Feb 26, 2007

What do Art and Qualitative Research have in common?

Understanding Qualitative Research through Metaphors...
This paper, on using Quilting as a Metaphor to clarify the research process, caught my fancy since I had written a brief piece on the differences between qualitative and quantitative research inspired by another research paper that used the 'quilting' metaphor to explore the differences between these two disciplines. These papers have not only made for interesting reading but also helped me clarify some of my own thoughts about research through these metaphors.

In my early days as a researcher, I struggled to understand the rules of the game.

  • How does one define what an adequate sample size is – whether 4 groups or 8 interviews are enough to represent the reality we are trying to capture?
  • What exactly is meant by analyzing the data – other than placing data in a structure and looking for patterns – what does one actually do?
  • How do you define a good interview – was it with the chatty woman who couldn't stop talking and kept us amused OR the guy who was curt but spoke enough to help me answer all the questions I had?

The subconscious forces at work

Market Research textbooks for some reason do not carry more than a chapter on qual research. In the absence of formally documented knowledge (and here i am talking only about commercial qual, not academic) we gain it primarily on the job - by observing senior researchers or occasionally through informal conversations about the dos and donts. I suppose this happens because as a researcher gains proficiency in her craft - her skills in dealing with the complexity of this discipline improve subconsciously.

For instance, before starting to sketch, an artist if asked, can tell you what he is planning to sketch (let's say a leaf), what kind it would be, which colours he would use, his vision of it (a maple leaf symbolising the onset of autumn) etc. However, he would find it difficult to articulate exactly how much pressure he has to apply on his brush for the required amount of paint to stay on the canvas, at what angle he holds & tilts the brush head to get the accuracy of his stroke or how much of the leaf surface area should have the colour green/amber to reflect the changing seasons - since these aspects are part of his subconscious framework.

Likewise a researcher can be told about things like - possible information areas she needs to unearth in a discussion, the tools she has at her disposal... where, how and when she needs to execute those to be able to answer the burning question the marketer has. However for many other aspects it is difficult to lay down rules covering all probable outcomes. For instance what is the right level of comfort for the researcher to ask the respondent about that intensely emotional experience? How should one differentiate between a respondent who is stubbornly silent and one who is quiet, shy & will open up with prodding; between a person who is silent because she simply does not understand the question or or someone who has understood it & is uncomfortable answering it? The decision about whether a 20 minute discussion has covered enough ground on the respondent's habit or will she reveal her all important quirk in the next 5 mins? Much of what a researcher does or how she reacts in such situations is subconscious - often referred to as a 'matter of judgement'

Debunking the myth of being unscientific
Often qualitative research is perceived to be a discipline that is unscientific, lacking a rigid set of rules/structure or sometimes even esoteric. I suppose this perception emanates from the fact that as a discipline it is relatively more flexible, open and encourages deviations and creativity.

I remember how I learnt painting - I would always start of with a blank paper divided into smaller squares. Then in each square i would carefully replicate the required pattern and fill in the colours. Overtime I gained proficiency, I could replicate something without having to sketch it first or follow a grid. I could tweak the colours a bit. People who have mastered this skill create original works of art. If one has to observe such a person, especially in case of abstract work, the artist does not even have a reference for his painting. He starts with a canvas, his paints, brushes and a vision of what he wants to achieve and goes about creating that by putting colour to the canvas in a seemingly free form. Does that mean he does not follow any rules or worse still the discipline of painting because it allows creativity is unscientific and not governed by any principles at all? If that were true anyone / everyone would be able to paint effortlessly! These rules exist - its just that for regular artists the rules of how to balance colours, or create a symmetry between elements of the painting & the overall composition have become subconscious over time.

Likewise for researchers who have achieved a certain level of proficiency, the discipline offers an environment open/flexible enough for them to exercise their creativity in designing/ executing research, analysing & interpreting findings and experimenting with newer ways of representing these findings. Creative liberties are permissible, though grounds rules are followed. If i need to unearth an emotional trigger around a product i may chose to talk to a respondent at a time or a family or a bunch of strangers together depending on my need - though just for the sake of creativity or following a methodology in vogue i will NOT randomly decide to do ethnographic observations instead, since what I can achieve by conversation I cannot in this case understand by mere observation.

Whether it is art or research - the rules may not be always be obvious or apparent to an onlooker - but that does not mean the rules don't exist!

More to come - using the art metaphor to understand 'reliability in research' and what to consider while planning a research project.

Technorati Tags : ,

3 comments:

alaphia said...

i see you have a luminous favicon there..striking it is

Manish said...

great post reshma...wih my limited exposure to quali research in india and an even more limited exposure to the quali reseracher...

i never came across these thots....
account planning can be very 'stretched' job...and if you don't have the right minds close to you...soon you dont ask the qs you should....Indian clients largely do not have the same understanding, trust and empathy for quali research as they do for quant research(pity!!!)

art and research was a lovely comparison...are there any other academic research papers on/ around the subject!

cheers

hellin said...

Hi,

Qualitative research began to be used in other disciplines and became a significant type of research in the fields of education studies, social work.This methods book that reinforces the connection between professional. Thanks a lot...

Video Focus Group