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What does ethnography give you that statistics don’t?

by Sam Ladner on March 26, 2010 · 2 comments

in Blog, Popular, ethnography, home, market research, qualitative research, quantitative research, surveys, time

Roger Martin has a great post on Harvard Business Review that summarizes how ethnographic research differs from quantitative surveys.

Martin writes:

Qualitative, and especially observational or ethnographic, research enables us to delve much more deeply into the relationship between our firm and its product/service and the customer. Because we aren’t obsessed about adding all the responses together for ‘rigorous quantitative analysis’, we can let the customer use his own voice/words/vocabulary.

This sounds a lot like the notion of “verstehen,” which refers to the deep understanding that comes from interpretive, qualitative research.

Quantitative research has its place; how else could we measure improvement if not through counting instances or events? Yet we often forget that quantitative data is primarily designed to summarize findings quickly. This is why it’s so popular but also why it’s inadequate to describe many experiences.

I like to us a football game metaphor to describe the real difference between qualitative and quantitative research. Let’s say that the Steelers beat the Patriots 49-15. What would you know about that game? Simply that the Steelers had won.

Would you really know where the turning point in the game came? Would you know about the significance of a mid-game interception? Or perhaps the critical sacking of the Patriots’ quarterback? No, you’d know nothing of the ebb and flow of the game, critical mistakes and successes, or even how the Patriots might feel about their loss. They might actually feel vindicated if their defensive line held tough against the Steelers for 3 out of 4 quarters.

Statistics are a great way of quickly conveying how a group of events, people, or things are similar and different. Mode, median and mean measure “central tendency,” and standard deviation and inter-quartile range tell you “dispersion.” With these two types of measures, you can tell me how similar people are when they choose orange juice, how different they are when they rent cars or attend movies. But you cannot tell me what “more pulp,” means to people, why a “subcompact” car turns off some people, or what people perceive the word “blockbuster” to actually mean.

In short, ethnographic research can clarify all of these deep, nuanced details that quantitative data skates over or takes for granted. Do you want to know how many people attended a “summer blockbuster?” Then by all means, count them. But if you want to know what kind of movie people believe a “blockbuster” to be, then you need to do in-depth ethnographic work.

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Categories: Blog · Popular · ethnography · home · market research · qualitative research · quantitative research · surveys · time

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 SocProf March 26, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Statistics = science, or anything involving maths for that matter. Economists have been treating us filthy sociologists with contempt for our messy qualitative methods for a long time without acknowledging the rigor and complexities of qualitative methods and the great insights they provide on social phenomena (see: Goffman, Becker, Wacquant, etc..).

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2 Sam Ladner March 27, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Goffman? Wacquant? Of course! They have provided us great theories and great empirical research. I so wish we could share their work — which requires a fair bit of time — more easily with others outside of interpretive sociology.

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