We’ve all heard the word “fluffy” associated with qualitative knowledge. If quantitative research is seen as producing reliable, incontrovertible facts, then qualitative research is seen as the opposite—the soft, made-up, inapplicable knowledge. You’ve probably observed this tacit “definition” a few times. How do we convince people it isn’t true?
The dictionary says quantitative is “measurement describing quantity, as in cost, members, or ages.” Qualitative is “distinctions based on relative characteristics.” Qualitative research involves descriptions, rather than numbers, because the data can be observed, but not measured. For example, in many projects I have observed participants talking about how they distrust sales people and marketing materials because it’s all predicated on “getting money out of me. Of course they’re going to say it’s wonderful and will make my life better. They don’t really know whether it will work for my particular circumstances. What they promise may not be true for me.” There is no way to put a number on that description. Yet it is an observable trend, a philosophy of doubt that many people follow in their evaluation and purchasing process. This trend should not be ignored simply because it cannot be represented by a measurement.
Stories are data with soul
Here’s another way to see the value of qualitative data. Dr. Brené Brown is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection and in a 2010 TED Talk, she has an interesting definition which you can use to persuade people away from strictly quantitative research. She says, “Stories are just data with soul.” I like that phrase. It references both the descriptive, rather than numeric, aspect of qualitative knowledge. And it references empathy. When you can walk in the shoes of other person, make decision like they make decisions, react like they react, then you have gotten in touch with the soul of their being.