I will illustrate by way of example:

a)       A focus group question (i.e. a ‘qualitative method’) “how many households in this village?” would yield a ‘quantitative’ answer
b)       A survey question (i.e. ‘quantitative method’) “what is your household’s main source of food: a) garden; b) market; c) relatives; d) relief; e) other” would yield a ‘qualitative’ answer

To quote de Vaus (2002, p 5): “[the] distinction between quantitative and qualitative research is frequently unhelpful and misleading.  It is more helpful to distinguish between…research methods that yield structured and unstructured data sets than between methods that are quantitative or qualitative”. 

This distinction put forward by de Vaus is practical.  The real issue is the degree of structure that can applied to the process of data collection and analysis.  And, inevitably, this tends to be a matter of economics…what is the most cost efficient way to get the required data.  

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