“What the heck is this?” Calming the Fears of Qualitative Research

Through history, research people have discussed and debated the virtues and fallibilities of quantitative versus qualitative research.  “Versus” because there is tyfrogpically a ‘one or the other’ mentality in thinking and talking about quantitative and qualitative research that may ultimately pit one against the other.  This dichotomy makes obvious sense from the standpoint of the very different purposes and approaches prescribed by these two research genres, fostering as it often does two very different types of researchers with sometimes radically different mind and skill sets.

There are situations – we can all probably think of some – when a survey or focus group (or IDI or observation) research design is opted for simply because it is the type of research that falls within someone’s comfort zone.  We go with what we know.  This is true of researchers; it is also true of corporate clients and other research funders.

Many qualitative researchers, for instance, are loath to venture into survey territory where the stark realities of black and white numbers, percentages, and correlations are too confining as they are mind-blowing.  And it is usually this qualitative-fear-of-quantitative that we hear so much about.  But what about survey researchers and the clients who find a safe haven in quantitative methods?  Do they share a similar dread of qualitative research and, if so, why?

Answer: Yes they do, because qualitative research is messy and messiness is a scary thing if you don’t know what to do with it.

I am not talking about a fear of messiness from a left brain-right brain standpoint – the idea that qualitative demands greater right-brain thinking as it delves into reading emotions compared to the logic of critical reasoning in survey research – but rather a genuine fear of not knowing how to approach, much less analyze, the tangled convolution of real life embraced by qualitative research.

Evidence of this is found everywhere.  It is found among research clients who are enthralled by the volume of rich feedback provided by online bulletin boards but are at a loss to know what it really means; or survey researchers who shy away from a qualitative approach to a highly personal, emotional research issue because they fear they are incapable of making sense of the data; or client-observers at a focus group discussion who define their takeaway from the first provocative statement made by a group participant because they haven’t been educated on the discussion as a research method and how to properly listen to and understand the outcomes; or quantitative researchers who are scared off from the inductive analytical approach in qualitative research that appears to be a mere “fishing expedition”; or the client who listens to a batch of IDIs and comes away confused by the seemingly disconnected thoughts, concluding that the whole research effort has been a waste of time.

In every case, the researcher/client who defines “research” through quantitative-tinted glasses looks at qualitative research and is left asking, “What the heck is this?”  The onus is on qualitative researchers to address this question by calming the fear of the unknown and making qualitative research approachable as well as ultimately more usable.  Qualitative researchers can begin by:

  • Doing more than just preparing the funder and/or user of the research on what to expect from qualitative research – i.e., the apparent discontinuities, inconsistencies, and irrational thinking – but also promoting the realness of qualitative research along with the idea that it is a good thing when responses don’t follow a straight line from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ because that is what conducting research with human beings is all about.
  • Explaining why a discussion or interview guide is designed the way it is, why topical areas and related questions are formatted a certain way or are in a certain sequence.  For example, the moderator should go through the guide with those who will be observing (or listening to) a focus group explaining the importance of each area, saying “Now, in this section I would like you to be listening for…” and “Responses to this section will allow us to better understand participants’ thinking when we get to the last section of the guide.”
  • Conducting better debriefs.  Unless the researcher (interviewer, moderator, observer) takes the initiative to conduct a thorough debrief, the client/funder/user of the research is left to his or her own (misguided) interpretations.  Proper debriefs are an important part of the education process.
  • Explaining the analytical process.  Many people who request and ultimately use qualitative research are not knowledgeable about what goes into analysis.  Not having done it themselves (or only on a cursory level) they are not informed about this process and how the researcher’s interpretations are not the product of any one thing but a multiplicity of variables within the data.   This should pose another opportunity for the researcher to promote and educate the users of the research on how and why qualitative research is done.
  • Connecting the dots in the final research document.  This requires the researcher to resist the frequent request for a whittled-down version of the outcomes in a colorful yet wanting PowerPoint slideshow.  Instead of a colorful graphic, the researcher’s job is to explain the analysis that was conducted, the complexity of the data and how each piece connects with another piece (or doesn’t), and the nuanced story that lies within.

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