If you remember, the purpose of living an informed life is to understand that which must be fully understood, according to the Buddha. And what must be fully understood is the true nature of our existence. The Buddha tells us we need to understand this if we are to be free from suffering. He doesn’t just mean suffering suffering, but daily troubles like worry, doubt, falling behind, being confused, anxious, upset, struggling to figure things out…sounds like a qualitative researcher at the beginning of a project!

The door to this understanding is found in our experience. Our experience is the thing that is closest to us, so it makes sense to understand it. Ordinarily we do not understand our experience, we don’t make the effort to probe it. We use our experience to contact other things – to know and enjoy the world of our six senses, sight, sound, smells, touch, taste, and ideas, but the experiencing itself does not get examined. Thus we continue to learn about everything – except the instrument of that knowledge.

This is not the case if you are a qualitative researcher, in which case you will be paid to understand experiences – where they come from, how they work – and how to elicit, study and influence them. You might think that the brief directs you to understand a brand, a commercial, choices, influence or decisions – but all of these things are experiences too. They might be spoken of as matters of fact, but they are perceptions, mediated by the qualities of mind.

To understand experience involves two steps

  1. We have to distinguish the components of our experience, to see what it is made of and how the parts ‘fit’ together; to do this, we take it apart mentally and then reassemble it to understand how it shapes our actions. We understand that deconstructing experience might lead to some distortions, so we are keen to test our distinctions for validity – using our experiences once again.
  1. Then we must examine our experience to discover its most pervasive features, the characteristic patterns of phenomena. From this analysis we can begin to make informed suggestions about the likely course of events. This part of what we do brings into play the category ideas, like character, image, function, value.

The first step requires that we view the person analytically, and the Buddha reveals that what a person is is a group of five factors which he calls the five aggregates.

The five are:

  1. material forms,
  2. feelings,
  3. perceptions,
  4. mental formations
  5. consciousness

Through them we experience the world.

The five aggregates contain everything that makes up our experience.

From the Buddha’s analysis of the nature of existence, we can also see that this understanding is not mere information; rather it is insight – direct and immediate insight into the true nature of ourselves. If that doesn’t sound like what we promise in qualitative work, I don’t know what does. This understanding results in the end of suffering, particularly if you have accumulated a ton of information about the project (whether that project is your life or a brand of confectionery), your suffering will cease when you gain insight into it!

Understanding provides the key to wisdom. The method of the Buddha reverses the normal procedure. Instead of focusing our attention on the world or people or our own sensations, we turn our attention inward to shine the spotlight of awareness on the 5 aggregates – four of which are mental events – to figure out how they combine to create our experiences.

The full title of the aggregates is the ‘5 aggregates of clinging’. If you are puzzled by the word ‘clinging’ don’t be. It refers to attachment; the things we are attached to treasure, long for, are stuck with. One of the main jobs of commercial qualitative research is to understand attachment and how to influence it. If you can’t do that you will be limited to reportage.

So let’s summarise:

  1. To understand ourselves we must explore experiences and to understand those we need to explore the elements that make them up. These are the 5 aggregates.
  1. They are known as the 5 aggregates of clinging because these are the things we cling to, or are attached to – and we can have favourites in any of them – favourite objects/places, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or consciousness. We can also experience avoidance among them, for example most people don’t like self-consciousness and try to avoid it. We aim to avoid pain, both physical and psychological.
  1. A wonderful synergy exists between the Buddha’s idea of clinging and our experiences shopping which are full of ‘attachments’. Often our brief is to understand experience so as to help our client create more attachment to a particular bit of it, a brand, product, service.

The next section in blue can be missed out by those keen to get to the part about how to elicit experiences in a manner that leads to the form of understanding called insight. It is there for those who wish for more detail on the 5 aggregates, the building blocks of experience.

Each of the five factors is a category, it includes things which contain the same core characteristics. Any event or experience in the mind/body can be found in the 5 aggregates. There is nothing in the whole of experience that lies outside them.

The first of the five is Material Form. This includes all material phenomena. Most important is the body. The Buddha says there are two basic subsets of Material Form. The primary aspects of material form take the traditional names, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, but for Buddhism these do not refer to the physical things, rather each represents a key property of matter and I list them here, distinguished by their key property:


Element Property
Earth Extension, it occupies space, has some degree of hardness or softness, resists pressure and excludes other bodies from occupying the same space.
Water Cohesion, material particles bind together and adhere
Fire All material possesses some degree of heat.


Air the principle of oscillation, everything vibrates and this is the basis of motion.


All materials possess these four to some degree; what distinguishes them is the proportions each contains. We distinguish them on the basis of the dominant element, thus we get solid bodies, liquids or gases.

Other types of material form are the life faculty and the instruments of perceptions, the sense organs, these underscore the mental base that supports consciousness.

This one aspect, material form, covers all the stuff in existence.

Material form is the only aggregate found outside of ourselves. The other four aggregates are in the mind. The mind for Buddhism is not a single thing, but a complex of activities, broken down into four factors: feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

If you are a qualitative researcher, much of your deliberation will focus on how these work together to form reactions to products, brands or services. How do people perceive it, feel about it, what states of mind are associated with it and how does it manifest in consciousness?

Feelings are the mental factor that experiences the flavour of the object, the affective quality of it. There are three basic types of feelings, pleasant feelings, painful feelings and neutral feelings.  Feelings can be further subdivided by the sense organs from which they originate, feelings from sights, sounds, tastes, touch or feelings which arise from sources inside us by contact of the mind with ideas/images.

Perception is the mental act of grasping the qualities of the object. It takes note of the object’s features. Visual perceptions take note of colour and shape, auditory perception notes sound, loud or soft, high or low. Perception also notices and identifies objects and people, ‘that’s Jim, he has blonde hair and is tall’. Perception can be classified by way of the sense that it arises through, visual perceptions, touch perceptions, taste perceptions etc. We must remember that there are perceptions of tangibles and perception of ideas.

The fourth aggregate is mental formations, a comprehensive group that includes a number of factors. You might think of these as states of mind. There are fifty-one in most classifications. Of these, the most important is Will or Volition. This is the factor responsible for action, or inaction, the factor that arouses us to speak, move, act, think–or not. Modern psychology tends to call this motivation.

The Mental Formations also include all the different desires and emotions, and of special interest here are the pleasant and unpleasant states of mind. The unpleasant ones include greed, hatred, delusion and pleasant include generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom.

Here is more detail on the 51:


The fifth aggregate is consciousness, the moment-by-moment awareness, the perpetual ‘screen’ of our mind upon which appears sights, sounds, feelings, states of mind, perceptions. It is this that appears to be what is going on at any moment, but its formation is profoundly influenced by the other four factors. Like a freeze frame, it is full of impressive detail but is not the movie!]

Working with the 5 aggregates as a qualitative researcher

So, we are sitting in front of someone or a group, or connected to people via an online link. How can we use this knowledge of the nature of experience to tackle our brief?

A crucial first step is the acceptance of ignorance: however, we might feel about these people, the brief, the situation, we are ignorant of their experiences right now. So, we need to begin the process of making contact with them. And to resist the generalisations and assumptions we might make to reduce our anxiety.

To accomplish our exploration we are going to use the steps recommended by Husserl in the Phenomenological Method (think of it as a proper Topic Guide!).

I use phenomenology as my key method because it starts from experiences. “Reactions” we might call them in Market Research. These could be of any kind, speech, gestures, actions, thoughts, feelings, including things like tone of voice, deletions, distortions, generalisations, slips of the tongue and so on. Or mental reactions in your own mind.

I also like phenomenology because it is central on my spectrum of theory types and its very simple to move in either direction to different explanatory models or ways of working.


Psychological Theories Continuum


You can as easily divert from phenomenology into the inner world or, alternatively, an analysis of behaviour based on observation in the outer world.

The phenomenological method uses a framework that I adapt for my own inquiries, whatever the data collection method.

The Phenomenological Method has three steps and you should be able to recognise them in any of your qualitative endeavours:

  1. Bracket your assumptions: the Rule of Epoché
  • We do this so that we can focus on the primacy and immediacy of our experience, without bias. The rule of epoché translates as ‘open-mindedness’
  • How do I use it? Before I start any project, I explore my mind & emotions for what is in there about the topic/field/area/brand/client. I set this as an internal inquiry & wait for things to pop up over time as the active project work approaches.
  • Things that I often find are: judgements about users, stereotypes or projections, assumptions and prejudices. I now have an early warning system to inform me of my biases!

These are the first data in my inquiry and I must be prepared to put them to one side if I am to make genuine contact with the experiences of others. Make no mistake; you and I are not open-minded, the mind abhors openness, because it connotes vulnerability. You need to make a purposeful effort to open yourself to others.


  1. The Rule of Description
  • Here the maxim is ‘describe don’t explain’ your data should be in the form of answers to a question like ‘what happened?’
  • Key prompts include: What Happened? How did you? Tell me about…what effect did that have on you? What’s on your mind about….?
  • Key techniques include: automatic writing, storytelling, recalling past experiences.
  • We are aiming to let people tell their story their own way, in their own words. That means that what matters to them forms the framework & detail of their account. We may then think about their accounts in terms of the thoughts and feelings we might feel if we were to put ourselves in their shoes (this forms the basis of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis or IPA – a person-centred tool for analysing experiences).
  • You will reveal the important embedded associations or implicit knowledge that drive perceptions on your topic using these methods. You will also uncover the language conventions of your subject area.
  1. The Rule of Horizontality & Verticality – these simply refer to looking across the data and looking into it in depth. A great researcher is sure to do both!
  • Horizontality: You are putting together a jigsaw. At the start you have no idea of which are key pieces or how they fit together. Resist creating hierarchies of importance at this stage. This is the starting activity of Grounded Theory where we arrange the data in a matrix and look across it for correspondences, links, connections, contradictions. We are scanning across the data for connections and themes.
  • Verticality: now that you have all your pieces, use thinking and motivational models to choose those of interest and apply vertical tools to them: (laddering, early experiences, key examples from life of choices and decisions and how they worked). This is where you aim for understanding ‘in depth’ – literally an account of how the 5 aggregates are working together to produce outcomes, attitudes, opinions or behaviour.

Here we are looking down inside ourselves to explore how we would think, feel, act if we were subject to the circumstances described by our respondents. If you have not thoroughly and consistently done this in your own mind, you will struggle to do it for someone else’s.

In the interviewing or workshop phase, verticality is best explored by questions like: ‘how did that affect you?’ In the analysis period the question is more like: ‘if I were doing/thinking/feeling that, how would that affect me?’

When in doubt, confused or stuck, which happens every day, I ask myself, ‘when I recall that contact, who was talking to whom, about what and why then?’ This might lead to a dialogue between different voices within myself, in my own mind as well as some exchange that happened during the research. This question will also allow me to explore whether someone was answering a question, managing his impression in front of others, avoiding embarrassment, showing or hiding things. The most common question in participants’ heads as they engage in qualitative sessions, is: ‘what will they think of me if I say that?’