Data. With increasing frequency I keep hearing mention of data in the qualitative space. When it comes to describing qualitative research, my immediate reaction is to question the applicability of the word when it comes to describing qualitative research. After years of research experience, I am trying to keep an open mind before outright rejecting it but that hasn’t proven to be so easy.
Sure, one can argue that the net result of qualitative research is factual information which can be used a basis for reasoning and discussion. I have no bones with that component of Meriam Webster’s definition of data. Where the rubber doesn’t meet the road for me surrounds the part of the definition that refers to data as information in numerical form that can be easily managed or processed.
Sound qualitative research focuses on human behavior and the drivers behind it through observation and interpretation. If carried out correctly, rich, granular detail that is highly descriptive surfaces. Qualitative methods can range anywhere from group discussions to intensive and in-depth one-on-one conversations, both online and off. The research process can be very time-consuming or more condensed based on the method selected. Samples are typically much smaller than in quantitative research and as such they are not widely predictive, rather informative. Stories, characterizations, descriptions and visual portrayals are what frequently emerge when researchers interpret the collective inputs and formulate their associated meanings.
So, if we want to coin the inputs or learnings amassed during the qualitative research process as data, I can accept that. These inputs undisputedly form the basis for the findings qualitative researchers deliver to their stakeholders. However, at the very least we should feel compelled to be precise in defining the collective whole of these inputs as qualitative data to avoid any inference to applying specific numbers to describe the strength of our qualitative learnings. Furthermore, we should refrain from referring to running a handful of qualitative interviews through a widget with a word count or tagging feature as data that can be used to quantify things. Our samples simply aren’t projectable and more importantly, we’re undermining the value qualitative research provides by inferring that quantity overrides the quality of information collected.