There has been a debate in the qualitative profession about use of the question ‘why’ in recent times. Commentators have pointed out that answers to ‘why’ are unreliable and not predictive of real behaviour in the market place. There are many reasons for this, but it is undoubtedly true that asking ‘why?’ directly can produce answers that are misleading. This is, in my opinon a fundamental issue for the integrity and validity of qualitative practice. I have spent many years studying why this happens and how to get around it.

Here is a link to my recent webinar, hosted by Ken Parker and the Association of Qualitative Researchers (AQR) on the topic.

It is a 15 minute talk, illustrated by slides. If you are a practitioner of qualitative research it may be worth a listen. If you are a buyer or user of such work, it will help explain why indirect routes may be more fruitful than direct questions and why flexibility and variation in process are essential to good qualitative research.

In brief, the question ‘why’ relates to disingenuously our belief in cause and effect in small and large events. This assumption is at the base of scientific method and is the key question whose answers lead to understanding, the gold standard of qualitative work

In the webinar I recommend different ways of asking why and give the three principle reasons why informants might not give valuable answers to ‘why’ from time to time: these reasons are:

  1. Don’t know
  2. Can’t say
  3. Won’t say

Each of these can be worked around using enabling and expressive techniques that any researcher worth h/her salt will know about. From my experience the main difference between don’t know and can’t say is that don’t know means the original reason or stimulus has been lost or forgotten and can’t say often refers to difficulties in articulating an answer to a why question.

Won’t say may be a sign that the answer might make the speaker vulnerable in some way. I give work-around suggestions for each of these issues in the webinar.

Finally, the commercial qualitative research profession has played a huge part in creating the circumstances that make ‘why’ questions unreliable. Promising, as we do, insights within a week, working as we do with products and services that often have little importance in people’s lives, asking as we do far too many literal questions about topics which people have little interest in, we leave our informants with little option other than to confabulate: to make stuff up in order to appear helpful, grown-up, rational adults who know a thing or two about the world.

Sometimes its good to remember one comedian’s description of adults: ‘they’re children with money’!’ We are far more influenced by our emotions in choice than our reason. Just as children do, we are likely to follow our feelings.

Enjoy the webinar!