Big data and big qualitative​




On one LinkedIn research groups I'm part of -- Next Gen Market Research -- there's an article dated 3-19-2014 about creating consumer intimacy and making it personal with big data. I recently replied as a qualitative research practitioner who suggests that we consider combining big data with big qualitative research.


This is a reference to intimacy, personal-ness, and depth of consumer understanding using examples coming out of studies involving hybrid forms of data collection. Each of these hybrid forms of research includes a week or two of longer in-situ authentic ethnography. Each respondent and their household -- plus their surrounding community of friends, neighbors, favorite stores, errands, schools, and connecting venues like churches, organizations, hospitals, and even different emotional situations like emergencies and things going right or wrong -- are like their own planet. I have done work in studies incorporating the same people seen through many stages -- following them through their social media habits, then online blogging and digital ethnography, then into creative groups, and then into authentic observationals -- and each methodology brings out a different facet that shows a different size of the same person.


As in quantum physics with its new discoveries that are suggesting the validity of the inflation hypothesis, the more one looks, the bigger the findings become. Sometimes, we need to look very deeply into smaller samples to see much bigger dimensions.


As we grasp when we use cultural anthropology and depth psychological processes, there is always that part of the respondent who is ruled by drivers that seem mysterious, remain in the unconscious, can't be solved, are sometimes impossible to know, or take a long while to figure out. Sometimes I don't get something until after the study is finished and all conclusions in. It's frequently when I'm creating a workshop several years later and relooking original findings and data that I make new connections that cause the a-ha. If I do a documentary film after a hybrid study, sometimes the film's visuals are the medium by which findings are identified and reprioritized that were not originally seen as all that important...and now go significantly farther than our original impressions from the quantitative and qualitative reports. Even longitudinal ethnographic studies observing the same people for a number of days do not always reveal the subtle but dynamic and compelling motivations going on. The persona of the respondent who participates in online digital ethnography for a week or more is found to differ from the persona of that same person in a creative focus group and again he or she differs when we observe them in situ for hours in their own surroundings. Humans are complex.


There is nothing linear about the human experience despite what comes out of social media research and big data-style analytics. Easier answers that come fast, short, big, and linear are certainly manageable to quantify and do lead to findings, but are they accurately reflecting the complexity of what is really going on -- on the surface and beneath the obvious? Can they become The Insight or do they remain one of several astute insights?


Suggested: Add more hybrid or multistaged qualitative research to your big data studies in order to learn the multidimensionality of relevant consumers, both users and key nonusers who may be part of the next wave of constituency. Big data is interesting, provocative, and contemporary. It is relevant also to include big qualitative when designing a total program of research that needs to get at a tough challenge.