Musings on qualitative research​




This is an article I wrote for an online course in qualitative research in depth I feel about doing qualitative research for brands and products. Qualitative explores the possibilities, identifies the threads of emotions, ties together options within new frameworks, and pushes toward totally innovative insights based upon listening, observing, and understanding real participants describe and experience their lives.


1.0 What is qualitative research? It is like asking a fish, what is water? It is the very lifeblood and environment in which I live. There is a depth of excitement to qualitative research. It is pure discovery. It is applied discovery. It is posing a question and finding out an answer. It is posing one question and finding out many answers. It is re-posing the same question in a new angle, and discovering an entire new world. It is being asked a question by an outside research client and re-problematizing the question in enough ways so that it becomes a true research question that makes the methodology comprehensible.


1.1 Research is evolutionary and involves the sighting, accommodation, and experience of multiple realities colliding at the same time. The very act of observing an other in order to discover insights and findings is itself a shift in perspective for both the one observing and the one observed; for the researcher, there is a power of process at every level. It transforms original hopes going into the research when the conclusions don’t match up to the original ideas; it expands one’s destiny as the new results are even more intriguing than the hoped-for data. All data will eventually fit; we never throw out a piece of data that doesn’t fit immediately, because it may lead to an entirely new thread of insight. If the deadline is approaching and you put it in the file to think about, keep it alive and place on it a strong mental note to relook it one day under new and different circumstances, like the final report or the final presentation when everything in the study begins to come together.


1.2 Research is diving deep into the big ocean to retrieve a glittering object that shines mysteriously on the bottom floor, far below the surface, then coming up with a ball of seaweed encrusted with new jewels in which a hidden map of an underground universe is revealed.


1.3 Illustrating what the journey of qualitative research is like, I will use archetypal symbols that "found me" in a depth psychological way


  • The beginning stage of generative excitement to manifest insights for a new inquiry (see Magician)
  • Mixing and blending the right methodologies, design, scope, specifications (see Temperance)
  • Figuring out what to do with the new information (see 7 of Pentacles)
  • Ordering and reordering data as analysis begins to create a new structure (see 10 of Wands)
  • Feeling renewed and more relaxed as insights and findings start coming together in a new way that's comprehensible; the world has a new order (see Star)
  • The exhilaration of success of a project well done, findings discovered, and happily – the research written up and presented (6 of Pentacles)


1.4 There are important differences between qualitative and quantitative research; both have radically opposing characteristics and yet both are needed to understand a universe of research insights. The stereotype of research as dry, objective, and scientific often comes from quantitative, but qualitative is a whole other experience. Qualitative can be expansive, while quantitative can be reductive. Qualitative is divergent, while quantitative is convergent. Qualitative is explorative and diverse, while quantitative is validation and proof (or a kind of proof). Qualitative research is the exploration of multiple lines of possibilities leading to the generation of new hypotheses, while quantification is quantifying the extent to which these hypotheses are true, important, or prioritizable in the real world. Qualitative is a voyage into the unconscious, while quantitative taps into the side of consciousness.


1.5 Qual as the nick-name for qualitative is like appreciating, adoring, pulling apart, turning over, and understanding all the threads of a beautiful Persian carpet – where the threads came from, how they were put together, their value, the philosophical/sacred/belief foundation on which the carpet was created, who created it, who her teacher was, and the archetypal, emotional values behind the carpet’s designs, colors, and patterning. While, quant as the nick-name for quantitative research is taking that information, quantifying it, and bringing it into a context that makes use of it for a more practical purposes. Continuing the carpet analogy, we find out how many of these carpets exist, how many people want them, we learn whether the qualitative makes sense in a positioning to numbers of peopl. We assess which of these hypotheses and pieces of information is actually true for a larger universe than the one originally studied. Which has value for customers or the end user? Which piece of information is really important and which of the rest – although interesting - is more anecdotal and idiosyncratic?


1.6 The union of qual and quant when it's put together for a whole project that moves into the world with definitive results is perhaps analogous to the union of opposites. Qualitative = receptive, reflective, yin, feminine). Quantitative = active, evaluative, yang, masculine) in the alchemical process of individuation.


1.7 When one actually conducts qualitative research, the senses are alert and one is in active, concentration...a highly conscious, vital mode. When one is analyzing qualitative research data, there is thoughtfulness and quiet discipline along with precise ordering and examination, punctuated with flashes of intuition. When one writes up results, there is a combinatino of high mental focus, more intuition, and creativity, along with depth, brevity, and structure.


1.8 Qualitative findings are frequently contradictory, but with enough puzzling out of the data, looking at it in various angles using different theoretical foundations, putting them together, taking them apart, replacing them into a new schema – the data that is so initially colorful, confusing, chaotic, clear, contradictory, and complex – the 6 Cs of qualitative – begin to create a pattern that is even more beautiful and original.


1.9 Qualitative techniques once were practiced within a more classic, traditional framework of focus groups, mini-groups, in-depth interviews, and ethnography, but over the past 1-5 years, there has been an almost quantum explosion of new techniques or hybrid forms, such as online qualitative, mobile phone qualitative, performance ethnography, bulletin boards, active participation, co-creation, and a myriad of hybrid forms that push the limits. They are called by all different names depending upon practitioner. Some results are groundbreaking and admirable; other techniques end up with findings that, like some conceptual art, do not result in authentic, very new, or comprehensible material although we get a lot of data. Each project must be customized for the right methodologies. This enormous shift in qualitative research in the world of professional qualitative market research can be dizzying to both practitioners and clients; there are so many specialties and everyone is trying everything.


2.0 To better understand the nature of the conscious, the unconscious, the objective and factual, and the deeply emotional and intuitive -- a sense of the soul of consumers in all its psyche's dimensions and possibilities -- it's helpful to approach each new research study with a kind of Zen beginner's mind. To identify all the objectives, explore the research considerations, play with new techniques counterbalanced against the classic ones, look at the client needs carefully, check out markets and segments, line up one's research cohorts, start working on the analysis quickly, schedule debriefs and the final report at the outset, and go into the work with a desire for richness, consistency, experimentation, and evolution.


The next few posts will contain more thinking of the new universe of contemporary qualitative research related to the social sciences like cultural anthropology and depth psychology.


For now, a good metaphor for conducting qualitative research is like being a scientific sleuth -- the detective archetype -- in a fast-paced novel filled with codes and symbols. See the Da Vinci Code in a respondent's library during a recent ethnography. The Da Vinci Code says something strongly about the character and inclinations of this respondent as it reflects the metphorical nature of qualitative research.