Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Qualitative Research: If it ain't science, it's crap

Without a doubt, quantitative research is science. It involves systematic observation and experimentation to better understand consumer behaviour.

Surveys represent the bulk of our quantitative work, converting wide-ranging written and verbal, and positive and negative opinions into carefully coded numerical values that can range from -100 to 100. Neuroscience converts brain waves, skin responses, and eye-tracking behaviours into even finer grains allowing us to better understand the differences between men and women, buyers and browsers, high-income and low-income people, and so many other distinct groups of people. Big data has jumped on the science bandwagon with even more intensity. Billions and trillions of numbers can be categorized and re-categorized into untold numbers of groups and associated with untold numbers of perfectly coded, perfectly transcribed analyzable data points.

But qualitative research? That's a completely different story. To be valid and reliable, as well as reputable and respected, marketing research needs to behave as a science. Does qualitative research meet the criteria to be considered a science?

First, science is systematic. Are any of these characteristics systematic?

Delineation of precise characteristics in the selection of individual interview participants, according to demographic, psychographics, and personality characteristics such as age, gender, income, education, region, language, sociability, product usage, product opinions, and more

Preparation of standardized discussion guides to ensure consistency across multiple focus groups and multiple interviews

Standardized training of group and session leaders to avoid introducing, creating, or encouraging bias due to group think, dominant group members, reluctant group members, hostile group members or any of the wide assortment of other potential problems

Detailed understanding and selection of the tool best suited to uncover the problem at hand from among hundreds of possibilities such as grounded theory, narratology, storytelling, ethnography, shadowing, participant observation, focus groups, interviews

Detailed methods for converting non-verbal and non-numerical results into standardized data points such as coding books used for both manual and computer-assisted coding

Second, science is experimental. Are these characteristics experimental?

Preparing products in a variety of colours, shapes, sizes, formats such that research participants can be exposed to some or all of them in pre-determined orders

Examining the reliability and consistency of opinions, across people, across groups, etc, by choosing complimentary and/or contradictory research tools and research leaders

I recently spoke with a qualitative researcher who insisted that qualitative research isn't science. They insisted that qualitative researchers can't talk about data and can't use numbers except in nominal ways. Perhaps some qualitative researchers take pride in not partaking in science. Maybe it's a nice topic of discussion when it comes to talking with clients about why they should go with one method or another. Maybe my friend is wrong.

Is qualitative research is a science? I have to say yes.

Annie Pettit, PhD is the Chief Research Officer at Peanut Labs, a company specializing in self-serve panel sample. Annie is a methodologist focused on data quality, listening research, and survey methods. She won Best Methodological Paper at Esomar 2013, and the 2011 AMA David K. Hardin Award. Annie tweets at @LoveStats and can be reached at

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