Qualitative & Quantitative Research Designs: Wading into the Stream of Consciousness

William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890) talks about Five Characters in Thought.  Number three on the list is – “Within each personal consciousness, thought is sensibly continuous.”  His idea was that, although ever-changing, consciousness “does not appear to itself chopped up in bits…[or] jointed” but rather “it flows” like a river or stream.  So, what we call someone’s cognitive experience is really, what James called, a “stream of thought” or “stream of consciousness.”

This is an important concept in qualitative and quantitative research because the underlying purpose in our designs is to understand the subjective links within each individual (consumer, BTB customer, employee, volunteer) respondent/participant.  Our attempt to ‘connect the dots’ – i.e., understand each person’s reality as it relates to the topic at hand by tapping into their stream of thought – drives our choice of mode, question development, and analysis protocol.

So, how do the most-oft used marketing research designs stack up?  How well do they reveal the streams of consciousness that have the most impact on ultimate behavior?  In 1987 (read the article), I wrote that the “classic telephone interview” falls short in its reliance on close-ended responses to prescribed questions in a structured format and that a more qualitative (specifically, in-depth interview) approach was a necessary adjunct to this and other traditional quantitative designs.  I argued that an in-depth dialog was needed “to reveal the psychological flow that results in consumer action or inaction.”  While admitting to the cost and turnaround hurdles of a qual-quant design, there are clearly benefits to be gained from a glimpse of the river of thought, carrying with it the essential ingredients – demographic, lifestyle, psychographic – that define how each individual gets to a particular consequence in consumer (business, employee, volunteer) behavior.

A lot of innovation has occurred since 1987 and researchers have increasingly embraced new ways to think about research design in marketing research.  The adoption and integration of the latest technology is an obvious example.  But one of the most important by-products of the inclusion of technology modes into our design arena is the surfacing of serious discussions and applications of multi-mode designs in the industry.  This is a good thing because multi-method designs have the potential of bringing us closer to the reality of respondents’ flow of thought.  iModerate’s Research>iMpact (now part of SAGO) that incorporates qualitative moderated interviews into quantitative studies, is just one case of hybrid research solutions that are currently on the front burner.

This is all to say that I am encouraged by our new thinking in research design and optimistic that we will use the resources and capabilities at hand to unearth the streams of consciousness that will enable us to wade nearer to human realities.


James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology, vol. 1. Dover Publications (New York, 1950).


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