The first question asked by any researcher with a new topic to study is: 'What sort of research should I use?' Reference to the literature can be confusing: so much research has been done, so many questions asked and sometimes answered, and so many conclusions have been drawn that it can be difficult to sort out one research technique from another. The decision most beginners to research find taxing is: 'Should I use quantitative or qualitative methods?'At the most basic level, quantitative research methods are used when something needs to be measured, while qualitative methods are used when a question needs to be described and investigated in some depth. Often, the two methods are used in tandem to provide measurements for comparison and evaluation and to give an in-depth explanation of the meaning of an idea.
Quantitative researchThe words themselves hold the clues. Quantitative research includes so-called benchtop science (where experimental tests are carried out), drug trials (where the effects of drugs are measured), epidemiology (where rates of illnesses in populations are calculated), intervention studies (where one technique is used and its effects compared with another), and so on.
Quantitative research usually contains numbers, proportions and statistics, and is invaluable for measuring people's attitudes, their emotional and behavioural states and their ways of thinking.
In one section of a study on child care in hospitals, I asked a group of parents to give a 'yes' or 'no' response to a range of questions on their attitudes to paediatric hospital care (Shields 1999). I then measured the number of 'yes' answers and compared them with responses from nurses and doctors to the same questions. The study showed differences in attitude between parents and staff that could have affected communication between them and influenced the delivery of care. In another example, a...