“Qualitative research” vs. “Quantitative research”: a false dichotomy?

Daniel Gile


            As a follow-up and further discussion of the issue taken up by Gyde Hansen’s texts in this section:

There is much talk in the social sciences literature about qualitative vs. quantitative research, the former supposedly leading to in depth-understanding of causes while the latter is essentially descriptive. In reality, much qualitative research is descriptive (for instance, when initially exploring behaviour patterns in social group), and much quantitative research is used for making inferences about causes (as is the case of experiments investigating the effects of independent variables on dependent variables). Another commonly held view is that qualitative research is exploratory, while quantitative research is conclusive. However, qualitative research can be conclusive (for instance, when asking translators why they acted in a particular way), and quantitative research can be exploratory (for instance, when investigating through citation analysis the relative impact authors/research centres have on a given discipline).

When looking carefully at actual research, one finds examples that contradict simplistic dichotomies. Ethnographic work, often cited as typical of qualitative research, uses quantitative methods, for instance when counting the frequency of occurrences of key words and sentences or measuring the length of sequences of events. Conversely, quantitative methods include qualitative components such as classifying phenomena into qualitative categories.

            Perhaps it would be more appropriate to talk of qualitative methods and quantitative methods, which may coexist to differing extents not only in the same discipline, but even in the same research project, and which complement each other - as stressed in Gyde Hansen’s texts. One question which has been puzzling me for some time is why so many TS investigators who experimented with translators and categorized and then quantified translation phenomena by frequency or ‘seriousness’ (in the case of errors and omissions) did not complement this with (qualitative) retrospective interviews. While the risks associated with such interviews are known (for instance, translators might be tempted to hide an error by explaining it away as a strategy), potential advantages, in particular confirmation of the experimenter’s interpretations of phenomena, are by no means negligible. Fortunately, the triangulation trend (implemented and promoted in particular by Gyde Hansen) has been gaining ground over the past few years.

            One advantage TS has as an emerging discipline is the freedom it can take in choosing the research methods and paradigms it prefers without much pressure from other disciplines with respect to the relative social status of this or that method. It is up to us to make use of this freedom to adopt both qualitative and quantitative components in empirical research projects depending on the needs and resource available without worrying as to whether they will be classified under the category “qualitative research” or “quantitative research”.