Challenge existing wisdom (book review)
'Inspirational', 'stimulating', 'entertaining', 'provocative', 'what qualitative research is meant to be about', 'essential', 'challenging', 'definitive' are just some of the accolades that Wendy Gordon's 'Goodthinking: A Guide to Qualitative Research' (Admap) attracts from leading lights in the industry.
Is it really that good? Given Wendy Gordon's intention to write a 'personal guidebook providing practical knowledge and guidance', I have tried to review the book from my practitioner and client perspective rather than an academic one.
Over the years Wendy has reaped the benefit of challenging existing wisdom. She hopes likewise that readers will challenge her thoughts and assumptions, so helping to move the qualitative discipline forward. She reminds us that her work is inevitably 'context-bound' (UK, 1963-1998), not necessarily a bad thing given the UK's excellent reputation for qualitative marketing research thinking and practice. Indeed, this may be something UK researchers might be advised to challenge regularly to avoid complacency!
The close of the Millennium has been a buoyant period for qualitative researchers. However, if this success is to continue Wendy argues for a number of changes. These include:
- getting closer to the consumer, brand relationship (in particular, through observation at the moment of truth: act of purchase and consumption);
- developing a more holistic and longitudinal approach (for instance, adopted families and citizen juries); working with respondents (partners not subjects) and clients (share the process and educate where necessary) for greater trust and productivity;
- adapting and developing new qualitative research methods that will help marketers plan for the longer term future. Wendy notes that the Millennium is marked by a strong desire to read the future, but using the past to predict the future has severe limitations.
The book differs in a number of significant ways from her text of ten years ago (co-authored with Roy Langmaid). For instance, it is more personal in tone, revealing her thinking on human beings and their relationship with brands a necessary antecedent of research methodology. A section is devoted to tracing the various roots of the modern qualitative research discipline, partly to encourage those new to the discipline to appreciate better the nature of the tools and techniques used.
Wendy sees signs of convergence of the academic and practitioner communities, most notably the growing appreciation of 'bricolage' using whatever tools are judged best for a job. Indeed, in many parts of the book Wendy reminds us of alternatives. The value of mixed methodologies and various types of crucially timed observation are noted ('moments of truth'). The industry does seem over fond of interviews as they are probably seen to be the most economical way of collecting data, reaching moments of time and place other than the 'here and now'.
The sections on methods, procedures and stimulus material, in particular, are as thorough as they need to be and will be extremely useful to many new to qualitative research (including my postgraduate students) and as well as those with more experience. In the section on 'models of thinking' Wendy reviews four model types with some useful examples. She reminds us, however, that we should only use the models when they really contribute to better insight. Otherwise they can become models of non-thinking. Her description of 'fuzzy thinking' will probably strike a chord with most of us. The need to make explicit the implicit when it comes to marketing definitions is certainly fundamental.
Part of the book is devoted to how we might think about brands, marketing, research and the future, in particular cultural and psychological changes. These sections are crucial to dedicated qualitative researchers who wish to compete with the growing bands of specialist marketing consultancies that carry out qualitative research.
It is obvious that some suggestions will potentially lead to better information and decision-making but how to demonstrate these? Given, the negative side of accountability found in many organisations, the resource implications of some of the suggestions may need justifying at many levels of a client organisation's hierarchy.
This is a book that anyone who is interested in marketing and brand research should consume. This, hopefully, includes my MA Marketing students too!
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, November 1999
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 1999