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What do "quantitative" and "qualitative" mean in sociology? 

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"Quantitative" data deals, literally, with quantities—that is, things that can be measured. Conversely, "qualitative" data deals with qualities—that is, things that can be observed and described, but not directly measured.

In sociology, quantitative data is often collected by amassing a large body of qualitative data. For instance, information about an individual's lifestyle and habits is qualitative data: it describes observations about a research subject. However, scientists collect lifestyle, habit, age, and demographic data from a large pool of subjects they can measure—for instance, how many people in a given demographic group act a certain way—and so this large data pool represents quantitative data.

Other sociological research methods are less easy to turn into quantitative data, however. An interview, for example, represents qualitative data that is difficult or impossible to compare in a large pool with other interviews in a way that would allow for it to be evaluated quantitatively.

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Quantitative research deals in hard data. This means looking at statistics and determining whether or not a data point is normal or an outlier. Quantitative research looks at numbers and is rather impersonal. It can also measure data taken from within subgroups of people in order to provide more information about a subset of society.

Qualitative data deals in more abstract concepts. Interviews with individuals is important here, as quotes can be used in order to form conclusions within a paper. Qualitative research is important because it provides a human approach to the quantitative data.

As an example, one can look at how poverty affects crime rate by looking at the relationship between poor neighborhoods and crime. This can be done with quantitative data. Interviews with individuals who are both victims and perpetrators of crimes can provide qualitative data, as one can determine whether or not poverty was a factor in the crime.

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In sociology, (and in other social sciences) the terms “quantitative” and “qualitative” refer to two different approaches to doing research.  Sociologists use one or the other, or a combination of the two, while conducting research.

Quantitative research is research that has to do with things that can be counted and statistically analyzed.  Quantitative researchers tend to use methods that can get them large amounts of data because large amounts of data are needed to make quantitative methods be statistically significant.  Therefore, quantitative researchers will do things like “crunching” numbers from census data or conducting mass surveys.  These sorts of methods get them a great deal of data which they can then analyze statistically.

Qualitative research is done on a much smaller scale.  Such researchers want to gain a deep understanding of any particular issue.  They do things like conducting one on one interviews or participant observations as a way of accomplishing this.  For example, a qualitative researcher seeking to understand the impact of race on poverty may conduct interviews with a relatively few poor people.  By interviewing them, the researcher hopes to understand how their race has affected their economic conditions.  A quantitative researcher investigating race and poverty would not do interviews but would look at census and other data to try to statistically determine the extent to which race (as opposed to other factors) causes poverty.

Again, there are researchers who use both, but quantitative and qualitative methods are the two different types of methods used in sociological research. 

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