Literature Reviews

A brief guide for various disciplines, including social work, other social sciences, human environmental sciences, and related disciplines

Qualitative researchers TEND to:

Researchers using qualitative methods tend to:

  • think that social sciences cannot be well-studied with the same methods as natural or physical sciences
  • feel that human behavior is context-specific; therefore, behavior must be studied holistically, in situ, rather than being manipulated
  • employ an 'insider's' perspective; research tends to be personal and thereby more subjective.
  • do interviews, focus groups, field research, case studies, and conversational or content analysis.

Qualitative Research (an operational definition)

Qualitative Research: an operational description

Purpose: explain; gain insight and understanding of phenomena through intensive collection and study of narrative data

Approach: inductive; value-laden/subjective; holistic, process-oriented

Hypotheses: tentative, evolving; based on the particular study

Lit. Review: limited; may not be exhaustive

Setting: naturalistic, when and as much as possible

Sampling: for the purpose; not necessarily representative; for in-depth understanding

Measurement: narrative; ongoing

Design and Method: flexible, specified only generally; based on non-intervention, minimal disturbance, such as historical, ethnographic, or case studies

Data Collection: document collection, participant observation, informal interviews, field notes

Data Analysis: raw data is words/ ongoing; involves synthesis

Data Interpretation: tentative, reviewed on ongoing basis, speculative


  • Qualitative research with more structure and less subjectivity
  • Increased application of both strategies to the same study ("mixed methods")
  • Evidence-based practice emphasized in more fields (nursing, social work, education, and others).

Quantitative researchers TEND to:

Researchers using quantitative methods tend to:

  • think that both natural and social sciences strive to explain phenomena with confirmable theories derived from testable assumptions
  • attempt to reduce social reality to variables, in the same way as with physical reality
  • try to tightly control the variable(s) in question to see how the others are influenced.
  • Do experiments, have control groups, use blind or double-blind studies; use measures or instruments.

Quantitative Research (an operational definition)

Quantitative research: an operational description

Purpose: explain, predict or control phenomena through focused collection and analysis of numberical data

Approach: deductive; tries to be value-free/has objectives/ is outcome-oriented

Hypotheses: Specific, testable, and stated prior to study

Lit. Review: extensive; may significantly influence a particular study

Setting: controlled to the degree possible

Sampling: uses largest manageable random/randomized sample, to allow generalization of results to larger populations

Measurement: standardized, numberical; "at the end"

Design and Method: Strongly structured, specified in detail in advance; involves intervention, manipulation and control groups; descriptive, correlational, experimental

Data Collection: via instruments, surveys, experiments, semi-structured formal interviews, tests or questionnaires

Data Analysis: raw data is numbers; at end of study, usually statistical

Data Interpretation: formulated at end of study; stated as a degree of certainty


This page on qualitative and quantitative research has been adapted and expanded from a handout by Suzy Westenkirchner. Used with permission. NPG