An introduction to terminology used in qualitative and quantitative research

The two basic research approaches exist in social science research, termed qualitative and quantitative approaches and these differ in the way in which the research is carried out:

  • Qualitative research is based on identifying a central phenomenon which could take the form of a concept area or a process. The research is centred on a research question which is often open in nature, at least at the start of the research. Information is then collected by the researcher using qualitative approaches to explore this further. The nature of qualitative research is to explore a research theme to develop understanding of factors influencing this issue.

  • Quantitative research is centred on ‘explaining or predicting relations among variables’ (Cresswell 2011: 63). As the name implies, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of numerical data. Also a hypothesis may be used, particularly in an experimental approach which is tested using statistical procedures.

In both types of research, the research question informs the choice of methods and the wording and structure of this question is therefore extremely important. Key differences between qualitative and quantitative research problems are outlined below:

  • Quantitative research is based on a specific and narrow research question which is closed-ended and static and focuses on exploring the relationships between variables.

  • Qualitative research focuses on concepts and ideas and is more open-ended and the question tends to develop as the research progresses. In qualitative research it is common for the question itself to change and develop. Creswell (2011) terms this an ‘emerging process’ which is shaped by the responses of the participants during the research process.

  • A mixed methods approach is also possible in which both qualitative and quantitative approaches are employed.

The use of terminology in social science research is often inconsistent, and it is important to be aware of this to avoid confusion when reading research texts. In this MESHGuide the following terms will be used:

  • research methodology (which you may also see termed research strategies)

  • research methods

  • research tools

Thinking about the reasoning underpinning your research approach: Deductive or Inductive?

It is important to consider the nature of the link between the research question and the process of reasoning that underpins the research approach you propose to use to answer it, as this will influence your research design. There are two main types of reasoning: deductive and inductive. A deductive approach is based on theory testing, where an idea or theory is developed into a hypothesis which is tested by gathering evidence from which logical conclusions are drawn (see An introduction to terminology: Qualitative / quantitative research) . Inductive reasoning is traditionally associated with qualitative studies. In a qualitative context an inductive approach is based on theory building, in which evidence is gathered and analysed to identify patterns and processes. This leads to the development of hypotheses which may lead to theory generation (Newby, 2014). However it is also possible for qualitative studies to include elements of deductive reasoning designed to explore theoretical statements, although not in the same way as in quantitative research (Newby, 2014). Similarly, inductive reasoning can also be used in quantitative research at the stage of formulating the problem. Cohen et al. (2011) term this an inductive/deductive approach, where elements from both approaches are combined, with the process of induction in the development of the initial hypothesis which is subsequently tested and its implications explored through a process of deduction.

An overview of some of the terminology used in social science research

Research methodology (research strategies)

Quantitative approaches:

  • surveys

  • experimental design

Qualitative approaches:

  • case studies

  • action research

  • ethnography

  • phenomenology

  • grounded theory

  • narrative

Research methods examples

Research tools


  • questionnaires with closed or structured questions / open or unstructured questions or a combination of both


e.g. in-depth interviews, think-aloud interviewing, cognitive interviews, interviews using visual prompts

  • structured/semi-structured or unstructured interview schedules (and may be carried out individually, in pairs or as a focus group)


  • observation schedules may be structured to record the occurrence of predetermined events / behaviours or semi-structured to record details of particular focus