Questionnaires In Quantitative And Qualitative Research

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The typical questionnaire is a highly structured data collection instrument, with most items either asking about very specific pieces of information (e.g., one's address or food preference) or giving various response options for the respondent to choose from, for example by ticking a box. This makes questionnaire data particularly suited for quantitative, statistical analysis. After all, the essential characteristic of quantitative research is that it employs categories, viewpoints, and models that have been precisely defined by the researcher in advance, and numerical or directly quantifiable data are collected to determine the relationship between these categories and to test the research hypotheses.

In theory, it would be possible to devise a questionnaire that is entirely made up of truly open-ended items (e.g., "Describe your dreams for the future..."). Such an instrument would provide data that are qualitative and exploratory in nature, but this practice is usually discouraged by theoreticians. The problem with questionnaires from a qualitative perspective is that - as argued earlier - they inherently involve a somewhat superficial and relatively brief engagement with the topic on the part of the respondent. Therefore, no matter how creatively we formulate the items, they are unlikely to yield the kind of rich and sensitive description of events and participant perspectives that qualitative interpretations are grounded in. In fact, as Sudman and Bradburn (1983) assert, requests for long responses (i.e., more than a sentence as a minimum) often lead to refusals to answer the question or the entire questionnaire, and even if we get longer written answers, many of these will need to be discarded because they are uncodable or inappropriate. So, if we are seeking long and detailed personal accounts, other research methods such as a personal interview are likely to be more suitable for our purpose. Having said that, I do believe that some partially open-ended questions can play an important role in questionnaires (see Section 2.5, for a discussion), but if we want to significantly enrich questionnaire data, the most effective strategy is usually not the inclusion of too many open-ended questions but to combine the questionnaire survey with other data collection procedures (see Section 4.7).

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