Gathering and assessing qualitative and quantitative data

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master's in Political Management Online

When an engaged electorate goes to the polls, casting their ballots for the people they want to represent them either locally or in Washington, D.C., they choose based on conclusions drawn from gathered intelligence, which is founded in data. Generally speaking, information breaks down into one of two categories: quantitative and qualitative. Although you may not think of it in quite this way, virtually all decisions involve the collection and assessment of qualitative and quantitative data. Lawmakers use them to form policy and understand how to better speak to their constituencies.

Bespectacled women at desktop computer
The application of qualitative versus quantitative is discussed at length in Audience Research, a three-credit course in the Master’s in Political Management online program at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University. But what is qualitative data in comparison to quantitative? How do the two coincide? What do political campaign managers stand to glean from quantitative audience research versus qualitative audience research? These topic matters and much more are investigated in the GSPM curriculum.

How does qualitative versus quantitative data compare and contrast?

As its title implies, qualitative information is descriptive. Whereas quantitative is more about numbers that can be counted and measured, qualitative seeks to better understand a concept, idea or principle rather than to draw a conclusion. When qualitative data is reliable and valid, it creates the opportunity to arrive at a determination, but only after the finer details have been fully fleshed out.

Quantitative data, on the other hand, is all about conclusions. Because certain data points are definitive, such as numerical statistics, yes or no questions, vote totals or income levels, quantitative audience research allows you to make certain generalizations right away because the information collected is more structured and readily understood. Common examples of quantitative data are close-ended questions, multiple choice answers and voter surveys.

In short, quantitative data allows you to see the big picture, while qualitative data fills in the gaps. Quantitative is more matter of fact; qualitative is more idiosyncratic. Neither one is more important than the other ― they work in tandem and are complementary.

What are some real-world examples of qualitative vs. quantitative research?

Perhaps the best example of quantitative research in electoral politics is voter behavior. Every two to four years, you see maps of the U.S. that are color-coded blue or red based on which parties states voted for in the midterm or primary elections. Past voter behavior is often a predictor of future, so campaign officials will often use this type of quantifiable data to inform their strategy as to who to direct their messages toward or who may not yet have received it.

Before voters cast their ballots, though, some states may be purple, an indication that they’re somewhere in the middle. While this, too, is a form of quantifiable data, understanding why this is the case is where qualifiable data enters the equation. When politicians running for office frequent local businesses or hold town hall sessions in various communities, it’s more than to shake hands and enhance name recognition. They do it to better understand where voters are coming from — in the figurative sense of the term. The open-ended questions that town halls are known for provide candidates and their campaign managers with more specifics that typically can’t be gleaned by quantifiable data alone. Focus groups, one-on-one interviews and question-and-answer sessions allow candidates to see all sides of a given issue, which is key to form an opinion or test a hypothesis.

The classroom is another arena where qualitative data and quantitative data often coexist. Although there are many ways for teachers to determine whether students comprehend the material presented, testing is probably the most common method. Quizzes or exams frequently use a combination of quantifiable and qualitative measurements, such as true or false or multiple choice questions in the former and essay or open-ended questions for the latter. The way these complement one another give instructors a better idea of where students’ strengths are and what may require additional explanation.

Are there any downsides to qualitative vs. quantitative data?

The reason why accurate audience research hinges on both quantifiable and qualifiable data collection strategies is that each has its inherent weaknesses. Quantitative data is great to have and analyze because it tends to be simple, straightforward and readily measurable. The problem is it sometimes can be too general; after all, answers aren’t always yes or no. Statisticians and survey researchers try to account for this with “unsure” or “somewhat” answer options, but even here, they can be too vague to draw conclusions from.

Qualifiable data picks up the slack for where quantifiable data lacks. However, the unstructured nature of descriptive data can be difficult to analyze because it may not fall into defined categories, which is something that quantitative data makes up for.

Three young business people hovering over laptop

What are the expected learning outcomes of the Audience Research course?

It’s appropriate that Audience Research is in the Applied Proficiencies cluster because the class allows you to put analytical concepts into practice. Whether through small-sample interviews or focus groups (qualitative data), designing and pretesting questionnaires (quantitative data), this course will give you the tools you need to acquire political information that can be leveraged on the campaign trail. The three-credit-hour course will also delve into how surveys have been used, prioritized and relied upon in national, state and local campaign politics so you can gain historical perspective.

The GSPM curriculum and online master’s program at GW will give you the real-world skills you need to succeed, whether your ultimate career destination is inside or outside the Beltway. Find out more and what positions many of our graduates have attained since finishing their coursework.

Recommended reading:
How social media monitoring and listening can help your public affairs efforts
What does lobbying entail?