How does one choose between quantitative or qualitative methods? To some extent, researchers simply follow their training and use the method that feels most comfortable.

But two other factors also influence the choice of method. One of these involves the scholar’s philosophy of science as it favors one or another method of gathering and presenting information. The other reason has to do with the practical limits on the way researchers can operate.

As mentioned in the previous section, strategies vary in the amount of control required of the researcher. Sometimes qualitative research emerges as the most or only feasible method, given the nature of the subjects and their environment.

Models of Knowing



To this point, this text has presented an approach to knowing that shapes most of quantitative social research. Growing out of the tradition of positivism, it seeks to understand the general principles (or laws) that govern any set of specific events or experiences.

This approach assumes that an objective reality exists independent of the perceiver and that we can come to know it, however dimly.

Social research in this tradition proceeds by offering tentative laws (called theories) and then attempting to disconfirm them through their testable implications (called hypotheses) for more detail on this approach, see Cook and Campbell (1979) and the appreciation of Campbell’s views in Brewer and Collins (1981).


Research methods that use numbers will prove most convenient for summarizing results, assessing measurement reliability and validity, testing inferences from samples (statistical inference validity), and planning precise research designs with high internal validity.

As a result, qualitative methods will come to be used only under two circumstances. One of these conditions, given positivist assumptions and goals, occurs when quantitative procedures prove impossible. In such a case, we must test our hypotheses with qualitative data.

As will be seen in the next section, participant observation can offer the sometimes essential advantage of little or no reactivity.



The second condition occurs when the researcher does not subscribe to positivist assumptions (for example, Patton, 1980; Smart, 1976. Some researchers do not accept that there exists, or that they have the responsibility of seeking, an objective, underlying reality.

Rather, they have more interest in understanding daily life and activities from the actor’s subjective point of view. The concern with the subject’s point of view derives from different sources. One source, which has given its name to a style of research within sociology, is called symbolic interactionism. This perspective emphasizes that

(1) human beings act toward things-on the basis of the meanings-that the things have for them; (2) these meanings are a product of social interaction in human society; and (3) these meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is used by each person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.

If no objective reality exists or if we cannot know it, then reality becomes what the actor thinks, feels, and says that it is. This view implies that we have no reason to impose an external theory on the subjective views of the actors.


Preconceived hypotheses, constructs, and measures will only hinder the researcher in understanding the actor from the actor’ point of view. This focus on the subject’s point of view agrees with the philosophy called phenomenology.

When applied to the social sciences, it emphasizes that social “facts,” unlike physical facts, are “characterized by and only recognizable because of their meaningfulness for members in the social world”.

It follows that the researcher should try to discover the meaning of things and events to the members of the social group of interest.

Phenomenology has had particular appeal in anthropology, expressed in an approach called ethnography or ethno methodology. Although the term suggests a general method for describing (graphy) a cultural group (ethno), it has come to mean the particular technique of describing a social group from the group’s point of view: “The ethnographer tries to obtain the cultural knowledge of the natives”.


Such an approach has special relevance to anthropology because that social science must deal with the problem of ethnocentrism, perceiving other cultures from the perspective of one’s own cultural biases. How far some ethnographers have distanced themselves from the positivist perspective is shown by the following definition: “Ethno methodology is not a method of pursuing the truth about the world. Rather, it examines the many versions, including its own, of the way the world is assembled” (Mehan & Wood, 1975, p. 114). Carried to its extreme, this approach requires an immersion in the studied group; “the researcher must begin by first becoming the phenomenon. … a full-time member of the reality to be studied”.

The ethnographic approach of necessity consists of qualitative techniques. Consider the classic study Tally’s Corner (Lie bow, 1967). Elliot Leibow, then a graduate student in anthropology, wanted to understand the nature of life among a small group of poor black men centered on a corner in an inner city. Tally was a 31-year-old man who became one of Liebow’s key informants, that is, a source of interview information and a main link between Lie bow and the rest of Tally’s social circle.

Leibow wanted to describe “lower-class life of ordinary people, on their own grounds and on their terms…. [The data] were to be collected with the aim of gaining a clear, firsthand picture… rather than of testing specific hypotheses no firm presumptions of what was or was not relevant” (Lie bow, 1967, p. 10). He made explicit his avoidance of objective general laws: “The present attempt, then, is not aimed directly at developing generalizations about lower-class life from one particular segment of the lower class at a particular time and place but rather to examine this one segment in miniature”.

Liebow’s analysis of time perspective exemplifies his aim to see the world through the eyes of the actors. He notes that one theory explains lower-class behavior in terms of a defect-the absence of a well-developed future time orientation. Liebow attempts to understand the same behavior not from the standpoint of a theory but from that of the men.


He takes the side of his subjects and tries to persuade the reader also to see through their eyes: “Thus, when Richard squanders a week’s pay in two days it is not because, like an animal or a child, he is present-time oriented, unaware of or unconcerned with his future. He does so precisely because he is aware of the future and the hopelessness of it”.

Liebow quotes Richard’s rationale: “I’ve been scuffing for five years from morning till night. And my kids still don’t have anything, and I don’t have anything”.

Liebow concludes that the “apparent present-time concerns with consumption and indulgences-material and emotional-reflect a future-time orientation. I want mine right now is ultimately a cry of despair, a direct response to the future as he sees it”.

Hypotheses: Before, After, or Never:

In sum, qualitative research may serve within either framework-positivism or phenomenology.

In the latter case, interviews and observation seek in-depth understanding with neither prior theory nor the goal of general laws that go beyond the setting studied. In this case, qualitative research will not test hypotheses.

The researcher may speculate, after collecting and interpreting the data, about the implications for wider segments of the population. However, such a researcher would not proclaim any universal laws.

When research attempts only to portray phenomena without testing for causal patterns, we call it descriptive. Because this text focuses on causal rather than descriptive research, we will have more interest in qualitative research that tests hypotheses in the positivist tradition.

Confirmatory research consists of causal research that tests prior hypotheses. Research that begins without hypotheses but with only a general question is exploratory research. In this case, the data lead to the hypotheses. We may then test such post hoc hypotheses in the usual confirmatory way.

A clear example of the confirmatory, hypothesis-first type of qualitative research appears in our opening example from When Prophecy Fails. Early on, the authors state five conditions under which they expect to see increased proselytizing following disconfirmation. These conditions express testable hypotheses

In contrast, exploratory research seeks to build theory rather than test it. In commenting on this exploratory process, one qualitative researcher noted: “Model building is an ongoing process.

Because a participant-observer does not go into the field with a hypothesis, the end point of such a study is not always obvious.

The construction of the model signals the end of the study, and first attempts at model building usually are made long before the researcher leaves the field”

As illustrated by When Prophecy Fails, qualitative research sometimes tries to confirm theory.

However, at the beginning of truly original projects, existing theory may seem inadequate or even misleading. In such a case, the researcher meets the data with an open mind in order to create fresh theory.

An example of the exploratory approach comes from another study of a cult predicting the end of the world. A graduate sociology student wanted to know how cults recruit and retain members in the face of a disapproving and even hostile society (Lofland, 1966).

Almost single-handedly, he observed the group for about fifteen hours per week for the first nine months and for four days per week as a live- in participant for another three months.

He not only described the formation of this cult but also produced some general principle is that could serve as testable hypotheses. For example, Lofland authored a series of conditions for recruitment into a cult that together represent a theory of conversion (1966).

Exploratory qualitative research can also fill in the gaps in existing theory. For example, research has documented the overarching connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Some researchers have explained this relationship using the self-fulfilling prophecy.

That is, low expectations for poor students help cause their low performance. However, the initial research in support of this theory did not spell out the process by which the self-fulfilling prophecy took place within actual teacher-student interactions.

One researcher took as his goal “to provide an analysis both of the factors that are critical in the teacher’s development of expectations for various groups of her pupils and of the process by which such expectations influence the classroom experience for the teacher and the student”

Rist observed one class of children from kindergarten through second grade and then offered a number of general propositions and processes. Other researchers can translate such explanatory ideas into testable hypotheses.

Quantitative researchers can then test this theory by operational zing the constructs as standard measures.

In summary, qualitative research may or may not entail hypotheses. Qualitative research from the tradition of phenomenology describes social process from the point of view of particular actors rather than testing general causal claims.

But a researcher from the positivist tradition will need some hypotheses. This researcher will pursue causal laws that apply to whole populations and will either test prior hypotheses (confirmation) or generate new ones (exploration).