Why Organizations Avoid Qualitative Research

Indi Young
Aug 7, 2020 · 4 min read

(and how to change that)

Because the business world shuns uncertainty, quantitative data insights get twisted so that the conclusions sound like they were deduced, and their validity unimpeachable. Business research adheres to its cousin in the laboratory, where validity is determined by empirical evidence — which is a positivistic view. It assumes that human behavior is stable and static and can be measured the way the physical sciences measure things. But, positivism is not embraced universally in the social sciences, and it is certainly not compatible with inductive reasoning. So why do businesses automatically turn to positivism when trying to understand human behavior and reasoning?

Sometimes, it’s because people misconstrue the word qualitative and think of qualitative insights as data that has to be qualified with a phrase about how unreliable it is. Or they think of qualitative data as words which cannot be pinned down and measured. Or they have not been exposed to inductive reasoning or interpretivism.

Quantitative and qualitative data are different approaches to knowledge creation. Each has a spectrum of studies that goes from subjective to empirical.

With respect to the misconstrued word “qualitative,” both kinds of research have their “fuzzy” studies and their precise studies.

The state of things in academic research

When positivism was first extended to the academic social sciences, it met with opposition. The social sciences researchers supported constructivism or relativism instead, which mean many versions of the truth can be valid at once. Through the last three decades of the 1900’s, this “Science War” raged. Dr. Karl Fast, former professor of User Experience at Kent State University in Ohio, describes an early clash — a book written by Bruno Latour, Science in Action, which chronicled field studies about the way people work in science labs. Karl says, “The studies concluded that since laboratory experiments were conducted by teams who talked about the questions to ask and how to collect the data, science was ‘socially constructed’ — therefore not positivistic, itself. Social scientists were overjoyed to have scored a point against their more well-funded cousins doing research in physics, biology, etc.”

Then another landmark event happened in the late 1990’s. A pair of physicists wrote a “faux” paper and got it published in a peer-reviewed social science journal called Social Text. This paper said that in postmodernism, the idea is that our senses rely on interpretation, and the universe is something we construct from these interpretations. To postmodernists, laboratory science is about interpretation of what scientists sense, and conclusions are made through a social process. The paper the two physicists wrote was deliberately absurd, yet they made serious points, and the writing was internally consistent. Scandal, controversy, and embarrassment ensued. The authors eventually wrote a book about this event, called Fashionable Nonsense. In the end, a new theory gained support: post-positivism, which gives allowance for the fact that scientists doing empirical work can be influenced by other factors. Post-positivism holds that a single set of laws exist, but that we have imperfect knowledge of them. (See Dr. Anthony Yeong, independent researcher, Introduction to Business Research Methods.)

A summary:

  • Positivism — the only valid knowledge comes from verified, empirical evidence
  • Constructivism — each person builds their own understanding of reality, so many versions of the truth can be valid at once
  • Relativism — there is no one truth, but it depends on context and the person beholding it; people behold and interpret reality differently (See Podcast by Oliver Kim, “On Relativism and Constructivism.”)
  • Postmodernism — our senses rely on interpretation, and the universe is something we construct from these interpretations
  • Post-Positivism — a single set of laws exist, but we have imperfect knowledge of them

added later, based on replies below:

Qualitative research is not post-positivistic

Cognitive empathy work falls under constructivism and relativism. (See paper by Valerie Malzer and Sarah von Schrader of Cornell University.) You gather data, which lead to patterns, which give you insights, which are probably correct, but which will have exceptions. In turn, these insights help you guide your choices toward a few better directions than what you had before. These choices can’t be proven as “right,” but have a high probability of improving different dimensions of how you support people.

Sam Ladner writes in her book about Mixed Methods that there is another term in use. Interpretive flexibility acknowledges that people change the way they see things, which is embraced as a part of qualitative data analysis.

  • Interpretivism — knowledge of social reality is created by exploration of subjective meaning w/in a person’s own frame of reference

Know & teach the difference

Now you have the explanation for why business seems to avoid qualitative research. It follows the historic tendency that natural sciences to get better funding and respect in the academic world. Social sciences tend to be the poor cousin–but not due to less rigor or validity in their work. It’s due to different underlying philosophies.

If you can clarify this difference to your peers, stakeholders, and leaders, it will help them understand. Hopefully it will pave the way to less resistance to your requests to spend time on qualitative research.

Understanding the people you support is a valuable way to improve your offerings and the role you play in the market. Lobby for splitting some budget off from researching your solution to put toward researching the problem space.

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