Data can be described as quantitative if it can be measured or
identified on a numerical scale. Examples include length,
height, area, volume, weight, speed, age, distance, cost and so
on. However, not all data using numbers is quantitative:
Datasets are often classified into categorical data, i.e.
using numbers as descriptors. Arithmetic performed on the
numbers describing categorical data would produce nonsensical
results, for the same reason that you cannot add 6 Acacia Road
to 12 Acacia Road to create 18 Acacia Road.
Be wary, therefore, when you consider a dataset. What exactly
do the numbers represent? If your numbers answer a question
beginning ‘how many’ or ‘how much’, you have quantitative data.
If your numbers represent groups or classes, you have
qualitative data expressed categorically. The appropriate
analytical techniques will vary accordingly.
A quantitative approach can be useful for understanding many of
the problems faced by researchers in the arts and humanities:
Numerical data can describe change over time or space; enable
linguistic analysis; underpin archaeological investigation; in
fact it can illuminate, at least to some degree, any human
process. However, a dataset is always an abstraction from the
‘real’ world and, as such, the skills of humanities researchers
can provide a vital critical perspective on their use.
Quantitative data can describe, but it takes a person to
explain. You might therefore want to supplement a quantitative
analysis with qualitative research and case studies. Or you
might take a quantitative approach to find out how
representative of the wider world your case studies are.
Quantitative data can come from all sorts of sources including
scientific instruments, social questionnaires and clinical
trials but for many humanities research datasets the provenance
is a step removed from the source. Historical research, for
example, usually relies on archival work and can involve simply
counting instances in the records. Such work has been made
easier by the digitisation of much useful material including
government and legal records and printed works dating back
centuries, though this digitisation has barely made a dent in
the totality of potential sources.