My wife pointed out tonight that I am essentially the qualitative research consultant version of Portlandia’s Two Girls Two Shirts.
What triggered my wife’s apt observation was my comment that “I think of what I do as boutique research. It’s not for everyone. In some ways, it’s even a little bit difficult. It’s not for everyone, but those clients who go through the process get something special.”
I had just gotten done writing a contribution to an online discussion among qualitative researchers about whether it’s okay to go along with client requests to add a quantitative instrument to a qualitative study. What I wrote:
“My position on this matter has a lot to do with the kind of qualitative research that I have worked to specialize in. I don’t do focus groups. I don’t write surveys. My work is in-depth interviewing, observation, and analysis.
In my experience, inclusion of quantitative instruments in qualitative studies does undermine the integrity of the qualitative research experience that I seek to build. The quantitative items signal to respondents and to clients alike that depth isn’t really what we’re going for – quick, glib answers will suffice.
There are structured interviewing methods that can work within an in-depth qualitative experience – a non-numerical card sort exercise, for instance. Introduce numbers into the process, however, and yes, it goes downhill.
Imagine going out on a first date, and aiming for some interesting, stimulating conversation, and ending with a request for a rating of the evening’s discussion on a scale from one to seven. What’s the impression that’s made? What’s the memory your partner will keep of that date?
The kind of qualitative research I do aims for a level of intimacy, vulnerability, revelation and honesty that’s something like a first date. I’m not expecting a kiss at the end of it, but I do feel entitled to heartfelt personal participation – from clients as well as from respondents.
The trouble with including a quantitative instrument in this kind of qualitative study is that it violates the experience. Qualitative research that’s worth doing, in the way I understand it, isn’t just an opportunity for clients to get answers to their questions. The process of the research itself is a ritual, a method of opening everyone involved, enabling respondent, researcher and client to draw new connections, and not just rely on the standard replies that rest in the top shelves of their minds. It gives people a chance to question their questions.
Pulling out a quantitative survey, even at the end of an qualitative interviewing process, sends out this clear message: Don’t get carried away, don’t get creative, and don’t color outside the lines, because we’re not interested in authentic, original ideas on this project. Instead, we want to distill your feelings down to a number. Just fill in the blank, please.
Far too often, I’ve seen these instruments get used by defensive members of the client team as tools to dismiss the qualitative insights. I can’t always get clients to leave their pet surveys at home, but when I do, it’s a sign of a client of quality – a client who’s actually willing to allow research to bring in new ideas.
I want to be clear that I am not trying to say that quantitative research is without merit. It is an essential approach, but it needs to be carried out in its own space. Qualitative and quantitative research are not merely separate techniques. They represent distinct mental processes with remarkably distinct purposes…
…unless the qualitative research is quick and casual. I understand that there are many qualitative researchers who do quick and casual research. There’s a use for that kind of research-date, I know, but the truth is, I’m not that kind of guy.”
Okay, in the end, I decided to pull that last paragraph of the comment out, because, upon reflection, it does suggest that focus group moderators and survey writers are qualitatively loose. That’s not a nice thing to say, because their work has its own important function.
It’s just not a function I have the patience to serve. To me, qualitative research really does have a romantic aspect to it, and when I give my heart to a study, as Nat King Cole advised, it will be completely, or I’ll never give my heart.
It’s corny, but to me, that’s what research is all about. It’s about having a question, and truly, earnestly wanting to know the answer. It’s about caring, and about trusting that what people have to say really does matter.
It’s not ironic. It’s not sarcastic. Most importantly, it is not quick.
(Here’s the Two Girls, Two Shirts video, if you haven’t seen it:)