Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research: Adult Literacy

Graduate Studies Essay for JHR 510: Research Methods (11/24/2010)

Quantity and Quality“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose (Hurston, 1).” Throughout history, mankind’s curiosity has led to an endless quest for new knowledge. One of the most well known areas of research is that of social science, which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as “a branch of science that deals with the institutions and functioning of human society and with the interpersonal relationships of individuals as members of society.”

Within social science, there are a variety of research methods that exist, however, many argue that each of these methods can fit into one of two categories: quantitative research and qualitative research. Encyclopedia.com defines quantitative research as “research based on traditional scientific methods, which generates numerical data and usually seeks to establish causal relationships between two or more variables, using statistical methods to test the strength and significance of the relationships.” Furthermore, Encyclopedia.com defines qualitative research as “research that seeks to provide understanding of human experience, perceptions, motivations, intentions, and behaviors based on description and observation and utilizing a naturalistic interpretative approach to a subject and its contextual setting.” Historically, social science has placed more emphasis on quantitative research, as many feel this type of research provides more factual, measurable data. On the contrary, many researchers believe that quantitative methods are quite limited, and that many research questions can only be truly answered with some form of qualitative research. So how is it that research questions and evidence cited to answer questions differ between qualitative and quantitative researchers? The articles “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century” and “Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School” provide an excellent comparison of the use of quantitative and qualitative methods to address issues regarding adult literacy.

The article, “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century” is primarily quantitative. It measures the English literacy of America’s adults, breaking down literacy into three segments: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy (A First, 1). The article “Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School” takes a more qualitative approach, sharing the perspectives of 37 adult literacy students regarding their prior school experiences and why they left without graduating. The most important comparison to be made between the articles is of the research questions and research design. The function of research questions is to explain specifically what your study will attempt to learn or understand. These questions help focus the study and guide the actual research (Maxwell, 67).  In his article “Research Questions: What Do You Want to Understand?” Joseph Maxwell discusses several frameworks for developing research questions. For example, one dichotomy that exists is between generic research questions and particularistic research questions. Generic questions tend to be framed in general terms about an entire population and utilize specific sampling and data collection decisions to operationalize the results, while particularistic questions state the questions in terms of the particular case that is being analyzed and only apply the results to that specific group. (Maxwell, 70-71). The quantitative article (“A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century”) provides an excellent example of a study based on a generic research question. The study identified the literacy levels of a large sample of American adults (19,714 people) with different demographics/backgrounds, and then applied these literacy levels to the entire United States population (221,020,000 people). Some of the specific demographics analyzed were race/ethnicity, gender, age, educational attainment, employment status, and language spoken before starting school (A First, 1-15). This is common among quantitative analyses, as it is seen as an effective and practical way of analyzing the broader population. The qualitative article (“Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School”) seems to frame the questions and findings in a particularistic fashion. Within the study, author Marion Terry states “This article explores these adult students’ recollections of regular school (Terry, 31).” This places focus on these specific students, rather than generalizing the findings to a broader population. This tends to be more common in qualitative studies, as it allows the particularistic question to be answered with confidence (Maxwell, 71).

Maxwell also discusses the difference between instrumentalist research questions and realist research questions. Instrumentalists formulate their questions in terms of measurable data and prefer to stick with what they can directly verify, and tend to avoid making inferences to things that are “unobservable” (Maxwell, 72). On the other hand, realists do not assume that research questions and conclusions about feelings, beliefs, intentions, prior behavior, effects, etc, need to be reduced, or reframed as, questions and conclusions about the actual data that one collects. Instead, they treat the unobserved phenomena as real, and their data as evidence about these phenomena (Maxwell, 72-73). As in many quantitative studies, “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century” the approach seems to be aligned with instrumentalist theory. The study clearly defined each specific type of literacy (prose, document, and quantitative) and utilized a rigorously designed literacy assessment to score each subject’s literacy level (A First, 2). Also, each demographic that was used to analyze differences in literacy levels among groups was “observable.” Researchers often take this kind of approach when they want their conclusions to be “statistically valid.” “Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School” seems to use realist theory when drawing conclusions from its research. The article cites school rules, instruction, student-teacher relationships, and peer relationships as the most commons reasons the 37 students left school early (Terry, 32). While these reasons are not directly observable or measurable, the researcher draws from the students’ perceptions and emotions to help draw these conclusions. Terry also makes an interesting point, stating “These recollections of regular school are important because they were disclosed by adults looking back from a more mature and, I think, realistic perspective than they may have had at the time of dropping out (Terry, 38).” In realist fashion, rather than worrying about validity threats, or self-report bias, Terry sees these students’ special circumstances as an opportunity to draw insightful evidence regarding the research question.

Finally, Maxwell discusses a third key comparison between variance research questions and process research questions. Variance questions focus on difference and correlation (Maxwell, 74). In contrast, process questions focus on how things happen, rather than worrying whether there is a particular relationship or how much it is explained by other variables (Maxwell, 74-75). “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century” clearly sets up its research questions using a variance approach. All of the study’s conclusions draw attention to the difference in literacy levels of certain groups. For example, among ethnic groups, Hispanics scored the lowest in terms of prose, document, and quantitative literacy (A First, 1). This is common of quantitative studies, as many argue that statistical data is able to factually show that a relationship exists (Hispanics and lower literacy), and to what extent. In comparison, “Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School” frames its research using research questions that are more process oriented. Many of the conclusions regarding how and why these students left school early are centered around the entire process, the meaning of events and other people involved, and the social context of each student’s situation. For example, when discussing the impact of teacher-student relationships, the article discusses some students’ recollections of negative contacts with teachers, and how this contributed to the process of leaving school early (Terry, 35-36).

In conclusion, there are many differences that exist between quantitative and qualitative research methods. One key difference that exists is between research questions and research design. While there is certainly some overlap, the two articles referenced seem to indicate that quantitative research tends to design research around generic, instrumentalist, and variance type questions, while qualitative research is more likely to design research around questions that are more particularistic, realist, and process oriented.  While the debate of which type of methodology is best is likely to continue, it seems that quantitative and qualitative research each play an important role in mankind’s search for knowledge, and social science is better off with a balance of the two.


Works Cited

“A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century.” National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). National Center for Education Statistics. Web. 5 Oct. 2010.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Zora Neale Hurston Quotes.” Find the Famous Quotes You Need, ThinkExist.com Quotations. Web. 05 Oct. 2010. <http://thinkexist.com/quotation/research_is_formalized_curiosity-it_is_poking_and/226376.html&gt;.

Maxwell, Joseph A. “Research Questions: What Do You Want to Understand?” Qualitative Research Design 41 (2005): 65-78. Web. 4 Oct. 2010.

“Qualitative Research.” Encyclopedia.com. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O62-qualitativeresearch.html&gt;.

“Quantitative Research.” Encyclopedia.com. Web. 4 Oct. 2010. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O62-quantitativeresearch.html&gt;.

“Social Science – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 05 Oct. 2010. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/social science>.

Terry, Marion. “Through The Eyes of the Beholders: Adult Literacy Students’ Recollections of Regular School.” Educatiotial Research Quarterly 33.1 (2003): 31-41. Web. 5 Oct. 2010.

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