Thinking qualitatively

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. -Marcel Proust

The title of this blog is “Think Qualitatively,” and this phrase is a mantra of mine. I’m an educator, learning strategist—and yes, to me these two roles are different, and a qualitative researcher. Qualitative research captures data to understand the richness and complexity of the human experience.

Qualitative methods include:

* Observation in naturalistic, or every-day, settings

* Open-ended, depth interviews are another form of qualitative research, and

* Close analysis of text or a cultural artifact is also a form of qualitative research.

Qualitative research, however, is not just a set of methods. It's also an orientation toward research and the nature of reality--about what questions are most interesting to explore, the methods and limitations of research in general, and how knowledge is created and organized.

Many researchers focus on questions that can be answered by observing “measurable facts.” There are lots of measurable facts. 12 inches are in a foot. In the US most kids go to kindergarten and progress through grade 12. 50% of US teen mothers have a high school diploma by age 22 versus 90% of 22-year old women who did not become mothers in their teens. New car purchases among 18-34 year olds have dropped 30% in the past 5 years. Women account for 85% of consumer purchases in the US. The turn-over rate at company Y has shot up 50% in the last three years.

These are all measurable facts. Some we know by experience--or we think we know. Other facts can be verified by observation and measurement, surveys, compiling

different bits of collected information, etc. I appreciate the usefulness of counting and measuring observable "facts.” Yet many facts become facts because society deems them to be fact, and simply counting them often hides interesting questions and compelling issues to explore.

Most qualitative researchers focus on how reality is socially constructed. How do the participants in a setting make sense of what is going on? How do values, beliefs, norms settle into existence? How do they change? How do beliefs impact behaviors? How do behaviors impact beliefs? These are squishy things; but these squishy things impact reality. For example, a combination of tangible and intangible forces influenced the 50% jump in staff turnover at Company Y. From the point of view of this company’s insiders—what’s going on?

Let’s take another look at one of the measurable facts above. As a marketer, automaker, or dealership owner I might be alarmed by the steep drop in car purchases among 18-34 year olds. City-planners, small business owners, and neighborhood associations will also be interested for different reasons. Young people who want to buy a car will be interested and those who are rejecting car ownership have different questions. We have multiple players, interpretations, explanations, and reasons for exploring the 30% decline in car ownership. What’s behind it in all its complexity?

Well, some more numbers will be important to tease out—e.g., gender differences, geographical variations, break down the age range in shorter spans. But there are many good qualitative questions to be asked. Why are fewer young people buying cars—in their own words? What alternatives have they found? What’s life like without a car? What’s the impact on family, social, or work life? How are marketers responding? If disaggregation of the data reveals interesting patterns, what’s behind them? How are auto dealers responding? What changes are taking place in cities as a result? What’s going on? Most importantly, how are participants in this scenario experiencing and making sense of what’s going on?

Think qualitatively. To me this is shorthand for keeping in mind that there are multiple realities in play and it’s important to learn about them—directly from the source. Ask different questions. Forget about surveys, asking canned questions to a focus group, or taking the ad campaign to twitter. Ask why, how, what if, why not, what’s happened, what do you need, and any number of question combinations that try to make sense of current, ideal, and projected transportation issues. Listen for the unexpected. Observe. Participate. Ask more questions.

It’s messy, this thinking qualitatively. It’s really messy, and it’s time-consuming too. And the 30% decline in car ownership question is way less messier than other questions that interest qualitative researchers---about power, love, well-being, change, fear, etc. But these squishy things define the human experience. They shape us and how and what we experience. Our experiences shape our perceptions of them right back.

Think qualitatively. Whether your question is how to sell cars, how to sustain your neighborhood coffee shop, how to successfully teach teen-age mothers, how to lead your team…. Think qualitatively and see what questions emerge. That’s step one.

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What's this doing here?

*Pyscho Delia*

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