Re-considering the Question of “Why” in Qualitative Research

It is easy to fall into the trap of relying on the “why” question when conducting qualitative research. After all, the use of qualitative research is often supported with the claim that qualitative methods enable the researcher to reach beyond quantitative numerical data to grasp the meaning and motivations – that is, the why – associated with particular attitudes and behavior. And it is in this spirit that researchers frequently find themselves with interview and discussion guides full of “why” questions – Why do you say you are happy? Why do you prefer one political candidate over another? Why do you diet? Why do you believe in God? Why do you use a tablet rather than a laptop computer?

Yet “why” is rarely the question worth asking. In fact, asking “why” questions can actually have a negative effect on data collection (i.e., Credibility) and contribute bias to qualitative data. This happens for many reasons, here are just four:

The “why” question potentially

Evokes rationality. By asking the “why” question, researchers are in essence asking participants to justify their attitudes and behavior. In contemplating a justification, it is not unusual for participants to seek a response that “makes sense,” seems logical, or is otherwise deemed appropriate. This defensive reaction may go unnoticed (by the participant as well as the researcher) unless participants are asked to reflect further on their rationalizations, allowing the researcher to identify and mitigate potential bias associated with social desirability and other forms of distortions.

Stifles the researcher-participant conversation. The “why” question potentially stifles the research interview or group discussion in at least two ways: 1) It stops the flow of conversation while the participant considers rational scenarios in response to the researcher’s question and 2) It requires a certain amount of backtracking by the participant to explain a rationalization that hopefully “makes sense” but may not be particularly relevant to the research topic or intended question.

Clouds question meaning. Along with potentially stifling the interview or group discussion, the “why” question does little to convey the researcher’s intent or meaning of the question. As a wide-open question, the participant may struggle with its ambiguity and become frustrated in attempts to find meaning. In this regard, the “why” question potentially results in – what survey researchers call – “respondent burden.” For example, it is much easier on the participant, and more informative for the researcher, when the question is “What are the specific aspects of your life that make you happy?” compared to “Why do you say you are happy?”

Asks a different question from the one intended by the researcher. In addition to being construed as vague or ambiguous, the “why” question might also be interpreted as asking something different than the researcher’s intent. Because of this potential for misinterpretation, the researcher needs to think carefully before asking the “why” question. For example, the question “Why do you use a tablet rather than a laptop computer?” is essentially a different question than “How does a tablet computer offer you advantages over a laptop?

With qualitative inquiry researchers gain critical insight on the lived experience. But this insight is not necessarily rooted in the why of life events as much as it is in the aspects of participants’ lives that can only be discovered by asking what, when, where, who, how – and sometimes, why.

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