1.7 Types of research

Research is a formal, evidence-based approach to learning or creating new information. Broadly speaking, the two main types of research are qualitative and quantitative research.

These two types of research are different and complementary (Table 1.1, which is a gross generalisation!).

TABLE 1.1: Comparing qualitative and quantitative research
Qualitative Aspect Quantitative
Feelings, opinions What Objective data
Suggest hypotheses Why Tests hypotheses
Detailed Conclusions General
Words, pictures, … Data Numbers, statistics
Small number Size Can be large numbers
Time-consuming Time More efficient
Rarely generalisable Applicability Sometimes generalisable
Interviews, focus groups, diaries Examples Experiments, surveys measurements

Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, and both can be, and often are, used together: using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research is called mixed methods research.

The decision to use qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods approaches should depend on the research problem, not the skills of the researchers.

Broadly, qualitative research leads to a deeper understanding of what is being studied, usually about a very narrowly-defined group. Meanings, motivations, opinions or themes often emerge from qualitative research.

Broadly, quantitative research summarises and analyses data using numerical methods, such as averages and percentages. Typically, information from a subset of the population (a sample) is used to infer information about a larger group (a population) in quantitative research.

… quantitative data gets you the numbers to… [support] the broad general points of your research. Qualitative data brings you the details and the depth to understand their full implications.

— SurveyMonkey website, October 2019.

Definition 1.3 (Quantitative research) Quantitative research summarises and analyses data using numerical methods, such as producing averages and percentages.
This book focuses on quantitative research.

Approaches to qualitative research (Robson 2002) include grounded theory, action research, and ethnography. Specific examples of quantitative research approaches include observational studies and experimental studies.

Example 1.1 (Types of research) Suppose we wish to learn about why people do or do not buy electric cars (for example, see Egbue and Long (2012)).

A qualitative research study might:

  • Interview a small group of people who have bought electric cars,
  • Interview another small group of people who have bought non-electric cars.

The researchers ask about their reasons for their car purchase.

A quantitative research study might survey a large number of buyers of electric and non-electric cars, and ask the buyers’ age, sex, and type of car purchased.

The survey may include questions such as ‘Which of the following is your biggest concern about buying an electric car?’ and then list five reasons from which the respondents can select.

The survey responses could be analysed by numerically summarising the ages and sex of car buyers, looking for relationships between age and whether an electric car was purchased, and reporting the percentage of respondents who select each of the five options of concerns about buying electric cars.

A mixed methods study may initially use a qualitative approach using small groups (as described above). From this study, any common themes that emerge could be used to create a survey, with these themes as options that respondents can choose between.

The survey may also include open-ended questions such as ‘What is the biggest impediment to the uptake of electric cars in Australia?’ The survey can be sent to a large number of car buyers, and analysed using qualitative and quantitative methods. This may be followed up by a small focus group (a form of qualitative research) of car owners.


Egbue O, Long S. Barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles: An analysis of consumer attitudes and perceptions. Energy Policy. Elsevier; 2012;48:717–29.
Robson C. Real world research. Second. Blackwell Publishing; 2002.