Category Archives: research design

“Quantitative and qualitative social science” by Daniel Little

I would like to share here a outstanding post on the quantitative/qualitative debate by Daniel Little in his blog Understanding Society. Debate addressed in previous posts here and that is gaining more and more importance within social science.

THE social world is one reality, but the methodologies associated with quantitative and qualitative research are quite different. Quantitative research allows the researcher to discover patterns, associations, correlations, and other features of a population based on analysis of large numbers of measurements of individuals. Qualitative research usually involves studies of single individuals, based on interviews and observations, with the goal of identifying their internal psychological and behavioral characteristics. Quantitative research is directed at identifying population characteristics, patterns, and associations. Qualitative research is directed at teasing out the mental frameworks and experiences of individuals within specific social and cultural settings. Qualitative researchers are generally not interested in discovering generalizations or regularities, and are more interested in identifying particular features of consciousness, culture, and behavior.

What kinds of interface or bridging are possible between these two levels of social research?

Take the example of race studies. Both qualitative and quantitative research studies have been conducted in this field, with the goal of shedding light on the phenomenon of race in American society. Quantitative research has often been concerned to identify the features of inequality which are associated with race within American populations, including income, wealth, education, health, employment, and other important features. For example, the National Survey of Black Americans provides voluminous data on a range of characteristics of African American individuals, with surveys extending from 1979 to 1992 (link). Here is a list of the variables included in these studies (link). Several hundred research studies and reports have been completed making use of these data sets; here is a representative study by James Jackson making use of data sets like these to probe health disparities by race (link). These quantitative studies permit the researcher to use advanced statistical tools to measure and evaluation the strength of associations among characteristics and to evaluate causal hypotheses about the linkages that exist among characteristics.

Qualitative research on race takes several forms. There are ethnographic studies, through which the researcher attempts to identify the phenomenology and lived experience of race. Here I would include several research efforts that have been discussed here previously — Al Young’s study of young inner city Chicago men (The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances) and Loïc Wacquant’s ethnographic study of a boxing club on Chicago’s south side (Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer). There are theoretical studies, which explore possible structures or mechanisms which produces racial and racialized behavior and disparities. Here is a good example from Elizabeth Cole on the construct of intersectionality as a way of theorizing about racial and gender identities (link). And there are studies of social psychology designed to identify the ways in which racial attitudes, presuppositions, and ideas contribute to behavior in American society. Here is a nice example of such an analysis by Lawrence Bobo and Cybelle Fox (link).

It is clear that studies based on all of these methodologies are insightful and valuable. We will arrive at a better understanding of the meaning and causal importance of “race” through all these approaches. The question raised above remains an important one, however: how should we think about the relations among these bodies of inquiry and knowledge?

One way is to think in terms of levels of analysis (link): we might say that quantitative studies examine facts about race at a more macro level (large populations), whereas qualitative studies are more meso- or micro-level studies. This isn’t a very satisfactory view, however, because each of these approaches is concerned about individual-level facts; what differs is the level of aggregation of those facts that is chosen.

Another approach seems more promising: to consider the suite of qualitative studies of race as being a tool box for identifying the social mechanisms through which the patterns and associations that are discovered at the large population level come about. Qualitative studies (studies aimed at discovering or theorizing the mentalities and behaviors through which race is constructed and carried out) permit us to understand racialized behavior in groups that in turn allow us to understand the population outcomes that quantitative studies identify.

A third possibility is that these different methodological approaches do not admit of “bridging” at all. Here the idea would be that these are fundamentally different forms of knowledge, and they belong in different parts of the toolbox. Sometimes this approach is taken by advocates of one methodology or the other in dismissing the scientific credentials of the other approach — quantitative researchers who dismiss qualitative research as anecdotal and qualitative researchers who dismiss quantitative research as positivist. This approach seems fundamentally wrong. We should look at the various ways of studying important aspects of social life as being complementary and fundamentally consistent.

My own predilection is to think of the qualitative approaches as providing insight into how various social processes work; how it is that socially constructed actors bring about the patterns of behavior and outcome we observe at various levels of aggregation. A quantitative study of racial attitudes might suggest that cities with effective public transportation have higher (or lower) levels of racial mistrust across groups. We would want to be able to form some hypotheses about what the underlying behaviors and attitudes are that bring about this effect. What are the mechanisms through which access to public transportation influences racial trust? And for this kind of inquiry to be possible, we need to have some good empirical theories about racial identities and mental frameworks.

So it does in fact seem both possible and desirable to try to integrate the findings of both quantitative and qualitative studies of racial attitudes; and this finding seems equally valid in almost all areas of the social sciences.

(Thanks to Mosi Ifatunji for his stimulating seminar at the University of Michigan on new approaches to the study of black ethnic disparities, which caused me to think about this topic a little further. Here is Mosi’s webpage with some links to his work; link.)

Source: Little, Daniel (2014) Understanding Society Blog. Retrieved from here


Example of explanatory research by mean secondary data

A referendum to limit migration from European Union countries took place on 10th February of 2014 in Switzerland. In the score of such event, Alexandre Afonso (2014) and Paul Haydon (2014) did a simple analysis of correlation between the share of migrants population per canton and the share of yes to anti-immigration initiative, based on the results of the referendum. The research question that lies beneath these analysis might be “is there a relationship between the share of migrant population in a given community and the way migration is seen by its members. Interestingly both the graphic and map bellow show that wherever there is less number of immigrants, the rejection of immigrants is greater. It is a clear example of explanatory research, where the main objective is identifying the existence between two or more variables. By the way, Swiss voters narrowly back referendum curbing immigration.

The results of this case, also arose multiples new questions on how public opinion is build. Is there a real problem with immigrants or rather certain media shape deliberately population opinion?

map refer


Reference list

Haydon, Paul (@Paul_Haydon) (2014) “Map of who voted how in Swiss referendum. Areas with fewest immigrants most anti-immigration” 9th of February, 2014, 6:34 PM

Foulkes, Imogen (2014, February 11). Swiss immigration: 50.3% back quotas, final results show. BBC News. Retrieved from

 Afonso, Alexandre @alexandreafonso (2014) “Relationship between share of migrants per canton and share of yes to anti-immigration initiative” 9th of February, 2014, 6:31 PM

Why the qualitative approach is essential for every research project?

“Recently, it was conducted a global survey which sought to answer the following question: Please answer honestly. How in your opinion could be solved the problem of lack of food in many countries in the world?”

The survey was a failure because in Africa nobody knew what food means. In France nobody knew what honesty means. Nobody knew in Western Europe what having lack of something means. In China no one knew what is having your own opinion. In Arabs countries none knew what is solving a problem. In South America, nobody knew what the word “please” means. In North America, no one knew that other countries exist.”

The above parody is just that, a parody. However, it illustrates very well how the ambiguity of such terms as happiness, leadership or being modern are constantly challenging social researchers. “The more ambiguous and elastic our concepts, the less possible is to quantify our data in a meaningful way” (Dey, 1993) Can we measure happiness all over the world if the meaning of it may strongly vary from one country to another? It may be not possible assuming right away a quantitative approach. And it is precisely here where the qualitative one finds its place. Qualitative techniques may bring the not measurable concepts into the “realm” of the measurable. Indeed it is “an opportunity to explore a subject in as real manner as is possible” (Robson, 2002).

For instance, what is a great place to work? We can quantify work by the unemployment rate in every country, as well as places where people work just collecting information on the number of companies. But great place to work? We could actually build another funny story as above, or just try to understand what people think what a “great place to work” is. And this is precisely what Great Place to Work did to measure a prior ambiguous concept.

This company on a year basis publishes a best workplace ranking both nationwide and worldwide. To do so they built up a model formed by categories of analysis like trust, enjoy or pride, among others. In turn each of them is divided into indicators. These indicators give way to a questionnaire that is used in a survey among a set of companies in every country. As they report in their website, “this model has been confirmed through over 25 years´ worth of analysis of employees´ own opinions“.

Therefore, the quantification of a priori ambiguous concepts is preceded (or even accompanied) by a qualitative analysis. This analysis consists of doing a categorization of what people think it is a great place to work. If the result of a quantitative study is usually a graphic or a statistic table, the result of a qualitative study is based on categorizations.

Finally, although the categorization process is frequently used as way to identify measurable units referred to ambiguous concepts, as in the above example, it may be used independently, i.e. doing a categorization of happiness, for instance, may have as the only aim to obtain an accurate understanding of this concept, regardless it is going to be or not measured later.



BBC Radio 4. Interview to Manuel Castells “Alternative ecomomic cultures”. Retrieved from
Dey, I. (1993). Qualitative data analysis: A user-friendly guide. Routledge. Seen in Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.
Marketing directo. C. Chaguaceda (Coca-Cola): “No se mide igual la felicidad que la venta de botellas de Coca-Cola” Retrieved from
Robson, C. (2002). Real world research: a resource for social scientists and practitioner-researchers (Vol. 2). Oxford: Blackwell. Seen in Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

Imagine a conversation between the qualitative and quantitative approach!

English: Qualitative observations are relative.

English: Qualitative observations are relative. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Needless to say that if case Qualitative would be feminine and quantitative masculine)

– Mr. Quantitative: we need to find out social causal relationships

-Mrs. Qualitative: why?

-Mr. Quantitative: obviously, to be able to do law-like generalizations like natural scientist do!

-Mrs. Qualitative: It is not possible because relationships of human beings might be spurious.

– Mr. Quantitative: I don´t understand.

– Mrs. Qualitative: we don´t need to be like natural sciences and do law-like generalizations, we just need to get a more accurate understanding of the phenomenon under study, as well as reflect on and interpret it.

Ethnomethodology: how people make sense of their life

Introduced by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel, ethnomethodology is, together with symbolic interactionism and dramaturgical, one of the most garfinkelrelevant perspective in the field of qualitative research. This tradition concerned with studying routines of everyday life and their production. How people make sense of their lives? The order and harmony of our lives depends on simple but very rooted behaviors. Watch this video before providing further details. The first scene is enough (you´d better omit the rest of the video)

What happens when girls cheer on the waiter? Is their behavior part of our routine? Is the social order or harmony interrupted in this situation? Read now this passage on an experiment developed by the founder of this tradition, Garfinkel:

Garfinkel asked some of his students to act like guests when they return home, in front of their families. From fifteen minutes up to one hour, students maintained a polite distance, talked about general issues rather than personal topics, requesting permission to use the bathroom or to take a glass of water, expressing his gratitude to the “host” for their kind hospitality. Two of the forty-nine families thought the students were joking and ignored the behavior; the others were upset or teased. Family members requested explanations: what happens? What is it? You’re sick? What kind of creature are you? Why are you angry? Are you getting crazy or stupid?

Both in the video and in the passage, people involved behave unconventionally. What does it mean? Everyone share a number of conventional assumptions with the member of one´s social group, community, town or city, country or culture. These assumptions are part of our everyday life. Saying hello when arriving home, shaking hands or being grateful. When it happens that one behaves against such assumptions, one social disorder takes somehow place.

What does it mean in terms of market research? Do you buy products that are against your conventional assumptions? Many marketing campaigns have actually failed because of lack of sensitivity with some conventional assumptions. Like the suggested in this post. Do you know any other case? What do you think about this campaign launched by Polish tourism organization in 2005 in France? Do you think it goes against French conventional assumptions?

against conventional assumptions


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology (p. 1). NJ: Englewood Cliffs.

Dramaturgical perspective: understanding everyday life

Erving GoffmanThe term dramaturgical perspective was first adapted into sociology from the theatre by Erving Goffman, who developed most of the related terminology and ideas in his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Together with ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, is one of the most relevant perspectives in the field of qualitative research.

Before providing further explanations, read the following passage wrote by Orwell (1961) about his experiences when washing dishes in a Paris restaurant:

As soon crosses the door, a sudden change ensues. The set of his shoulders is modified, all dirt, desire and irritation are gone in an instant. It glides smoothly over the carpet with a solemn, almost priestly. Remember our maitre d’hotel assistant, a fiery Italian, pausing at the door of the room to address an apprentice who had broken a bottle of wine, shaking his fist above his head, screamed loudly (happily the door was more or less soundproof):

“Tu fais me – you are called waiter, you, a young bastard? Thou waiter! You are not up to standard to scrub the floors in the burdel where your mother comes from. Marquereau!

Then he entered the dining room and sailed crossing with plate in hand, graceful as a swan. Ten seconds later bowed reverentially to a client. And I could not help but think, as soon as she saw him bend over and smile, smile with that blessed trained waiter, that the customer was about to be embarrassed to have such aristocrat to serve him. (Orwell, 1961, p. 68-69)

Which are the theoretical assumptions of dramaturgical perspective? Life is like a theatrical performance. We humans adapt to the roles we play. But also, we try to convince others that we are the people we represent, like maitre d’hotel assistant in Orwell´s passage. And that´s why Clinton denies a couple times his sexual relationship with a scholar or, more related to our everyday life behavior, why many of us quickly get ready when having an unforeseen visit at home in the very morning, why we wear our best dress in a job interview, or why we try to make the best impression on our CEO when he/she drops by the office.

What does this perspective imply for a market researcher? A businessman buys good suits to make a good impression on customers. People buy the latest iPhone model to show that they are up to date with new technologies or acquire certain brands to show their commitment to the values ​​they represent. An environmentalist likely refrains from acquire a brand which does not show any sensitivity with global warm. In short, we buy things to play certain roles, as well as to convince others we are the people we want to be. Can your company help people on this venture? So by mean qualitative research you may know what roles your target wants to play in life. This information may be crucial for a successful marketing strategy.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.
Orwell, G. (1961). The Orwell reader: fiction, essays, and reportage. Mariner Books.

Symbolic interactionism: understanding consumer behavior

Originated with one key theorist, George Herbert Mead, symbolic interactionism is, together with dramaturgical and ethnomethodology, one of the most relevant perspectives in the field of qualitative research. Which are its theoretical assumptions? Everyone behave symbolically. What does it mean? It means that many of our behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, are the symbol of something. For instance, shaking hands are a symbol of agreement in many countries. But does it have the same meaning all over the world? What is more, does it have the same meaning for a teenager than for an adult?.

Secondly, watch this video. It is an experiment leaded by Washington post. See what happens when Joshua Bell, one of the nation’s greatest musicians played in the DC Metro during rush hour.

Many passer-by in the video, with high cultural and economic capital judging by the context, would have paid good money out for attending one Joshua´s concert. However, just a few people seemed to notice his presence. What does it mean? Apart from differences according to countries and cultures, our behavior may be explained by the context in which people is in. In other terms, people give a particular meaning to particular context. What do you think is the meaning of DC Metro during rush hour.

What does it mean in terms of market research? People give symbolic meaning not only to such gestures as shaking hands or contexts but also to products. What does consuming wine mean in western cultures? What about eastern European countries? What does it mean for younger people? Perhaps, this product is seen as an older-for drink in comparison with beer. But we can be more specific. Which meaning people give to brand A and which one to brand B. In other words, what people think when see your product, the package, the colors or logo? Try to understand the meaning given to your brand by mean the different qualitative research techniques. The success of your marketing strategy may depend on it.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Blunter, H. (1994). Society as symbolic interaction. Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social Psychology, 263.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Research perspective in the field of qualitative research

TsmyaA simple glance on the cartoon does not leave room for doubt. Whatever your perspective, whatever your research´s results. In the field of qualitative research there are several approaches. These are different in their theoretical assumptions, in the way we understand the object of study.  There are three mainstreams: symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, dramaturgical perspective. They will explain in detail in following posts. Suffice to say here what their essence is:

1. Symbolic interactionism. How individuals interact with each other and within society by mean symbols. In other words, what such gestures as shaking hands or leaning ahead mean for us and for other cultures? (See further details here)

2. Ethnomethodology. How people make sense of their lives? The order and harmony of our lives depends on simple but very rooted behaviors. (See Harold Garfinkel)

3. Dramaturgical perspective. What sort of person is behind the role we play? Your professor, your boss, your employee? Are they as they seem to be? This perspective assumes that our role depends on the context and the people we are talking to. (See Erving Goffman)


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

How to design a qualitative research?

“A research design is a plan for collecting and analyzing evidence that will make it possible for the investigator to answer whatever questions he or she has posed” (Ragin, 1994, p. 1919) This definition leads to a number of steps that every researcher must follow:

1º Formulate a research question. Every inquiry always starts by a question. This question represents certain problem. “Why unemployment is higher in southern countries than in northern countries?”Why my company sales have dropped over the last years?” As it was covered in a previous post, research questions are normally headed by a interrogative particles like “what is”, “what type”, “how frequent”, “what are the causes”, “what are its consequences”, “what are people´s”, etc.

2º Secondly, you must describe how you are going to collect the information required to answer the research question. Concretely, you should account for the techniques to be applied and sampling. Regarding the former one, think over which techniques best applied for you, interviews? focus group?, observation? (Have a look here to those posted earlier) On the other hand sampling is concerned with the selection of a subset of individuals from within a statistical population. Bear in mind that such qualitative techniques as interviews or focus group do not require representativeness like survey does. In other words, the number of cases selected doesn´t allow doing generalizations to the whole population.

3º Finally, every research design should include a plan for analyzing data. If a quantitative design would likely include such analysis techniques as statistical test, absolute and relative frequencies, graphics or tables, a qualitative one generally deals with such techniques as categorizations, summaries, ranking of relevance (see here further info about categorizations here) However, take into account that in some cases, data obtained by mean qualitative techniques may be quantify. Actually, there are software as CAQDAS or Sonal (the latter is a free software) specially set to do it.


Flick, U. (2009) An introduction to qualitative research Sage Publications Limited

Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009

Ragin, C. C. (1994). Introduction to qualitative comparative analysis. The comparative political economy of the welfare state, 299, 300-9.

What is ethics in research and why is it important?

Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the "Australian National Statement"), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.

Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the “Australian National Statement”), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.

In 1946 the atrocities committed by Nazi scientists in the name of research were investigated in War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. 16 doctors and administrators were found guilty of “willing participation in the systematic torture, mutilation, and killing of prisoners in experiments”. This led to development of the Nuremberg Code in 1947, the first international code of research ethics.

Hence, to address the question “what is ethics in research and why it is important” one should first consider the next question: “is the only aim to do the best work?” If so, ethical issues may be underestimated. It was actually the defense of Nazi scientists. Far from this horrifying precedents, still in today’s social research we need to handle many ethical issues. Dealing with such topics as illness, politic, religion or sexuality, among others; participant’s interest must be safeguarded. Above all, acting ethically in research means protecting participants’ interests and rights. Five more important issue must be highlighted:

1. Exploitation of participants. Until the 1970’s highly unethical social and medical studies were common. A good example was the experiment among a group of 399 African American men afflicted with syphilis unknowingly from 1930s to 1970. Although there is no evidence that in today’s social research these kind of cases still exist there may be situation when researcher’s interest are over the participant´s interests.

2. Deception. When a field interviewer misrepresents the true purpose of research it is considered deception. The participant lies to participants to obtain information he/she could not otherwise obtain. It may happen when, for example, the interviewer pretends he/she is a student in a certain subject in order to obtain critical information about a competitor.

3. Overlook informed consent. Researcher should obtain an informed consent of participants. “Informed consent” means that an individual or community understands what is going to happen if they agree to take part of a social experiment or be interviewed for a study or survey. Researchers have to entirely inform subjects about what they will be taking, the risks of participation and non-participation, and how the data generated from the study will be used (ie, the findings might be published in an academic journal and promoted in a newspaper). The trick to informed consent is that it has to be meaningful (Seay, 2014). It’s not enough to just tell subjects about the study; they need to understand what that means, and to be capable of saying or signing a document saying, “Yes, I understand, and I’m still willing to participate.” This leads us to a second major concern for ethical research: the treatment of vulnerable populations. There are some groups of people who by definition are unable to give meaningful informed consent. These include children, institutionalized persons (prisoners and those confined to mental health institutions), and anyone else who might not be capable of understanding the full implications of their decision to participate in a study.
Furthermore, the publication of information from personal interviews or focus group must either obtain the explicit consent of the people involved or omit personal details to protect identities. In case the participant recognizes himself or herself in the publication and feels unpleasant, researcher may be in trouble.
4. Harm people in collecting data. The interviewer’s questions may confront people with sensitive issues, like the severity of illness or the lack of prospect in their future life. In some cases, it may produce an internal crisis for these people. It is an ethical responsibility reflects about taking such risks for the sake of the research.

5. Personal data protection. The danger of misuse personal data has led government to increase legislation on this issue. A good example is the implementation of the European Union Directive 95/46/EC. This provides protection for individuals in relation to the processing, storing and movement of data. As a researcher, one may face this kind of situations, especially as to personal data of potential participants in focus group. Market research companies usually own their own dataset with potential participants. To communicate with then, details as address or phone number must be stored. For this reason, it is recommendable to compliance the current legislation. As long as personal information is processed and stored in the research’s computer, a number of legal rules must be compliance.Finally, research ethics has a lot to do with reflection and sensitiveness. Apart from the formal rules and norms, safeguard participants’ interest requires a constant exercise of reflection and sensitiveness from the researcher. A good way to do so is try to take participants’ role and think from their perspective. How would one feel?


Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

NIH, Protecting Human Research Participants, p.11-13;

Seay, Laura. “Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serumThe Washington Post 6 August 2014:

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data. Sage Publications Limited.