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Peter Mouncey Blog

A tipping-point in the history of research? Should we celebrate, or feel dismayed?

17-12-2015
The latest IJMR Landmark paper I selected was by Wendy Sykes, examining the then body of knowledge on validity and reliability for qualitative research. Also, the latest issue of IJMR features two papers plus a Viewpoint that focus on perspectives on qualitative research.

So, it was timely this week to read two highlight findings in the latest GRIT report from Greenbook, covering Q3-4 2015; firstly that: ‘The age of pure qualitative and quantitative research is over’; and secondly: ‘Qualitative research, unlike quantitative research, is still primarily a synchronous, person to person phenomenon’.

The first finding is based on 68% of respondents claiming to have used both types of methodologies in the past twelve months, with a higher proportion claiming to have only commissioned only qual (21%), compared to 10% for only quant. What the survey doesn’t provide evidence of is whether participants might have used these two together in addressing one issue, or whether they were they applied on separate, unrelated projects. As two of the papers on qualitative published in issue 57/6 discuss, it is the relationship between qual & quant usage that is important, and how projects can be placed on a spectrum from full qual to full quant. 

Also, I have never thought that there was an era of ‘pure qual and quant’, in my view these types of methodologies often work best in tandem to provide a holistic picture of the issue being researched – and here I’m going back to the 1970s. So, what would be of much more interest would be to explore this relationship within projects. Also, in today’s world, teeming with data for the data scientists to get to grips with through their mining tools and algorithms, are qualitative methods becoming increasingly used to add a further dimension of understanding through techniques such as discourse analysis, or to answer the ‘why?’ question that big data often leaves unanswered.

But what about that second finding? Have we now reached a real tipping-point in the history of research by admitting that quantitative methods no longer have a real person to real person dimension, leaving qualitative methods as the final bastion of face-to-face research? If so, then I would argue that we are losing our grip on engaging with consumers and citizens. But, let’s also remember that qual has also adopted remote methods, through bulletin boards and communities. 

Yes, the videos, photos and verbal communication maybe present, but it’s not the same as a conversation conducted within the same room. If the quotation is true, shouldn’t we be thinking about the implications and consequences of reaching this point? In his presentation at the recent ASC one day conference, ‘Tackling Data Overload: making sense of complex multi-source data’, Colin Strong (Verve) argued the case for humanising big data. Strong defined three ways to achieve this goal: firstly, by remembering that data does not speak for itself; secondly, ensuring there is human intervention in the big data machine; thirdly, by finding the human behind the data. 

Strong thinks that statistics don’t reflect real human relationships, lacking the contextual dimensions of their fuller lives, and an understanding of consumer behaviour. Analytics also fail to question how people act as individuals versus their role in society. His solution is in part to apply methods used in behavioural science to provide greater reflexivity in the analysis and interpretive stages, what Strong termed as ‘culturalnomics’. The contextual element is vital in understanding and interpreting consumer behaviour, as also argued by Richard Webber in the November IJMR Lecture (see Editorial in 58/1, published in January).

I feel rather old fashioned by saying this, but I do believe that technology when applied to research has its limitations, as well as bringing us new opportunities for engaging with consumers. I’ve commented before on the pressure being exerted on those undertaking research in the public sector to reduce costs and decrease elapsed time by going online, but we know that many researchers in this field are still highly cautious about moving data collection online, and we’ve published three papers in IJMR that underline the need for caution. This conservative view is not old fashioned, it comes from a recognition that engaging face-to-face can still deliver value for money in survey design.

I think we need to stop and think about what we lose by de-personalising the data collection process in research, and balance it against the cost and time savings that are so often lauded as the benefits of going online.

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