There has been considerable debate concerning the philosophical issues and the relative virtues of quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research functions within an orderly material world that is independent of the observer, and that it is knowable via rational inquiry (McGarth & Johnson, 2003). It is based on the gathering of ‘facts’, stresses the importance of devising valid and reliable measurement procedures, and adopts the principles of scientific method by emphasising the importance of generalisation and replication of results. On the other hand, qualitative research functions within a naturalistic approach that aims to maintain fidelity to the real world and stresses the importance of social reality in people’s perceptions of their environment (Baum, 1995; Gray & Densten, 1998; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Morse, 2006). Each of these approaches is based on a particular paradigm, a patterned set of assumptions concerning reality (ontology), knowledge of that reality (epistemology), and the particular ways of knowing that reality (methodology) (Sale, Lohfeld & Brazil, 2002). Hence, the major contrast between the approaches is evident in the differing views concerning how social reality should be studied.
The qualitative paradigm is based on interpretivism and constructivism. Ontologically, there are multiple realities or multiple truths based on people’s constructions of reality. Reality is socially constructed and so is constantly changing (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). On an epistemological level, there is no access to reality independent of people’s minds, no external referent with which to compare claims of truth. The investigator and the object of study are interactively linked so that findings are mutually created within the context of the situation that shapes the inquiry. The emphasis of qualitative research is on process and meaning. Samples are not meant to represent large populations but, rather, small purposefully selected respondents who can provide important information (Brewer & Hunter, 1989; Greene, Caracelli & Graham, 1989; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; 2005; Howe, 1992; McGarth & Johnson, 2003; Yardley & Bishop, 2007).
In contrast, the quantitative paradigm is based on positivism characterised by empirical research, where all phenomena can be reduced to empirical indicators that represent the truth (Sale et al., 2002). The ontological position of the quantitative paradigm is that there is only one truth, an objective reality that exists independent of human perception. Epistemologically, the investigator and investigated are independent entities. Therefore, the investigator is capable of studying a phenomenon without influencing it or being influenced by it. The goal is to measure and analyse causal relationships between variables within a value-free framework. Samples sizes are much larger than those in qualitative research so that statistical methods with samples that are representative can be used (Brewer & Hunter, 1989; Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004; Morgan, 1998; Sullivan, 1998).
In quantitative research, validity is related to accuracy, relevance, and reliability of measurement; in qualitative research, the aim is not to measure, but rather to understand, represent, or explain something, usually some fairly complex social phenomenon. The concept of validity does not sit well in the qualitative research paradigm, originating as it does in the positivist tradition; however, many qualitative researchers continue to support its relevance (Guba & Lincoln, 2005; Morse, 1999). In qualitative research, an account is valid “if it represents accurately those features of the phenomena that it is intended to describe, explain or theorise” (Hammersley, 1987 p. 69). A crucial distinction between objective quantitative research and valid qualitative research is accepting that the researcher’s individual attributes and perspective have an influence on the research process (Finlay, 2002).