Quantify vs Qualify

Steve Portigal’s post today titled The Ethnography of Marketing, or, rather, the marketing of ethnography sparked some thoughts on using quantitative methods on research gathered by qualitative means. I sense a fundamental dissonance there which I can’t quite put my finger on. I may not have the right knowledge or tools at my disposal.

So I decided to look at the example that Steve uses, in order to see if I could articulate the issue in basic terms. He ends his post with the following query,

There’s always a market for short-cuts, easy answers, quick-and-dirty
solutions. Although their case studies sound intriguing from the little
bit of detail we’ve been given, I would want to know much much more
about what they’re actually doing to get to these results.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data
of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen
is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents’ bed is the
family social center in India. This is vital information for any
company making global consumer entertainment products.

Is
"the parents’ bed is the family social center in India" an ethnographic
insight or something that any Indian would be able to tell you?

While I don’t feel like I am ‘any’ Indian :), I certainly qualify to attempt an answer to Steve’s question and see if I can use that to clarify my concerns.

The concept of the parent’s bed being the family social center in India, is something that I think derives from a very common family structure and household style in India. The concept of ‘joint families’ in India is well known, researched and documented. Even income taxes can be filed as a "HUF" or Hindu Undivided Family. From the site,

The expression is however defined under
the Hindu Law as a family, which consists of all persons lineally descended from a common ancestor and includes their wives
and unmarried daughters. The relation of a Hindu undivided
family does not arise from a contract but arises from status.

Legalities aside, what does it actually mean? Two of my uncles continued to live with my grandfather after their marriage. The house would be considered my grandfathers, and legally he would be the head of this HUF. Each of my uncle’s had a ‘bedroom’ or a main room which was in effect the center of their households – i.e. there would be a bathroom, another room for the children, in many cases of ‘ancestral homes’ this would include seperate kitchens, living area etc depending on the house, income, space available etc

What this means is that if Uncle One were to receive visitors, it would be in ‘his’ space in the ‘joint family home’, most likely his ‘bedroom’, rather than the ‘common’ living area or lounge simply because they were visiting just one member of the house rather than everyone.

This means that any research conducted across India will show significant data to quantify the validity of Steve’s question – yes the parent’s bed is the social center of the house. A quantifiable amount – i.e. we can set a number to this factoid, such as "43% of houses consider…. "

However, to qualify the validity of the observation as a key point for consumer product manufacturers looking to the future would be to add that this system is rapidly detiorating in the urban centers due to the rise of the nuclear family and single family homes.

So would this factoid be applicable even 5 or 10 years from now, if the reasons that gave rise to this cultural trait won’t apply as the society changes?

This is the missing factor I think when we quantify something qualitative. It’s a different kind of observation entirely from a straightforward one that won’t change – i.e. the majority of India won’t eat beef. That is something that’s unlikely to change regardless of changes in economic standing or social changes.

Again, I could be wrong, but what I wrote to Steve was this,

[Wouldn’t you say] that the essence of
ethnographic research is that it’s not quantitative like market
research, surveys etc, it’s the unquantifiable stuff that provides the
added insight into a culture or way of doing/being, and by breaking it
down into numbers/data points, are we getting true insights or just
pretty patterns?

And as Steve rightly pointed out to me, pattern making is distinctly different from pattern recognition.

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2 Responses to Quantify vs Qualify

  1. As you, I’m a big fan of 1. stories and 2. context. Thanks for some good stories to provide a little context to the rather antiseptic “bed” example from the article. It’s hard to get the richness of real experiences into the space constraints of a magazine article.

  2. neelakantan says:

    Ideally, the “insight” software should be giving this insight (of whether this insight is universally applicable or not or till what time frame)and not a human (you!) – but I am a skeptic as far as using sofware for “insight” in this kind of a mode. Data analysis, data mining yes, but beyond that, well…

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