In general terms, academic research falls into two definitional brackets, qualitative and quantitative. The latter denotes systematic empirical investigation, using mathematical, statistical or computational methods. As the term implies, quantitative research concerns quantities, numbers, numerical information which may be submitted to mathematical models and theories, allowing a degree of objective measurement across samples. Qualitative research, on the other hand, relates to qualities, the properties and characteristics of a given phenomenon; it resultantly compasses an interpretive dimension, a way of assigning meaning to those trends which quantitative data can locate and define but not explain. Qualitative research consequently lends itself to subjective and discursive analyses: affording more explanatory depth in critique than its quantity-oriented counterpart. A simple way of understanding this distinction is to consider that quantitative research may tell you what is happening (that, for example, 10% of the population is unemployed), while qualitative research helps explains why it is happening (prohibitive illness, deficit in jobs market, institutional discrimination, and so on).
Qualitative Reports, then, imply a subjective dimension that fits with an interpretivist research paradigm – the idea that the material world is best understood with reference to the meaning ascribed to it in various human interactions. A Qualitative Report seeks out the underlying socially-constructed meaning by which material phenomena are understood; in so doing, Qualitative Reports reflect a specific research paradigm, that all knowledge of “reality” is, in effect, a social construction. This paradigm is highly common in contemporary academia and underlies, for instance, the positivist and constructivist viewpoints, as an epistemological fundamental. In discussing epistemology we are referring to the nature of knowledge itself, its origins, limits and implications. In composing a Qualitative Report it therefore follows one is espousing a certain kind of world view, with its own associated beliefs and values. In particular, qualitative research places an onus on the abstract symbolic level of reality, on subjective experience and the potential for multiple interpretations of that experience: as opposed to seeking out one unitary “objective” reality, per se. A Qualitative Report speaks to the complexities and ambiguities at work in mediating people's experiences of social reality, accommodating the diversity of popular experience. Qualitative methodology allows for an event, observation or activity to be viewed as encapsulating multiple “realities”. Hence the qualitative research paradigm contrasts with the normative assumptions of quantitative research: which hold that reality does exist in some objective fashion and thus awaits only the appropriate critical tools, to be unearthed. A Qualitative Report instead looks to the way the aggregate of individual experience within a society serve, em masse, to effect consensual beliefs. These shared beliefs are taken to reflect “reality” but in fact are best thought of as commonly shared codes, a mutual symbolic register which is referred to in decoding everyday experience. Qualitative Reports thus possess a scope as vast as human experience is diverse, which is why they are used in a broad range of subjects and for a variety of reasons.
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