Quantitative research

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Quantitative research is the kind of research that the layperson brings to mind with a stereotyped picture of the researcher, with questionnaire and clipboard, interviewing people in the street. It involves the research techniques of representative samples, questionnaires, interviewers, data processing, and so on. These are all necessary to make it possible to express the results quantitatively, with such statements as, '25 per cent of the population own ...' and '37 per cent of machine tool buyers think ...'. The word 'population' is used here in the research sense, meaning 'the whole group under consideration'. It can, therefore, refer to the human population of a country, but the 'populations' considered by management decision makers are usually more restricted than that. They may include only the buyers of the company's products, all housewives aged 16-45 or all personal digital assistant owners. The population being surveyed may be non-buyers, or potential buyers of a product or service not yet launched, and so on. The definition of the population being considered must be specifically described for the purposes of each particular research survey.

If a population is to be surveyed it would be unacceptably expensive, time-consuming and difficult to organize a census in which questions are asked of every individual in the target population. It is also unnecessary, since sampling theory makes it possible to select a limited number of respondents who are representative of the whole group, i.e. a sample. Carrying out a sample survey is cheaper, quicker and more efficient than a census, but equally effective if an appropriate procedure is used for selecting the sample. Details of sampling techniques are discussed in Chapter 7. It is important to note that as well as being representative, the sample must be sufficiently large for statistical generalizations from it to be valid. In consumer research surveys this usually means several hundred respondents, and for large surveys several thousand. Industrial and other specialized surveys often have smaller, but still adequate, samples. Questionnaires are the device used to ensure that all respondents are asked precisely the same question, so that their responses can be added together meaningfully. Questionnaire design is considered in Chapter 8, and techniques of interviewing and data processing are discussed in Chapters 9 and 10, respectively.

The outcome of the research procedure outlined is that the researcher is able to use the results from this type of sample survey to predict, with a known level of statistical accuracy, what the results would be if the whole group being considered had been asked the questions, whether that be all housewives, all drivers, all retired persons, and so on. The practical limitations of the questionnaire itself - it cannot be too long or respondents will refuse co-operation - mean that data collected this way cannot usually produce the richness of insight that comes from the qualitative approach, but the results have the great advantage of producing quantitative estimates of known reliability. When the decision to be taken is itself a quantitative one, for example, deciding on production levels for the next period, or the levels of social amenities to be provided, then quantitative research is the most appropriate route to providing information input to the decision-making process. In general, the scale of quantitative research means that it is more expensive and more time-consuming than qualitative research. A survey of 500 consumer respondents might take two to three months from commissioning to final report.

In a major study, both qualitative and quantitative approaches may be used. For example, if information is needed about a subject with which a manager is largely unfamiliar, he or she might begin with a qualitative survey. This will generate ideas and insights, and give sufficient familiarity with the area under study to make it possible to formulate a more systematic approach to data collection. It may even be possible to develop research hypotheses from qualitative research which can be tested using an experimental approach. The great advantage of initiating a research programme with qualitative methods is that little prior knowledge of the area is required. On the basis of the knowledge gained in this way, a quantitative follow-up study can be designed to measure the importance of variables identified in the initial study. Qualitative research used in this way is referred to as 'exploratory research'.

Alternatively, in an area with which the manager is already familiar, the research programme may begin with a large-scale quantitative study. In the course of this study some findings may emerge for which there is no apparent explanation. In this case, qualitative research may be used to generate explanations of findings from quantitative studies.

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