Qualitative research and behavioural economics

Looking up at the bookshelf, there is Charles Leadbeater‘s We-Think, Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational and kicking around the house somewhere is Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge; not forgetting Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Having been interested in these accessible paperbacks on “behavioural economics” (or, if you prefer, explanations of human behaviour and decision-making) for a while, it is exciting indeed to be attending a course tomorrow organised by the AQR on the topic – and how it impacts on qualitative research.

Rather than write in relative ignorance today, I’ll post something more detailed after the course. But I was interested in a paper by one of the speakers, the brilliant Wendy Gordon, who is responsible for guiding generations of qual researchers from afar through her own seminal publications on qual and how to do it – most famously Goodthinking (1999). She writes of the “dynamic” school of qual research – of which I hope I am a (very small) part – which grasps the inadequacies of ‘traditional’ methodologies and embraces the shift towards more behavioural focus: Gordon, IJMR Vol53. I’ve certainly seen this in shopper research and am a huge fan of technologies that assist that – Eyetracker and so on. What struck me though was the vehemence of her rejection of the other school of qual research, the “positivists”. As she describes them, they are indeed everything you try to get away from as a thinking qual researcher: purveyors of reportage and literalness and the belief that what people come up with on the day is the whole story. It’s such a valuable article – because it gives us all in qual a kick up the backside and reminds us of the work we should be encouraging clients to commission.

Wendy Gordon: embracing behavioural economics

Unfortuntely, a lot of people commissioning qual do think like the “positivists” even in 2011. This is not their fault; the way qual has been explained to a lot of researchers and client-side practitioners who are not qual experts has been inadequate.  It is a version of qual that fits seamlessly with other forms of data gathering and insight management – missing the point that doing qual properly requires the user to make a paradigm shift in their approach to the learnings. Good qual takes on board some difficult thoughts about the nature of research and truth. Put simply, what participants tell us in qual cannot give “the answer”, but it is evidence we use to get to an answer. The best evidence we can gather as qual researchers is that which allows us to see actual behaviours, not just (or as well as) people’s accounts of those behaviours. Actually, this is true of quantitative data also, this is not just a point for qual researchers. I for one am now steeled to be more rigorous in insisting on methodologies that can deliver this kind of insight. Tomorrow can help me plan what kind of work I want to be doing in Shore as I develop.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

4 thoughts on “Qualitative research and behavioural economics

    1. Hi Wendy, yes I’m on Linked In and will hook up with you all there. Thanks for the leadership on BE. Just returned to UK after 2 weeks in Italy, somewhat startled at events, even for someone who grew up in 70s and 80s Belfast


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