How People Think (Part Deux): Validity is Valid in Qualitative Research

Back in February I posted a discussion concerning “Qualitative Research & Thinking About How People Think.” In it I argued for the idea that “if cognitive principles apply in the quantitative realm then surely they apply to research forms devoted to in-depth conversations and elaborate probes that ladder to key benefits in the qualitative arena.”  I go on in that post to focus on cognitive-process theories – specifically optimization and satisficing – and how they can inform a well-designed approach to qualitative marketing research.

Let’s take this discussion one step further to include validity.  If all research is essentially about the discovery of how people think then we have to admit that our research designs are susceptible to any number of measurement errors.  And we cannot talk about measurement error without touching on (in some way) the construct of validity.  Although the idea of validity is not typically uttered in the same breath with qualitative research, the underlying goals – trustworthiness, quality, dependability – are germane to all research methods.  William Trochim and others have discussed the reluctance among qualitative researchers to accept the notion of validity, in large part because they reject the belief that there is a truth or reality by which participants’ attitudes and behavior can be judged.

But there certainly is a truth or reality associated with elements of qualitative design that can be judged and is a necessary component to the integrity of our efforts.  As one example, the focus group moderator has control of question administration by the fact that questions can be probed for clarification and mis-(or unintended) interpretations of questions can be unearthed on the spot.  This ability enables the researcher to realize the true meaning of questions asked, understand the alternative interpretations, and thereby add greater veracity and transparency into the design.  Indeed, question-answer validation is a key strength of qualitative research, esp., face-to-face designs that maximize the probing function.  Not unlike the cognitive interviews incorporated in many quantitative designs, qualitative research can measure the validity of questions by uncovering how people formulate answers.

Validation has an important role in qualitative research.  Qualitative researchers know this and exploit their ability to validate questions as well as answers, esp., when the research is being conducted face-to-face or via telephone.  The jury is still out as to whether a computer-assisted mode (e.g., online bulletin boards, online communities or panels) adequately facilitates the rich probing – the validity – that is a central benefit to conducting qualitative research.


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