Phelim O'Leary looks at the issues involved in Qualitative Research in different geographical and cultural territories.
I was very interested in the article on qualitative research approaches in the US by Patricia Sabena (The US Mix, In Brief January 2001). It seemed to me to illustrate what is probably becoming a more frequent issue, as qualitative researchers move across different geographical and cultural territories and as clients have favourite research companies, with whom they may have long term and very trusting relationships, conduct studies in different parts of the world. As qualitative research develops more global characteristics, differences may begin to emerge between indigenous territory approaches, and the kinds of approaches that are developed outside of particular geographic areas. My own company, for example, is used to working with UK based and European research agencies in an Irish context. When the research is planned from outside, it can sometimes have a different hue than if it were planned at home.
It is no longer very unusual for European qualitative researchers to both plan research to be conducted in the US, and thereafter to carry out interviews and moderate discussions in the territory. Recently, while using a facility in the US, I was amused to find myself working in the next room to a French researcher, conducting a project originated in Paris. The facility supervisors were also somewhat amused, as in the previous week other European researchers had visited them, as well as a lady who had come from India to conduct group discussions.
The orientation of Patricia Sabena demonstrates both an intuitive and experiential knowledge of the US, which begins to dictate selection of locations, in particular. These nuances of appreciation may not be as significant a part of the planning process, if the research is being constructed from outside of the US (unless briefing is very specific indeed). For example, the idea that the Coasts are trendsetting seems to suggest that LA, Seattle and New York are used for such respondents. From a European perspective, it is more likely that the decision in the first place, is to identify trendsetters, no matter where they live. (I have certainly found them to exist in Austin, Texas, and in Chicago, without these cities being initially being identified as "trendsetting" locations.)
The approach, as indicated in the article, seems to place a very high emphasis on pragmatic convenience. This could easily lead to selecting the locations first, and then fitting respondent criteria into these locations. I suspect that the European orientation may be slightly different: to first consider who needs to be interviewed on both demographic and lifestyle/psychographic dimensions and thereafter rely on advice about geographical factors. I think it may be unusual for European researchers to select a location, for instance, on the basis of it being convenient to the headquarters of a client. If this becomes the first consideration, then more profound issues that are at the heart of research can become subservient. Similarly, making commuting convenience for respondents an initial thought in the process may just be leaning too heavily on the pragmatics, rather than the key objectives of research.
A further difference that may exist between European and American approaches is connected to the idea of homogenous groups. Working both at home and in European /US territories, researchers in this company do place an emphasis on homogeneity in group. I am interested, therefore, that Patricia Sabena refers to the introduction of a minority of respondents to a group to reflect ethnic diversity. While I fully accept that this may more closely mirror population diversity, it can, in my experience, also create tensions within a group which are of little benefit to the research itself, and which can create an additional (and unwanted) dynamic for the moderator to handle.
I wonder if we are seeing here a difference that represents a more "cultural" approach on the part of European researchers, and a more convenience-led orientation by indigenous American researchers? If this is the case, then maybe attention should be paid to the comments of Jim Bryson, in the same issue of In Brief, wherein he refers to " the poor perception of qualitative research" in America particularly being created by recent qualitative research during the election campaigns.
I would certainly welcome other views on this topic, particularly from those who work across different territories, and have responsibility for planning research to be carried out in international markets.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, March 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001