The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Evolution of the species

Mike Imms offers a brief celebration of the qualitative research industry’s 40th anniversary

Introduced to the world of marketing, he became convinced that existing quantitative research gave an incomplete insight into real motivations and, in the spirit of American entrepreneurialism, he developed practical applications of his psychology training to marketing. These included, eventually, the use of groups and depth interviews as cost-effective qualitative methods for eliciting the necessary information. His timing was right: the marketing community was ready and eager for such psychologically-based insights.

UK debut

Dichter’s company, the Institute of Motivational Studies, grew in the US throughout the 1950s, and in 1959 its vice president, Bill Schlackman, set up an office in London. Motivational Research had arrived in the UK. Forty years on, it’s important to realise that the Motivational Research as practised in those early days had a specific character -- some elements of which still play an important part in today’s qualitative research.

At its heart were Freudian ideas of motivation -- including the need to explore both suppressed and repressed motives. Suppressed motives concern issues that the individual is aware of, but does not care to admit, whereas repressed motives concern unconscious issues the individual will not admit even to themselves.

The requirements to explore repressed motives demanded a psychoanalytical approach. However, many US clients became disillusioned with Motivational Research, principally because of the untenable nature of this type of approach as the business grew.

By contrast, all the key practitioners in the UK -- Bill Schlackman, Peter Cooper, John and Mary Goodyear, etc. -- had studied psychology, and the scale of the early industry did not lead to the skills deficiency experienced in the US.

Even though initial UK clients included such blue chip companies as Nestlé, Carlsberg, Beechams, and JWT, etc., the industry remained quite small until the 1970s. By then the psychoanalytical approach had largely been superseded by more ‘discursive’ models of qualitative research, based on the humanistic notion that people have within them everything they need to self-direct, to express themselves and to explain for themselves. They don’t need a psychoanalyst to interpret their motivation, nor to understand their own true meanings.

Market re-orientation

This decade saw the term ‘Motivational Research’ disappear from use, and the establishment of the 11/2 - 2 hour group of about eight respondents as the ‘norm’. Moving on to the 1980s, the market experienced a re-orientation and an explosion in demand for qualitative research.

The 1990s, meanwhile, has seen evolutionary developments in thinking, procedures and applications of qualitative market research. As a consequence, modern qualitative research is NOT psychoanalytic, but it is still firmly based on many concepts from the disciplines of psychology. So, while today’s qualitative researchers must understand the basic principles of human psychology -- the notion that central to understanding people is the need to go beyond conscious public factors and to explain private feelings and intuitive associations -- they needn’t be psychoanalysts.

Monitoring standards

As qualitative research has come of age, the need to make it more professional has resulted in the development and adoption of more tangible methods of monitoring standards. These are covered in more detail in John Rose’s chapter, but in summary they include:

As the industry has evolved, many clients and practitioners have developed more ‘interactive’ sessions, involving clients and respondents working together as brainstorming and problem solving teams. Another trend is the deliberate use of ‘atypical’ respondents to explore ‘leading edge’ themes.

But perhaps the most striking feature of the 1990s has been the changing nature of demands from existing clients of qualitative market research -- and here two key trends are evident. The first is the continued rise of international research, and the second a shift towards ‘micro-issues’.

Focus on ‘micro’ issues

In the 1980s, many clients used qualitative market research to explore ‘big chunk’ macro issues concerning the fundamentals of the brand and the market, but it is now quite rare to find clients who do not already have a clear understanding of such macro issues. As a result, today’s projects tend to concern more ‘micro’ issues, such as

  • changes since the last study
  • subtleties and nuances -- different consumers, sub-segments
  • brand and line extension, pack revisions etc.

The other major trend has been the rise of international cross-cultural projects.

The downside of the 1990s has been that, hand in hand with increasing media and public attention on qualitative market research has come an attitude towards it that is, in general, ill-informed and hostile. Gradually, the phrase ‘focus group’ came into general usage, often as a pejorative term.

Witness the following quote from a reader’s letter in the Radio Times, 9-15 January 1999. "Mr White not only managed to pigeon-hole listeners in a way that would do justice to a dreaded ‘focus group’, but also managed to denigrate the excellent work done by Sarah Kennedy and Terry Wogan."

In noting the populist use of the term ‘focus group’ it is important for those in the industry to remember the substantial difference between the theories of ‘focused group interviews’ and ‘qualitative groups’.

  • To ensure definite types of information is elicited
  • To confine discussion to prescribed issues

HOW FOCUSED GROUPS AND QUALITATIVE GROUPS DIFFER

Sources: Merron & Kendall, and Young; Quoted by Peter Sampson, 1967; Mary Goodyear, 1996; integrated by Mike Imms

Forty years on, qualitative research has incorporated an extensive variety of methodologically sound disciplines to evolve into a professional, well respected industry. It has demonstrated not just its ability to adapt to changing client needs, but a willingness and enthusiasm to embrace relevant new ways of thinking and insightful methodologies. Roll on the next 40 years.

 

Mike Imms
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2000