Qualitative research – being more than eyes and ears, or even a mouth


I keep going back to read Grant McCracken’s views on the problems of what he calls partial ethnography.

In the partial view, the ethnographer becomes, in effect, the marketer’s surrogate, a way for the marketer to see into the life of the consumer, his or her eyes and ears in place. The presumption here is that, with a little more time, the marketer would have gone himself (herself) and would have seen pretty much the same thing.

In other words, the ethnographer becomes merely a ‘supplier’, hired for carrying out the research process only. However, ethnography (or any qualitative research method for that matter) is not about the field work alone, but about how data from the field gets translated into insights that the client can use for some sort of decision-making. As McCracken (heh, I quote extensively from his post since I can never hope to put this in a more lucid manner than he has here)…

In a mature methodological universe, the ethnographer returns not just with brute observations but with insights. And this is called for because many of the things the corporation needs to know are not evident on the surface of the consumer’s life. We have to see beneath the surface into the beliefs and assumptions, the patterns and the practices, that make this life practical and sensible. No mere “eyes and ears” ethnographer can supply these deeper insights.

The “eyes and ears” model of ethnography is, I think, one of the reasons that bad practitioners have flourished. And that is so true. Of not just ethnography but qualitative research in general. Before ears and eyes became the selling point, there was the qualitative researcher, the mouth – moderate focus groups and conduct depth interviews and bingo, another qualitative research project is done and over with.

This is about a view that I have heard expressed – verbally and otherwise – many many times in all these years of practice as a qualitative researcher. Qualitative research – anyone can do it. I recently met a colleague who was telling me about the time a client told her about how it was alright that her agency did not have any male moderators free that week, since the client’s office had many men who could go out and do the focus group themselves. You have made the discussion guide (protocol), now anyone can conduct the focus group, is roughly the gist of what was said.

I keep coming across different forms of this ‘qualitative research does not require expertise’ theory that perhaps stems from the belief that qualitative methods are not as ‘rigorous’ as say, quantitative… (Now, how do numbers suddenly add sanctity to a piece of data is something I have often wondered about and cannot answer now).

Interestingly, Steve Portigal in a comment to McCracken’s post says this – We’ve had clients call months after we worked with them, announcing they had purchased a video camera and gone and done their own work out in the field. Oh, and by the way, could they hire us to tell to look at their videotapes and tell us what they mean? I am talking about the reverse process here – hey, thanks for doing the field work for us (ethnography, focus groups whatever) – we’ve been there with you on the field and we have heard (and seen) what we needed to know. And there lies the problem – field data remains just that – data – without deeper analysis – and what does get converted into “knowledge” for the client is often driven by a limited internal agenda set by the client before steping on to field. (I have nothing against this, but then what does this approach do for the credibility of qualitative research methods?)

I know I have rambled on here but be kind to me and treat this as a ‘thinking aloud’ post – I would love to know what your experience has been, either as a practitioner or user of qualitative research… Do share your thoughts.


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One Response to “Qualitative research – being more than eyes and ears, or even a mouth”

  1. Bang on. Clients think they are paying for method. In fact, they’re wasting their money unless they are paying for insight.
    But insight is a tough thing to package and sell, especially if the buyer has never experienced it before.

    In one project I’m currently doing, I’m not actually moderating, but I am writing up the insights. This has been frustrating at times, but it is possible, because the insight skill is actually the more demanding skill than the facilitation skill. It’s not an approach I would recommend, however.

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