Quantitative Observation: Definition And Examples

Quantitative observation is the type of observation that deals in quantifiable variables, things that you can use numbers to express. In contrast, qualitative observation focuses on the characteristics of specific events or experiences. Observation is necessary when it comes to scientific research and studies.

To gain a better understanding of the difference between qualitative observation and quantitative observation, let’s look at some examples of quantitative observation and contrast them with qualitative ones.


Why Is Observation Important?

Before going any farther, we should cover why observation is important in scientific research. Without observation, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the nature of the world. People observe the environment and activity around them, collecting information on events and phenomena. They then use the information collected (data) combined with reasoning and analysis to draw conclusions. For any scientific research to occur, the scientists must observe the participants, plants, animals, or the environment they are studying. Observation often has the goal of discovering relationships between different variables and events.

“The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Defining Qualitative And Quantitative Observations

Qualitative observation pertains to the collection of information about the quality or subjective experience of phenomena or events. A person doing qualitative observation is collecting information using his/her senses, hearing, seeing and feeling things. The subjective nature of the observations has to be taken into account.

Qualitative data is often collected on a personal level and frequently only for small groups of participants. The ability for researchers to have one on one interactions with participants allows the participants to confide in them and give them detailed descriptions of their thoughts, feelings, and sensations during the events the researchers are studying. This type of personal data collection becomes more difficult the more participants you have.

Surveys are often used in the collection of quantitative data. Photo: andibreit via Pixabay, CC0

Quantitative observation involves the collecting of data that can be quantified, expressed numerically in some form. As this form of observation deals with numbers and measurements, it’s reserved for objects or phenomena that can be tracked and measured with precision. Though the data collected by the scientist must be filtered through the scientist’s subjective experience, it’s usually said that quantitative data is objective in nature. The hard sciences, physics, chemistry, etc. usually deal with quantitative data and eschew the collection of too much qualitative data.

In order to make sense of quantitative data, a reliable system of measuring and interpreting data must be created. For this reason, scientists used standardized measurements for data. Some of these standardized measurements include degrees Fahrenheit (temperature), centimeters (distance), and liters (volume).

Examples Of Qualitative And Quantitative Data

Qualitative Statements:

  • The water is really cold.
  • The bag of potatoes is heavy.
  • The soup is very salty.

Quantitative Statements:

  • The water is 1-degree Celsius.
  • The bag of potatoes weighs 13.5 kilograms.
  • The soup is 75% salty.

Both types of observation – qualitative and quantitative – are necessary when doing research. Research, particularly research in the social or psychological sciences, often involves collecting qualitative data about people’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Both verbal and nonverbal communication is used to collect this data, and analysis of this data can give researchers context and frameworks to help them make sense of more quantitative data. Clearly though, there’s a limit to what kind of conclusions can be drawn from the gathering of only quantitative data.

Statistics are one form of quantitative data. Photo: 6689062 via Pixabay, CC0

The participants of studies involving qualitative data are frequently encouraged to answer prompts in their own words and experiments are often done in natural settings involving deception. This is frequently done because the goal of experiments by social scientists is to understand how people act in natural settings but lab settings aren’t natural settings. As you might expect, the data participants in these studies provide are often difficult to quantify.

By contrast, quantitative observations are analyzed with statistical numerical analysis techniques. This is the most common method of research for most of the sciences aside from the social sciences. Also unlike the collection of data by social scientists, large numbers of participants are typically required for the collection of data that can reveal meaningful trends or patterns. Typically the more data is collected the more sure the researchers can be that the results of their study are credible and reliable. Large data sets don’t reveal much about the individual participants of the study, but they let researchers find possibly significant trends and patterns within the general population. Data analysis on quantitative data is done after all the data is collected, whereas in qualitative data the data is often being analyzed as the data is gathered.

Remember that while qualitative and quantitative observation is are different types of observation, the combination of both types of observation can make experiments stronger. Combining both types of observation can help cancel out the weaknesses that using only one type of observation introduces. Quantitative data is good at showing trends and giving researchers numerical standards they can work with, while qualitative data helps researchers put quantitative data into context in the social sciences.

“The word ‘believe’ is a difficult thing for me. I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis. Either I know a thing, and then I know it – I don’t need to believe it.” — Carl Jung

Combining the types of observations can help researchers generate hypotheses. Hypotheses created from qualitative work can then be tested via the quantitative research method.

Summing Up – Comparisons Of Qualitative And Quantitative Observation

  • Quantitative observation is concerned with the difference in the quantities it observes, while qualitative observation is concerned with the differences in the quality of what is observed
  • Quantitative observation is the collection of objective data involving numbers and measurement, by contrast, qualitative observation involves a subjective process of data gathering.
  • Qualitative observation frequently only involves a few participants, quantitative observation usually requires large numbers of subjects or participants.
  • Qualitative observation is frequently used in the social sciences, while quantitative observations is used in most scientific research, and heavily in the physical sciences.
  • Quantitative observation frequently involves selecting a sample to represent the population, while qualitative observation usually doesn’t.
  • Qualitative observation is good for gaining data in a more in-depth and personal fashion, while quantitative data allows researchers to find general statistical trends about a population under observation.

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