One of the most important decisions you will face early on during your dissertation journey is whether to do a quantitative or a qualitative study. For some students, this might not seem like a difficult decision. For instance, you might be in a program where quantitative research is expected. Or you might have a chair who is only familiar with qualitative research. Sometimes circumstances like these will dictate the methodological direction of your study. In other cases, however, choosing between quantitative and qualitative may not be as clear.
If you are having difficulty determining whether to do a quantitative or a qualitative study, the first basic step you can take is to determine if your topic can even be studied quantitatively. In order to do this, first write down the concepts you are interested in studying. Although you may be interested in general concepts such as “leadership” or “emotion”, you will want to be as specific as possible when you list out your concepts. What about leadership interests you? What specific types of emotion do you want to study? If you can identify specific constructs or variables (e.g., “transformational leadership” or “depression”), that will help you even more.
Once you have written some concepts down, next you will want to do some research to determine if the concepts you listed can be studied quantitatively. Look for journal articles about the concepts and see what kinds of studies other researchers have done about those concepts. Specifically, you will want to look for instruments or measures that can quantify the concepts you intend to study. In social science research, quantitative instruments most often come in the form of questionnaires. However, other types of measures, such as behavioral (e.g., minutes spent exercising) or physiological measures (e.g., heart rate), may be available depending on your topic of study. If you are having a hard time finding quantitative measures of the concepts that interest you, that may be a sign that a qualitative study may be most appropriate for you. Qualitative methods allow researchers to study concepts that are not easily measured, or concepts that could be measured but have not been measured yet. In other words, qualitative studies can help inform researchers about how a concept could eventually be studied quantitatively.
Determining if a quantitative method is possible for your study is just an initial step to choosing your methodology. If you find that both quantitative and qualitative methods are possible for your topic, there will be other issues to consider in order to select between the two. These issues will be discussed later in Part 2, so stay tuned!
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