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The Debate about Quantitative and Qualitative Research: A Question of Method or

Author(s): Alan Bryman
Reviewed work(s):
Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 75-92
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science
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Alan Bryman

The debate about quantitativeand

qualitativeresearch:a questionof method
or epistemology?

The maindimensionsof the debateaboutthe relativecharacteristics

and merits of quantitativeand qualitativemethodology are outlined, emphasizingthe philosophicalissues which underpinmuch
of the discussion.A distinctionis drawnbetween epistemological
and technicalissues in relationto the controversy.Threeareasare
then selected which demonstratea tendency for the debate to
oscillate between epistemologicaland technical modes of expression. The question is raised as to whether it is possible to
establish a clear symmetry between epistemologicalpositions
(e.g. phenomenology, positivism) and associated techniques of
social research (e.g. participantobservation,social survey). The
conclusion is sceptical about the extent to which a neat correspondencecan currentlybe established.
Over the past fifteen years, the debate over the relative virtuesof
quantitative and qualitativemethodology has gained considerable
impetus. While the exact constitution of the two methodologies
varies somewhat from author to author or is defined with varying
degrees of specificity, there is substantial agreement about the
fundamental antinomies and their practical implications for the
conduct of research.One of the difficulties,however,in representing
the divergenciesbetween the two methodologies, derives from a
tendency for philosophicalissues and technicalissues to be treated
simultaneouslyand occasionallyto be confused.Philosophicalissues
relate to questionsof epistemology,i.e. the appropriatefoundation
for the study of society andits manifestations.By contrast,technical
issuesbespeakthe considerationof the superiorityor appropriateness
of methods of researchin relation to one another. Much of the
recent methodologicalliteraturesees the latter as derivingfrom the
TheBritishJournalof Sociology VolumeXXXV NumberI


Alan Bryman

former,i.e. the choice of a particularepistemologicalbaseleadsto a

preference for a particularmethod on the grounds of its greater
appropriatenessgiven the precedingphilosophicaldeliberations.As
we shall see, the two forms of argumentoccasionallybecome confused with each other, and this is particularlyso when writershave
soughtto articulatethe relationshipsbetweenthe two methodologies.
In addressingthese issues the term 'methodolotgy'
as quantitativeor qualitative,will referto an epistemologicalposition;
'method'and 'technique'will be used synonymouslyto referto ways
of gatheringdata. As such, 'method' and 'methodology' indicate
different levels of analysis, and since the two terms are often used
interchangeablylit is of considerableimportanceto distinguishthe
relevantrealmsof discourse.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was not uncommonto find discussions
of the relative advantagesand disadvantagesof social surveysand
participationobservation.2A solution to many of the discussions
seemed to lie in Trow's apparentlysound advice that 'the problem
under investigationproperlydictates the methodsof investigation'.3
This is a highly seductive solution in that it would appear that
whoever argues against it is likely to be implying the absolute
superiority of one particulartechnique, a position that requiresa
good deal of confidence in one's choice. In more recent years, the
nature of the debate seems to have changedsomewhatin that discussions centre upon comparisonsof quantitativeand qualitative
methods or methodologies. A prominent feature has been the
emergenceof textbooks dealingalmost exclusivelywith qualitative
methods,4 along with journals which focus exclusively on data
drawn from these methods (notably QualitativeSociology, Urban
Life and Anthropologyand EducationQuarterly),as well as special
issues of journals with a more general readershipdevoted to discussions of qualitativemethods.S In large part, these expositions
comprise a contrast between the two forms of methodology by
writers who either are themselvesusersof qualitativemethodology
or are rather sympatheticto it. Quantitativemethodologistsseem
rarelyto write about the natureof theirresearchactivityin contrast
to plausiblealternatives.Much of our currentunderstandingabout
the fundamentalsof quantitativemethodologyand its epistemological
distinctness from qualitative methodology derives from writers
within the latter tradition.This is not to suggestthat the depiction
of quantitativemethodology is necessarilyinaccurate;indeed many
of the expositionsreveala very clear understandingof (albeita lack
of sympathy with) its essential characteristics.The distinction
between quantitativeand qualitativemethodology has been elaborated not only in sociology, but also in related fields such as
evaluation research,6 educational research7 and organizational

The debateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch


In some eases writers have ehosen not to use the quantitative/

qualitativedistinetionand have insteadused terms whieh have been
used as synonyms. The terms 'positivist' and 'empirieist' often
denote the same fundamental approaeh as 'quantitative',while
'naturalistie' field researeh, 'ethnographie', 'interpretivist', and
'eonstruetivist'are sometimesused instead of 'qualitative'.9Whatever the nomenelature,what is inereasinglyapparentin the literature
dealing with researehmethodology is a tendeney to talk about the
distinetivenessof (and oeeasionallyeompatibilitybetween) quantitative and qualitativemethodologiesas againstpartieularteehniques.
Whethersurveysare 'better' than partieipantobservationseems to
have beeome a question that is rarely addressed.Whetherthis is a
signifieantshift in emphasisand some of its eonsequeneesare the
foei of this paper.

Quantitativemethodology is routinely depieted as an approaehto

the eonduet of soeial researehwhieh appliesa naturalseienee, and
in partieulara positivist, approaehto soeial phenomena.The paraphernaliaof positivismare eharaeterizedtypieallyin the methodologieal literature as exhibiting a preoeeupationwith operationaldefinitions, objeetivity,replieability,eausality,and the like.10The soeial
survey is typieally seen as the preferredinstrument of researeh
within this tradition beeause it ean apparentlybe readily adapted
to sueh eoneerns. Through questionnaireitems eoneepts ean be
operationalized;objeetivity is maintainedby the distanee between
observerand observedalong with the possibilityof externaleheeks
upon one's questionnaire;replication ean be earried out by employinstgthe same researehinstrumentin another eontext; and the
problem of causality has been eased by the emergence of path
analysis and relatedregressiontechniquesto which surveysare well
suited. Researchof this kind is frequentlydeseribedas beingpositisist
or empiricist.In attributingto it labels of this kind an essentially
epistemologiealpoint is being made, namely that researehof this
genre is underpinnedby a distinctive theory of what should pass
as warrantableknowledge.Surveysare seen as instrumentsfor the
elucidation of researehwhich makes sueh epistemologicalassumptions, though experimentaldesigns and seeondaryanalyses of precollected data are also often recognized as exhibiting the same
QualitativemethodoloXJdiffers in a number of ways. The sine
qua non is a commitmentto seeingthe social world fromthe point of
view of the actor,a themewhichis rarelyomittedfrommethodological


Alan Bryman

writingswithin this tradition.Clearstatementsof this emphasiscan

be discernedin a broadrangeof writings.ll Becauseof the commitment to see throughthe eyes of one's subjectsclose involvementis
advocated. There is a simultaneousexpressionof preferencefor a
contextual understandingso that behaviouris to be understoodin
the context of meaningsystems employed by a particulargroup or
society.l2 Qualitativeresearchis deemedto be much more fluidand
flexible than quantitativeresearchin that it emphasizesdiscovering
novel or unanticipatedfindingsandthe possibilityof alteringresearch
plans in response to such serendipitousoccurrences.l3This is contrastedsharplywith the quantitativemethodologist'sresearchdesign
with its emphasisupon fixed measurements,hypothesis(or hunch)
testing, and a much less protractedform of fieldworkinvolvement.
The philosophical underpinningsof qtlalitativemethodology are
typically attributedto phenomenology,14 Verstehen
1 5 and symbolic
interactionism.l6Many of these writersview the phenomenolosgical
theme as the most fundamentalone, symbolic interactionismand
Verstehen being prominent examples of its basic premises. The
contrastwith what is variouslycalledpositivismand a naturalscience
approachis ever present among these writers.The point about the
phenomenologicalposition is that it takes the actor's perspective
as the empiricalpoint of departure.Positivistapproachesare taken
to exhibit a tendency for the researcherto view events from the
outside and from the point of view of a clusterof empiricalconcerns
which are imposed upon social reality with little referenceto the
meaning of the observationsto the subject of investigation.While
the possibilitiesof phenomenologically-based
occasionally questioned,l7 influential writers like Schutz clearly
left open the possibility of such a perspectiveby claimingthat it
may be necessary to 'abandon the strictly phenomenological
method'l8 in order to carry out the study of the social world. His
contrast between a naturalscience approachwhich sees people as
inert and a phenomenologicalapproachwhich seeks to focus upon
the lived experienceof peoplel9 providesa key-noteof this tradition.
In order to proceed with researchinto the social world which is
informedby epistemolotpcalprinciplesof this kind, researchmethods
are necessary which facilitate an inside view. Unstructuredinterviewingand life histories(the latterto a lesserextent) are frequently
mentionedas providingappropriatevehicles,but aboveall participant
observationis the most favouredtechnique.'Participantobservation'
is a ratherbroad term, in that not only does it encapsulatea wide
rangeof observationalpractices,it is also used to denote a fieldwork
strategy which includes generalinterviewing,usually of a relatively
unstructuredkind, the perusalof documents, and the interviewing
of key informants.But it is the ability of the participantobserver
to get close to his subjectsand so see the worldfrom theirperspective

Thedebateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch


that is its chief attraction.In so doing qualitativeresearchersproduce

data which they often call 'rich'20by which is meant data with a
great deal of depth. Survey data are typically seen as deficient in
this respect for they provide superficial evidence on the social
world, winkling out the causal relationshipsbetween arbitrarily
chosen variableswhich have little or no meaningto those individuals
whose social worlds they aremeantto represent.Blumer's2lcritique
of 'variableanalysis'still stands as one of the most incisiveattacks
on such research, and is widely accepted within the qualitative
What is clear from the variousdiscussionsabout these two methodologies is that they are being explicated at an epistemological
level and an attempt is then made to establisha link betweenit and
a technicallevel, i.e. the practiceof socialresearch.The epistemological nature of the discussionis occasionallyreinforcedby recourseto
the term 'paradigm'-usually in a Kuhniansense-to denote the
two traditions.22In so far as paradigmsare meant to be incommensurable, then it is even clearerthat two divergentepistemological
bases are being expounded.In the context of this kind of discussion
the question of techniquesof investigationis no longerwhetherA is
'better' than B, but is A the appropriatetechnique in terms of a
particularset of epistemologicalpremisesX? Proponentsof qualitative
methodology justify their preference for participant observation
by reference to its ability to meet a prior set of epistemological
requirements,which have been summarisedbrieflyabove.The social
surveyis seen as relevantto a differentintellectualtradition,i.e. one
informed by the preoccupationsof a natural science approach.
As Johnson has argued,the revivalof interest in participantobservation and field research 'is related to the abstract intellectual
debates in a very fundamentalway'.23 This implies that the surge
of interest in phenomenologicalideas, along with a resurgenceof
interest in symbolic interactionism,led to an increasein participant
observationand associatedresearchtechniques.It may also be the
case that for some social scientists,a disillusionmentwith the spread
of quantificationin researchled to a flirtationwith methods which
had often been seen as impressionistic,or unscientific,and the spread
of phenomenologicalwriting provided a ready-madejustification
for theirresearch.
The apparentlinking of more abstractphilosophicalissues with
questions of researchpractice appearsa more sophisticatedway of
treatingthe comparabilityof differentmethodsof investigationthan
a direct juxtaposition in terms of relative superiority.It is also
apparent that the notion of the 'appropriateness'of a particular
method is different.In Trow'swidely quoted observation(see above)
it is the problemthat determinesthe techniqueto be employed. It
is not preciselyclear what this means,but the notion of a problem



doesnot seem to includethe more philosophicaldeliberations
is not
been in operationin recent
somuch a problemthat determines
buta prior intellectualcommitmentto a philosophicalposition.
is then presumably
This suggestion also makes some sense in terms of
theindividualbiographiesof many socialresearchers,most of whom
doseem to be weddedto a particularresearchtechniqueor tradition.
Fewresearcherstraversethe epistemologicalhiatus which opens
betweenthe researchtraditions.
One peculiarityof the variouswritingswhich have spawnedthese
debatesis the fact that it is the terms'quantitative'and 'qualitative'
whichare used as symbols or referencepoints for the intellectual
Yet the question of the presence or absence of
data is but a superficialmanifestationof the underlying
issues. Indeed, neither directly signifiesthe clusters
of commitmentsfor which they are presVmedto stand. There
somequalitativematerial;while many participantobserversemploy
a modicum of quantitativeevidence in their research,albeit of
rudimentarykind, or
terms,as Gans24calls them. Whilesuch considerationsof degree
it is this particulardimension of the debate that is taken as

distincIt has been observedabove that the quantitative/qualitative

tion has become one whichin largepart derivesfrom epistemological
issues and that questions of researchtechnique are taken to
systematicallyrelated to these issues. This seems
different form of argument from that which takes place when
writers distinguishbetween methods or techniques.Trow's dictum
to a
that problems determine methods is essentially a reference only
technical rather than an epistemologicalissue. It
that one techniquecan never be inherentlysuperiorto its supposed
alternatives,but also that a techniqueis likely to be more useful to
some contexts than others. Others, like Zelditch2s
systematizesuch considerationsby delineatingthe linkagesbetween
objects and techniques.An example of the object-techniquenexus
can be discernedin the suggestionby Warwickand Liningerthat:
The samplesurveyis an appropriateand useful meansof gathering
informationunderthreeconditions;when the goalsof the research

and qualitativerssearch
about quant-itative


call for quantitativedata, when the informationsought is reasonably specific and familiar to the respondents, and when the
researcherhimself has considerableprior knowledgeof particular
problems and the range of responses likely to emerge. All of
these conditions are met in the areasof researchthat have been
the traditionalstrongholdsof the survey-- publicopinionbvoting,
attitudesand beliefs,and economicbehaviour.
Participantobservationis usually more appropriatewhen the
study requires an examination of complex social relationships
or intricate patterns of interaction; ... when the investigator
desires first-hand behavioural information on certain social
processes,such as leadershipand influence in a smallgroup;when
a majorgoal of the study is to constructa qualitativecontextual
picture of a certain situation or flow of events; and when it is
necessary to infer latent value patterns or belief systems from
such behaviour as ceremonialpostures, gestures, dances, facial
expressionsor subtleintlectionsof the voice.26
Such argumentsare 'technical'in that they simplyseek to demarcate
those substantiveissues or domainsin which particularmethods of
investigationare appropriateor inappropriate.Thereis a myriadof
technical reasonswhy participantobservationis preferableto social
surveysin such a sense or vice versa.The final lines of Gans'classic
studyor the Levittownerstell the readerthat 'Themail questionnaires
and interviewsprovidedmore systematicallycollected data and are
thus more scientific in one sense, althoughless so in another, for
they can only reportwhat people say they do and feel, andnot erhat
a researcherhas seen them say, do and feel'.27 In other words, the
gap between word and deed maE give participantobservationa
technical edge over a survey, particularlywrhenthe possibilityof a
disjuncture may be problematic. In another classic participant
observer study, Whyte28 notes that a questionnaireto delineate
the distributionof the attitudesof racketeersis not a feasibleundertaking.Considerationsof these kinds are boundup with researchers'
judgments about technical viability and are quite distinct from
philosophicaldebateswllich arguefor the superiorityof a particular
epistemological bedrock from which considerations of method
then emerge.
The more recent mode of discussingmethods of investigationin
terms of appropriateknowledgebases occasionallyloses sight of its
position by vacillatingbetween an epistemologicallevel or mode of
discussionon the one hand and a technicalone on the other. This
reveals itself in three main areas each of which forms the subject
of the subsequentsections.
(i) Techniqueand Sensitivity One of the argumentsthat is often

Alan Bryman

in supportof
qualitativemethodologyis that
its associated
to the complexitiesof
than quantitative
methods which tend to ride
enigmatic quality. The quest
over their
indicators(and abstractcausal for directly observablequantitative
relationshipsamongthem) which
imposedupon an
underlyingphenomena in their social reality neither capturesthe
of their contextual complexity nor facilitates an
involvement,however, provides significance.Prolongedand close
empiricalleverageupon such
cerns.This form of
conreasoningrevealsitself in
drawnfrom an
two comparisons,both
context, between research
ineach of the
articulatedin this paper.
endof an articletraditions
Light,29at the
highly supportiveof the
arepoor predictorsofwhich found that the schools childrenattacks
achievement.The researchwas a attend
piece of
attemptedto sift out relevant
variableswhich were
expressedas operational
Lightcontraststhis study
a recentstudyfrom
England3l. . . systematically
in schools and came
to very different
moreholistic data it
With richer,
found that schoolsmadean
encein the proportion
differof studentswho passed
got arrestedfor
nationalexams or
Whilethe investigators
output data, they also
went into the schools
to find out what
successesand failuresof the
trast.In contrast to the
conwhichtried to analyse a wastefully expensive ColemanReport,
programmeby isolatinga few
from the
anddiscoveredkey whole, the Britishstudy examinedthe whole
dimensionsof educational
programsthat only
observationovertime could
second examplederives
from a monograph
written by Patton33
forms part of a series
on Evaluationwhose producedby the North Dakota Study
work has
useful since, in additionto been describedby Mishleras
outliningsome of the crucial
and methodological
approaches,they also specify the positivist
methods for
phenomenologicalresearch'.34In the
and qualitative
methodologyas opposing
and their philosophical
underpinnings.In a chapterwhich
to explicate the
of the two
heavily on a study by
which sought
to evaluatethe
out the educational schools. Such projectsaim to widen
and child environmentto enhancethe developmentof
The complexity of the interactionsas well as among
psychological processes within

Thedebateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch


children, and their pedagogicalramifications,are given considerable

attention. In line with manyother studiesof educationalinnovation,
when statisticalcomparisonson test scoreswere carriedout between
children undergoingthe programmeand those not, there were no
discernibledifferences.Shapiroalso carriedout a more qualitative
investigationbased upon the observationof childrenin classrooms.
These studies, by contrast, found 'the quality of relationshipbetween teacherand childrenand amongthe children,the varietyand
interest of the curriculum,and the generalatmosphereof the classroom were notably different'.36Pattonarguesthat Shapiro'sanalysis
demonstrateshow 'quantitative methodologicalproceduresdetermined the results'.37 Similarly Light observed in his ColemanRutter comparisonthat the former's'methoddeterminedwhat was

In spite of the fact that both writersseem convinced that they

understandwell the implicationsof these comparisons,their implications are less clearin the context of the issues being addressedin
this paper.Both writershave a point. One cannothelp but be uneasy
when studies emerge with discrepant results which seem to be
attributableto the methods employed. Even more so when it is
rememberedthat the practical issues and irnplicationsat stake in
these examples are ones of great mapnitude.But two problems
remain. First, how is one to 'know' which is the 'correct'analysis?
Both Light and Shapiro(and Patton) opt for the qualitativestudies,
presumablybecause the closer involvementof researchersin such
studies yield 'richer', more complete data. But these are rather
subjectiverules of inferenceand it may be that there are occasions
when the close involvementof the researcherobscures a different
range or level of phenomena.Second, what does all this have to do
with the clash between positivismand phenomenologywhich is of
considerableinterest to both Light and Patton? If it is true that
educational innovations do make a difference and that qualitative
researchbetter equips the researcherfor such inferences, then an
important methodologicalpoint is being establishedat a technical
rather than an epistemologicallevel. All that is being said is that,
as Patton seems to observe,39the researchtechnique must fit the
problemat hand. Why,then, all this talk of the divergentphilosophical bases of the two methodologies?They are quite redundantto
the question of the suitability of one techniqueas againstanother
in terms of solving a researchproblem. If the researchproblem is
one which directly emanates from a particularepistemological
position then the question of the appropriatenessof a research
technique is significant, for the technique must properly reflect
the epistemologicalframeworkin which the researchis embedded.
If the problem is one such as those mentioned here (e.g. does a
particulareducationalinnovationresult in a numberof anticipated


Alan Bryman

benefits?),then the issue of the epistemologicalstatusof techniques

would seem to servelittle purpose.Indeed, it should be noted that
the preferencefor the qualitativestudy in both of the cases cited
above seem to be basedupon technicalratherthan epistemological
criteria. Other examples of discussionsof this kind exist in the
methodological literature in the social sciences. In terms of the
questions being addressedhere, they serve as an example of a
tendencyfor epistemologicalandtechnicalissuesto becomeconfused.
(ii) Qualitative Research as Preparation This next theme is a long-

standingone in the literatureon researchmethodology.Its fundamental pointis thatbecauseof the unstructurednatureof most qualitative
researchwith its associatedlack of specifiedhypotheses,except in
a very loose sense, qualitativeresearchis inherently exploratory.
As a result of this emphasis,the qualitativeresearcherembarkson
a voyage of discoveryratherthan one of verification,so that his or
her researchis likely to stimulatenew leads and avenuesof research
that the quantitativeresearcheris unlikely to hit upon, but which
may be used as a basisfor furtherresearch.Suchresearchwill follow
up the leads suggestedby qualitativeresearchandwill seek to confirm
or reject them using the more rigorousframeworkassociatedwith
a naturalscienceapproach,i.e. quantitativemethodology.
A concordatof this kindbetweenthe two methodologiesis clearly
attractiveto those engagedin quantitativeresearch.It providesthem
with a continuous supply of leads, hunches, or hypotheses which
they can confirm, reject, or qualify, while simultaneouslyretaininsg
their methodological ascendancy over qualitative research. Since
this position takes the view that evidencemust passa particulartype
of test prior to its acceptance,qualitativeresearchmerelyprovides
fodder for quantitativeresearchersand so occupies a lower rung on
the epistemologicalladder. However,researchersin the qualitative
mould often accept this position too. Gans in his study o f the
West End, refers to his researchas a 'reconnaissance-an initial
explorationof a communityto providean overview'and then points
out that: 'Many of the hypothesesreportedhere can eventuallybe
tested againstthe resultsof moresystematicsocialscienceresearch'.40
This view of qualitativeresearchas a preparationfor quantitative
researchis one which can be noted in a varietyof contexts, though
there are those who object too, albeitoften on technicalratherthan
Commentslike those of Gans which view qualitativeresearchers
as providersof ideas are ones which operate at a technical level,
i.e. they are talkingabout relationshipsbetweenresearchtechniques
and their associateddata. One might anticipate,however, that the
more recent writingon methodologywhichemphasisesepistemological distinctions would be less likely to exhibit a preparednessto

The debateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch


accepta rathersecondaryrole in the overallresearchprocess.Lofland

in a book which seeks to distinFish the two methodologiesand to
delineatetheir epistemologicalunderpinningsobserves:'Quarltitative
studies serveprimarilyto firmup and modify knowledgefirst gained
in a fundamentallyqualitativefashion'.42Similarobservationscan
be found in Everedand Louis's specificationof the philosophical
positions of 'inquiry from the inside' and 'inquiry from the outside',43 in the introductionby Shaffir et al. to their collection of
reminiscencesby qualitativeresearchers(though they do observe
that such research is not always preliminary),44and in Faraday
and Plummer'ssuggestionsabout the use of life histories in the
explorationof sexualbehaviour.45
The interesting feature about this perspective derives from the
distinct impressionthat can be gleanedfrom the recentmethodological literature that quantitative and qualitative methodology are
epistemologicallydistinct. Researcherswithin a qualitativetradition
have increasinglysought to present their work as an alternative
modus operandifor the conduct of social research.The suggestion
that qualitativeresearchis somethingwhichis priorto morerigorous,
hypothesis testing researchseems to belie this point. I his is so,
first becauseby diminishingthe epistemologicaldifferencesbetween
the two approachesit accepts by implication the notion of verification of unstructured research, thereby in part accepting the
positivist frameworkin which quantitativemethodologyis deemed
to be embedded.Second, in affirminga view of qualitativeresearch
as something likely to be in need of confirmationit belittles the
significanceof qualitativeresearchper se, and is indicativeof a lack
of confidencein its associatedaccount of a theory of knowledgefor
the social sciences. In these ways, evidence is found for a second
areain which technicaland epistemologicalissues drift out of alignment. While there may be technical reasons why social research
might usefully be built upon a modus operandiin which qualitative
researchprovidesinsights and hunches for empiricalconfirmation,
the philosophicalaccounts of the two approachesseem to indicate
very fundamentaldivergencesin orientationbetween the two methodologies. The suggestionthat one is or may be preparatoryto the
otherplacesboth withinthe sameepistemologicalframework.
(iiz) CombiningMet-hods The third area in which technical and
epistemologicalissues become confused is the suggestionthat both
quantitative and qualitativeresearchare best thought of as complementaryand should thereforebe mixed in researchof many kinds.
This emphasis has coincided-with the growing attention focused
upon 'triangulation'46in social reseaJch.\Shile this termis occasionally taken to refer to a broad approach in which are combined
'multiple observers,theoreticalperspectives,and methodologies',47

Alan Bryman


it generallydenotesa referenceto a combinationof researchmethods.

The point about the advocacyof combinedstrategiesis that it seems
to exudegoodsense.Whyshouldtherenot be attemptsby researchers
to capitalizeupon the strengthsof differenttechniquesand combine
them in overall researchprojects? Such a view seems to lack the
methodologicalparochialismthat is at risk when writersextol the
virtues of a particular method, while directly or inferentially
denigratingthe alternatives.
The difficulty with this thesis, in the context of the present
discussion,is that the argumentfor triangulatedstrategiesis essentially a technicalone. It impliesthat a better overallview of reality
is achievedwhen, say, a social surveyis linkedto some unstructured
questioningor participantobservation.It also enablesthe researcher
to check the possibleeccentricitiesof a particulartechniquein order
to discernwhether any inherent bias is present.Thus Whyte48has
expressed his irritation with the tendency for the two types of
researchto polarizeand has expressedhis preferencefor combining
the two strategies,thereby enjoying the fruits of each. He demonstrates the utility of employing an integratedstrategy by drawing
upon his researchinto Peruvianvillagesin which both surveysand
anthropologicaltechniqueswere employed.Anomalousresultswhich
were derivedfrom surveydatawerecross-checkedagainstqualitative
evidence,and out of this processit was possibleto makea substantial
theoreticaladvance.So Whyteasserts:'Mystrategycalls for a weaving
back and forth among methods through the various stages of
research.'49Recommendationsof this kind arebasedupon technical
considerations,namely that a superiorpiece of researchwill emerge
if techniquesare combined. This contention may well be true, but
the debates about quantitativemethodology are, as has repeatedly
been observed, epistemologicalin nature. In spite of this, many
writers who address and often acknowledgethe distinctivenessof
the two methodologiesin philosophicalterms, make pleas for the
mixingof the two.
Douglas, whose work is generally located outside the positivist
stream and who is often accreditedas one of those who has influenced the outlining of the philosophical bedrock of qualitative
methodology5tells us that:
Since all researchmethods have costs and benefits,and since they
differ greatly in their particularcosts and benefits, a researcher
generally finds it best to use some combinationor mixture of

Similarindicationscan be discernedin Agar'sintroductorybook on

ethnography,S2Wilsonin his exposition of the 'qualitative-phenomenologicalhypothesis',S3Rist when explicatingeducationalresearch
paradigms,S4and many others. Other researcherslike Sieber and

Thedebateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch


Trendss point to the cumulativeadvantagesthat accrued to their

researchby combining both quantitativeand qualitativemethods,
though the latter author is somewhat suspiciousabout the extent
to which a neat, additivedovetailingis as easy as some writersmake
it sound. In slight contrast,Myerssought to developa methodological strategy 'somewhere between ethnographicand conventional
surveymethods'.S6James in the context of her reflectionsupon the
ethnographicstudy of drug use, views such researchas 'fillingout
the gaps' and 'putting meat on the bones' of quantitativeanalyses
of these phenomena.S
7 Finally, van Maananin the preface to a
special number of the AdminzstrativeScience Quarterlyvery succinctly outlines the epistemologicalissues at stake, but then asserts
that 'qualitativeand quantitativearenot mutuallyexclusive'.S8
Many of these authors explicate the philosophicalassumptions
upon which the two methodologiesare supposed to be grounded,
while others seem to take them as 'givens'in their discussions,and
then move to a considerationof the possibility of mixing them in
pieces of research.The difficulty is that at a technicallevel methods
may be commensurableas Whyte and others have sought to show,
but at an epistemologicallevel quantitativeand qualitativemethodologies are written about as though their knowledge bases are
quite incommensurable.
Considera statementsuch as:
When we speak of 'quantitative'or 'qualitative'methodologies,
we are, in the final analyses speakingof an interrelatedset of
assumptions about the social world which are philosophical,
ideological, and epistemological. They encompass more than
The recent methodologicalliteratureis replete with views such as
this which make clear statementsabout issues which are more than
technical ones. Yet, as with the two previoussections, one finds
researchersoscillatingbetween epistemologicaland technicalmodes
of expressionand levels of analysis.In pointing to the virtuesof a
triangulatedstrategyvirtuallyall of the writerscited here, many of
whom have done a great deal to reinforcethe philosophicalissues,
move in the directionof a technicallevel. Thisis not surprisingsince
positivismand phenomenology,to take the two majorphilosophical
strands,are far apartin termsof what they view as the properstance
to be takenin relationto the social world,what is to passas warrantable knowledge,and the way in which knowledgeis accumulated.
As such, the possibility of a reconciliationindeed seems remote.
In the context of a particularstudy a researchermay perceiveareas
in which a useful contributionmight be made by both quantitative
and qualitativemethods, but it cannot be derivedfrom this that the
epistemologicalissues signified by the debate between quantitative
and qualitativemethodologiesarezpsofacto reconciled.


Alan Bryman

It may be that at the technical level the quantitative/qualitative

distinction is a rather artificial one. The arguments for trian;ulatin;
research techniques suggest this in part. But even research which
relies almost exclusively upon one mode rather than the other often
contains elements of both. Survey researchers often punctuate their
research reports with brief transcripts of the verbalizations of their
respondents. While the use of these transcripts is often to illustrate
a quantitatively established point and thereby relieve the reader
from the tedium of a large number of tables, their use is often to
give some sense of how respondents view a particular cluster of
issues. Indeed, some survey researchers seem to exhibit a commitment to the epistemology of qualitative research, in particular its
emphasis upon seeing through the respondents' eyes, yet use the
technical paraphernalia of the survey.60 In contrast, qualitative
researchers frequently make quasi-quantitative assertions, such as
'many', 'frequently', or 'some of the time'.61 While the establishment
of such implicit frequencies is far removed from the rigorous statistical techniques often associated with quantitative methodology, they
contribute to a blurring of the lines between the two styles. At the
epistemological level, the distinction is less obviously artificial since
the underlying tenets relate to fundamentally different views about
the nature of the social sciences, which have resisted reconciliation
for a very long time.62 However, a great deal of research which is
apparently either quantitative or qualitative in orientation is conducted with little, if any, recourse to such philosophical debates.
At the technical level, researchers seek to achieve a degree of congruence between a research problem and a technique, or cluster
of techniques, to answer the issue at hand. Consequently, while
the quantitative/qualitative distinction may be a useful device for
distinguishing types of technique as an organizing principle in the
context of text-books about research methods, its use as an account
of research practice is not without problems. The suggestion that
participant observers are carrying out research which is outside the
positivist mainstream often seems highly farfetched when their
research monographs are examined closely. In other words, while
the apparent debate between quantitative and qualitative methodology may have some meaning at the epistemological level, e.g.
in terms of causal adequacy as against adequacy at the level of
meaning, in the context of research practice there is no direct link
between these precepts and particular techniques, since research
typically comprises both elements. This is also a clear inference that
can be gleaned in the writings of the advocate of methodological
'triangulation'. Indeed, there may be a case for saying that techniques
are neutral in respect of epistemological issues and debates.

Thedebateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch



This paper has distinguished between technical and epistemolc)gical

levels of discussion in the literature dealing with the quantitative/
qualitative distinction. Ihree areas have been pinpointed in which
the levels of discussion become unclear, fundamentally because the
writers concerned often shuttle uneasily between epistemological
and technical spheres of discourse.
The idea that there is a link between methodology qua epistemology, on the one hand, and technical issues relating to research
method, on the other hand, is a conxention that has increased in
prominence in the last ten years or so. The basic problem with this
line of discussion, a difficulty erhich may lie behind some of the
inconsistencies which some writers have exhibited, is precisely that
it is a conxJention.There is no necessary 1:1 relationship between
methodology and technique in the practice of social research.
Snizek63 has shown, drawing upon an analysis of journal articles,
that research techniques cannot be directly extrapolated from a
knowledge of a researcher's epistemological assumptions. Similarly
Marsh64who has also sought to distinguish philosophical issues from
technieal ones, has questioned whether the survey technique is
inherently positivistic. One might equally question whether participant observation is inherently phenomenological, for it is difficult
to discern in the writings of generations of social scientists using this
technique such as \Shyte, Gans or Skolnick,65 as uTellas some of the
more recent writers, a deep preoccupation with philosophical matters.
Rather, they exhibited a concern for achieving a piece of research in
a manner that was most appropriate to the topic at hand. Indeed,
much of this work could easily be regarded as positiist, or a ariant
of it, and some writers66 have located participant observation in the
same epistemological space as the social survey. \\lhile they may hane
had a preference for a particular style of research, this preference ^ras
more likely to be a personal one, often deriving from their training.
It may be that this is not a good reason for choosing a particular
research method, but it does suggest that attempting to relate
questions of method to philosophical debates in the manner of
many recent authors fail to supply a sufficiently accurate account
of the research process. It may also be that we are witnessing the
classic confusion of 'is' and 'ought', namely that mans writers feel
that the choice of method should be taken in the light of an appreciation of philosophical contexts, but this is not what they appear to
be saying. Their argument seems to be that quantitative and qualitative methodology (and their Xarious synonyms) are or exhibit
distinctive epistemologies and that particular methods of research
are appropriate to each. The argument of this article is that, while
these are highly stimulating suggestions, they need to be subjected


Alan Bryman

to considerableinvestigationbefore they can be consideredaxioms

of researchin the socialsciences.
Departmentof SocialSciences

1 J. Buchler, The Conceptof Method,

New York, ColumbiaUniversityPress,
1961, p. 126.
2 For example, H. S. Becker and
B. Geer, 'Participantobservationand
interviewing: a comparison', Human
Organization, no. 3, vol. 16, Fall,
1957, pp. 28-32; M. Zelditch, 'Some
methodological problems of field
studies', American Journal of Sociology, vol. 67, no. 5, March 1962,
pp. 566-76.
3 M. Trow, 'Comment on participant observation and interviewing',
Human Organization,vol. 16, no. 3,
Fall 1957, p.33.
4 Prominent examples are: W.J.
Filstead, Qualitative Methodology:
FirsthandInvolvement with the Social
World, Chicago, Markham, 1970;
J. Lofland, Analyzing Social Settings,
Belmont, Wadsworth,1971; R. Bogdan
and S. J. Taylor, Introduction to
Qualitative Research Methods, New
York, Wiley, 1976; J. D. Douglas,
InvestigativeSocial Research,Beverley
Hills, Sage, 1976; H. Schwartz and
J. Jacobs, Qualitative Sociology: A
Method to the Madness, New York,
Free Press, 1979; W. B. Shaffir,
R. A. Stebbins, and A. Turowetz,
Fieldwork Experience: Qualitative
Approaches to Social Research, New
York, St Martin'sPress, 1981.
5 In particular, Administrative
Science Quarterly, vol. 24, no 4,
December 1979 and Sociological Review, vol. 27, no. 4, November 1979.
6 M. Q. Patton, Alternative Evaluation ResearchParadigms,N. Dakota,
University of North Dakota Press,

7 R. C. Rist, 'Overview- on the

relations among educational research
paradigms:from disdain to detente',
Anthropology and Education Quarterly, vol. 8, 1977, pp. 42-9 and
A. J. Magoon, 'Constructivist approaches in educational research',
Review of Educational Research, vol.
47, no. 4, Fall 1977, pp. 651-93.
8 R. Evered and M. R. Louis,
'Alternativeperspectivesin the organizational sciences: "Inquiry from the
inside" and "Inquiry from the outside"', Academy of ManagementReview, vol. 6, no. 3, 1981, pp. 585-95.
9 For example, F. W. Lutz and
M. A. Ramsay, 'The use of anthropological field methods in education',
Educational Researcher,vol. 3, November 1974, pp.5-9; Magoon,op. cit.;
Douglas op. cit.; S. Wilson, 'The use
of ethnographic techniques in educational research', Review of Educational Research, vol. 47, no. 1,
Winter1977, pp. 245-65.
10 Such emphases are typically
stressed because they represent the
manifestations of positivism in sociology. More philosophical treatments
tend to stresspositivism'sfundamental
tenets, e.g. L. Kolakowski, Positivist
Philosophy, Harmondsworth,Penguin,
1972, ch. 1, or A. Giddens 'Introduction' in Positivism and Sociology,
London, Heinemann, 1974, pp. 1-22.
11 Examples are legion, with the
following being a short list from a
wide field: Wilson, op. cit., pp. 249,
259; Magoon,op. cit., p. 652; Lofland,
op. cit., pp. 4, 7; Filstead, op. cit.,
pp. 6-7; Douglas, op. cit., pp. 24,
190-1; R. M. Emerson, 'Observational

Thedebateabout quantitativeand qualitativeresearch

Field Work', Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 7, 1981, pp. 351-7; M. H.
Agar, 17zeProfessional Stranger,New
York, Academic Press, 1980, p. 194;
J . S. Spradley,Participant Observation,
New York, Holt, Rinehart and
Winston,1980, p. 194.
12 E. G. Mishler, 'Meaningin context: is there any other kind?Harvard
Educational Review, vol. 49, no. 1,
February 1979, pp. 2, 8; J. van
Maanen, 'Reclaiming qualitative research for organizational research:
a preface', Administrative Science
01arterly, vol. 24, no. 4, December
1979, p. 520; P. Halfpenny, 'The
analysis of qualitative data', Sociological Review, vol. 27, no. 4, November 1979, p. 803.
13 B. Glaser and A. L. Strauss,
The Discovery of Grounded Theory,
Chicago, Aldine, 1967; W. B. Shaffir,
R. A. Stebbins, and A. Turowetz,
Fieldwork Experience, New York,
St. Martin'sPress, 1981, pp. 6, 7, 24;
P. Rock, The Making of Symbolic
Interactionism, London, Macmillan,
1979, pp. 183, 207; Lofland, op. cit.,
p. 76; Bogdan and Taylor, op. cit.,
p. 80; J. Irwin, 'Participant observation on criminals', in Douglas,
Research on Deviance, New York,
RandomHouse, pp. 130-1.
14 S. T. Bruyn, The Human Perspective in Sociology, New Jersey,
Prentice Hall; C. A. B. Warren,Identity and Community in the Gay
World, New York, Wiley, p. 10;
Wilson, op. cit., pp. 245-249; Mishler,
op. cit., 10-11; Rock, op. cit., pp.
192, 195; Bogdan and Taylor, op. cit.,
pp. 2,5.
15 Patton, op. cit., p. 19; Filstead,
op. cit., p. 4; Warren,op. cit., p. 160;
Bogdan and Taylor, op. cit., p. 14;
A. Faraday and K. Plummer, 'Doing
life histories', Sociologzcal Review,
vol. 27, no. 4, November1979, p. 776.
16 Spradley, op. cit., pp. 8-9;
Shaffir et al., op. cit., p. 112; Rock,
op. cit., p. 178; Irwin, op. cit., p . 131;
Bogdanand Taylor, op. cit., p. 13.
17 J.L. Heap and P.A. Roth,
'On phenomenological sociology',
American Sociological Review, vol.


38, no. 3, June 1973, pp. 354-67.

18 A. Schutz, ThePhenomenology
of the Social World,London, Heinemann,p. 31.
19 A. Schutz, Collected Papers
Volume 1, The Hague, Martinus
Nijhof,1967, p. 34.
20 Emerson, op. cit., pp. 315,
360; Agar, op. cit., p. 11; Lofland,
op. cit., p. 76; Evered and Louis,
op. cit.
21 H. Blumer,'Sociologicalanalysis
and "the variable"', American Sociological Review, vol. 21, no. 6, December 1956, pp. 683-90.
22 Evered and Louis, op. cit.;
Emerson, op. cit., pp. 353, 374, 375;
Magoon, op. cit., p. 653; Patton,
op. cit., pp. 9-10; Rist, op. cit., p. 42.
23 J. M. Johnson, Doing Field
Research,New York, Free Press, 1975,
p. 3.
24 H.J. Gans, The UrbanVillagers,
Glencoe, Free Press,p. 34.
25 Zelditch, op. cit.
26 D. P. Warwickand C. A. Lininger, The Sample Survey: Theory and
Practice, New York, McGraw-Hill,
1975, pp. 9-10, as quoted with
approval in the text-book by A.
Orensteinand W. R. F. Phillips,Understanding Social Research, Boston,
Allyn and Bacon, 1978, pp. 411-12.
27 H. J. Gans, The Levittowners,
London, Allen Lane, The Penguin
Press,p. 450.
28 W. F. Whyte, Street Corner
Society, second edition, Chicago,
Universityof ChicagoPress,p. 308.
29 D. Light, 'Surface data and
deep structure: observing the organization of professional training',
AdministrativeScience 0uarterly, vol.
24, no. 4, December 1979, pp.551-9.
30 J. S. Coleman, K. Q. Campbell,
C.J. Hobson, J. McPartland, A. M.
Mood, F. D. Weinfeldand R. L. York,
Equality of EducationalOpportunity,
Washington,U.S. GovernmentPrinting
31 M. Rutter, B. Mangham, P.
Mortimore, and J. Ouston, Fifteen
Thousand Hours, Cambridge, M.A.,
HarvardUniversityPress, 1979.
32 Light, op. cit., p. 558.

33 Patton, op. cit.
34 Mishler,op. cit., p.11.
35 E. Shapiro, 'Educationalevaluation: rethinking the criteria of
competence', School Review, November 1973, pp.523-49.
36 Ibid., pp.528-9.
37 Patton, op. cit., p.15.
38 Light,op. cit.,p.558.
39 Patton, op. cit., p .14.
40 Gans, The Urban Villagers, op.
cit., p. 350.
41 For example W. F. Whyte, 'Research methods for the study of conflict and co-operation', The A merican
Sociologist, vol. 11, no. 4, November
42 Lofland, op. cit., p. 6.
43 Evered and Louis, op. cit.,
p. 390.
44 Shaffiret al., op. cit., pp. 10-11.
45 Faraday and Plummer,op. cit.,
p. 778.
46 E. J. Webb, D. T. Campbell,
R. D. Schwartz, and L. Sechrest,

Alan Bryman

M. G. Trend, 'On the reconciliation

of qualitativeandquantitativeanalyses:
a case study',HumanOrganization,vol.
37, no. 4, Winter 1978, pp. 345-54.
56 V. Myers, 'Toward a synthesis
of ethnographic and field methods',
Human Organization,vol. 36, no. 3,
Fall 1977, pp. 244-51.
57 J. James, 'Ethnography and
social problems', in Weppner,Street
Ethnography, Beverley Hills, Sage,
1977,pp.184, 193.
58 van Maanen,op. cit., p. 520.
59 Rist, op. cit., p. 62.
60 An obvious example is J. H.
Goldthorpe, D. Lockwood, F. Bechhofer, and J. Platt, The Affluent
Worker in the Class Structure, London, CambridgeUniversityPress.
61 Gans,op. cit., p. 34.
62 This is very evident in W. G.
Runciman, A Treatise on Social
Theory Volume One: The Meth.
odology of Social Theory, London,
Unobtrusive Measures: Non-reactive
63 W. E. Snizek, 'An empirical
Research in the Social Sciences,
assessment of "Sociology: A Multiple
Paradigm Science"', The American
Chicago,Rand McNally,1966.
47 N. K. Denzin, The Research Act Sociologist, vol. 11, no. 4, November
in 50 cio logy, London, Butterworth, 1976, pp. 217-19.
1970, p. 310.
64 C. Marsh, 'Problems with sur48 Whyte,op. cit.
veys: method or epistemology', Soci49 Ibid., p. 216.
ology, vol. 13, no. 2, May 1979,
50 Cf. Bogdan and Taylor, op. cit., pp. 293-305. See also C. Marsh, The
ch. 1.
Survey Method, London, Allen &
51 Douglas,op. cit., p. 30.
65 Whyte, Street Corner Society,
52 Agar,op. cit., p.53.
53 Wilson,op. cit., p. 261.
op. cit.; Gans, op. cit.; J. Skolnick,
54 Rist, op. cit., p.48.
Justice Without Trial, New York:
55 S. D. Sieber, 'The integration Wiley, 1966.
of fieldwork and survey methods',
66 For example, D. Willer and
American Journal of Sociology, vol. J. Willer,Systematic Empiricism,New
78, no. 6, May 1973, pp. 1335-59; Jersey, Prentice-Hall,1973.