Environmental Studies Part 3: Quantitative Research

Social scientists are jumping into the public policy debate over environmental issues. Biodiversity, climate change and preserving the balance of life on the planet are not limited to the purview of natural scientists. They have public policy and economic issues, as well. Rising oceans threaten coastal housing, increasingly powerful storms penetrate further inland to wipe out factories and offices and deforestation threatens agriculture throughout the developing world. Social science research benefits policymakers who attempt to soften these blows and reverse the negative impacts of human decisions on the natural world.

Our two previous articles on this subject looked at empirical research and qualitative research for environmental social science. Empirical research is based on direct and indirect observation, and qualitative research looks at non-numerical data to give meaning to information. There is one more method of research we want to cover, and that’s quantitative research.

Defining Quantitative Research 

Quantitative research “emphasize(s) objective measurements and the statistical, mathematical or numerical analysis of data collected through polls, questionnaires and surveys or by manipulating pre-existing statistical data using computational techniques. Quantitative research focuses on gathering numerical data and generalizing it across groups of people or to explain a particular phenomenon.”

Like its qualitative counterpart, quantitative research locates and synthesizes data through a rigorous scientific process. The two research types diverge, however, in both their purposes and their methodologies. Quantitative research quantifies a problem through numerical data. Its purpose is to generalize results from a small sample, thus uncovering patterns of behavior. It seeks broad rather than deep knowledge.

In most cases, quantitative research begins with a hypothesis and seeks to test a theory. It builds on pre-existing concepts and established theories then uses deductive reasoning to test and refine those ideas. Quantitative reports usually contain extensive charts and graphs based on numerical data. Qualitative research, on the other hand, uses reality as its threshold and seeks to develop theories from scratch. It generates and analyzes data, and it uses inductive reasoning to produce a new concept, which usually gets expressed in a narrative fashion.

According to the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (CIRT), quantitative research “is both definitive and objective,” and it “lends itself to statistical analysis and mathematical computations.” CIRT lists five examples of quantitative data collection strategies:

  • Clinical trials and experiments
  • Surveys using closed-ended questions to collect numerical data
  • Observing and recording numerical events
  • Securing data from an information management system

Quantitative data can be either discrete or continuous. Discrete data is finite, and researchers cannot divide its variables into meaningful subunits. It typically uses integers for counts. An example of discrete data might be the number of women in environmental technology positions or the number of damaged parts in a shipment of environmentally sustainable materials to a particular country. Continuous data, on the other hand, is infinite and forms a continuum. There may be any number of variables along a line of continuous data. An example could be the amount of rainfall in a randomly selected storm.

Quantitative Research in Environmental Studies 

Social scientists who specialize in environmental studies use quantitative research to find statistical associations and measure data. In most cases, researchers combine quantitative methods with qualitative research. Research published in the NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences argues “that qualitative and quantitative datasets can . . . be linked in a sensible way based on theoretical assumptions or hypotheses that determine the focus of the research.”

Environmental social science researchers may use quantitative data such as surveys, experiments and semi-structured interviews to bolster the hypothesis that qualitative research has already laid out. Qualitative research, in turn, establishes a historical and cultural context in which the quantitative data sets begin to make sense.

Quantitative environmental science uses methods such as statistics, calculus and linear algebra to accrue and shape data. For example, a quantitative research project could seek to learn the number of North Americans who rely in part on wind, solar or nuclear energy to power their homes. An allied qualitative project might interview a sample of those North Americans to learn how much money they have saved since switching to a sustainable energy source and what their attitude is toward new sources of power.

Neither qualitative nor quantitative research is better than the other. Each has a distinct purpose and outcome, and the two can work together to create strong and actionable ideas.

Discover more about how to use quantitative research to advance your career in economics, international development, or public policy through Virginia Wesleyan University’s online environmental studies program. Our online bachelor’s program emphasizes real-world skill development along with flexibility, so you can complete your education in a format that works for you. Our expert instructors have years of experience in their fields, which means you’ll gain the knowledge you need to excel after graduation.