As part of the roundtable on Clausewitz’s On War, Joseph Fouche makes this point regarding Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan:
One of Talebâ€™s main themes is the tendancy for specialists in any field to develop physics envy and attempt to reduce the horrifically complex phenomena that they are studying to a deterministic and mechanistic theory complete with complex equations. This doesnâ€™t lead to a higher level of truth and accuracy. It leads to a higher level of systematic self-deception and delusion. It creates financial weapons of mass destruction such as an MBA armed with a spreadsheet and the belief that manipulating rows and columns bestows the ability to prophesy. Vain is the life of man.
Joseph’s mention of ‘physics envy’ is a common put-down against quantitative research by those who enjoy qualitative research. But there is another, better, way of framing the debate: exploratory research and confirmatory research.
Confirmatory research includes the tools that most researchers think of as “quatitative,” such as analysis of variance (ANOVA), multiple regression, chi-square tests, and so on. Confirmatory research is also what we might call Popperian science, after the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper. In confirmatory research, we begin by having a research question, we translate it into null and alternate hypothesis, we device our experimentals, and attempt to reject or fail to reject our null hypothesis, as the case may be. Confirmatory research can be thought of as the process of trying to infer the parameters of a population from the statistics of a sample.
Exploratory research, on the other hand, is an attempt to understand the world so that a sensible research question can be asked in the first place. Some exploratory techniques are also quantitative. Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) and exploratory Principle Components Analysis, for instance, are exploratory statistical techniques without any null hypotheses that allow researchers to examine the various rotations of the hidden factor structure in a data set. Other exploratory techniques may be called theoretical research. In this approach, a researcher goes through large body of research to tease out hidden themes and discover gaps in existing research. Lastly, the sort of qualitative research implied by the initial questions to this problem are exploratory qualitative research. The focus is on understanding a process, rather than estimating the parameers of a population from the statistics of a sample.
While not all quantitative resarch is confirmatory, all qualitative research is exploratory. Hence the intended gist of the questions in this problem. The difference between exploratory research and confirmatory research is that the former attempts to understand a process, while the latter seeks to estimate the parameters of a population from the statistics of a sample. The first of these is always true of qualitative research. The last of these is sometimes true of qualitative research. To phrase it more simply: confirmatory reseach (that is,some of quantitative research) is driven by theory, or should be; exploratory research (that is, all qualitative research, and the rest of quantitative research) drives theory.