Broader Horizons: Shared Goals
Just because qualitative research is tackled in a different way across the Atlantic does not undermine its validity. Chris Payne warns against stereotyping.
Two facts of life: One. In July 1956, something happened that changed the way North America gathered information. The U-2 spy plane flew at 75,000 feet taking exhaustive photos of the Soviet Union. By 1990, only 5% of the CIA budget was used in covert/soft intelligence gathering and the rest on technological stuff like satellites. Maybe that tells you something about how superpowers 'do research'.
Two. I shared college rooms with a guy called Jools, much interested in radical politics a not uncommon occurrence in those days. In the course of discussion, one balmy evening, I asked him: 'Where will you stand when the Revolution comes?' He paused, shook his Afro hair, waved his tie dyed T shirted arms and smiled. 'To one side, Chris. To one side.'
Unlike Jools, passion rather than expediency still drives me. I still believe in what I do. The reason I do it is that in a childlike manner I wish to create 'revelation', to shed light and generate the beginnings of some new understanding. Often, it can be about some outwardly 'trivial' aspect of human behaviour. This makes my life both easier and tougher. Looking at qual on an international scale our local differences are less important than our shared goals. This has to be one of the most exciting jobs, to collect and impart the vision of others.
Working on qual in the US, which is outside my own culture, I try to bring my intellect rather than my attitudes and opinions to bear. I can, like many other folk who do this, synthesise what I feel is going on. Many, however, seem to want to talk about the way that they do it over there, as if they know better. Yes, they do it differently, but maybe we should at least try to understand why.
America has been enormously influenced by its German and Austrian immigrants, among others. They brought qualitative research and 'discipline' to the US in the 1900s, psychoanalysis (1930s), and space technology (1940s) respectively.
Qualitative research started in the US as a direct result of people like Paul Lazarfield, Herta Herzog and Ernest Dichter. Bill Schlackman was a founding father in the UK and employed John Goodyear, Tim Bell, Wendy Gordon and most of the eminence gris of qual and quant.
But in the US, meanwhile, over dependence upon 'motivational gurus' led to the downfall of more interpretive, less pragmatic motivational research.
In effect over reaching egotism, like that which Europeans can show, was the seed of destruction. Perhaps we should learn the lesson of this history and scrub the idea that the Americans do it in a baser manner than we erudite Brits/Euros.
Lots of clients in the US use talented researchers, many of whom are not European. Just because qual is used badly by some clients in the UK does not damn other clients. The same applies to the US. I would suggest that European practitioners look at their own patch first. If I were doing work solely in the UK from the US I would worry about the general 'it will do' attitude that pervades much recruitment, and service in general.
Passion for revelation, lighting fires in the minds, will be ruined by cross-cultural carping. Go west and understand, young man, then come and tell us what you've found.
Sociologist, Brand Doctors
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, March 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001