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Qualitative market research: using the senses in participatory research

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All market research aims to achieve objectivity. This is, of course, the case with quantitative methods, but also with qualitative research methods. In today’s article, we present you with a study that shows why it is necessary to use your senses in qualitative research.

Its author, Brian McDonough, defends the vision of participatory qualitative research. The case study he uses (interview of an aeroplane pilot) allows us to understand how the researcher’s active participation helped him to understand the world of the interviewee better. This study highlights the limitations that traditional interviews, based on an interview guide, can have. We have produced a podcast with Brian, which you will find at the beginning of this article. At the end of this article, you will also find the questions we asked him and his answers (in the form of sound clips) for each of them.

In a nutshell

In some cases, participatory qualitative research allows a better understanding of what the respondents are saying and the world in which they live. The objectivity of qualitative research does not necessarily mean distancing oneself at all costs from the subject of the research.

Summary

Case study: the qualitative research of an airline pilot’s expertise

The purpose of market research was to understand the use of technological tools in the workplace. For this research, Brian McDonough chose to focus on the aviation industry and followed an airline pilot in his daily use of aircraft control instruments. In his research, he explains how he was very quickly confronted with a methodological difficulty that led to palpable frustration during the interviews. The pilot was indeed unable to verbalise his expertise. The words used during the interview became less precise, as can be seen in the passage below:

When you’re at an approach it’s going to be that sort of angle. You’re going to listen to that much sound that will be coming out of the engines. You can see that the engine instruments are going to be in that sort of mark.

It was therefore not possible to understand precisely what the term “expertise” meant in the case of an airline pilot. Traditional qualitative interview methods showed their limitations. A semantic analysis, faced with the imprecision of the terms used, would have concluded that the pilot had no expertise. But this was not the case since the pilot demonstrated his expertise in the very act of flying an aeroplane. Another methodological approach was necessary.

We must not only listen to what is said but also experience first-hand the results.

Use of a qualitative methodology based on the senses

In his article, Brian asks himself explicitly: “How could I make sense of the Pilot’s ability to fly an aeroplane whilst only interviewing him inside his home? I turned to participatory methods, and in particular, sensory research methodology”.

He then describes how he became involved in the Pilot’s practice by accompanying him to an airfield, then flying with him and finally taking control himself to experience the sensations that his respondent found so difficult to describe—moving from a non-participatory to a participatory mode allowed Brian to “understand” the Pilot’s world.

The semantic analysis allowed him to understand the difference between the participatory and non-participatory approach. The Pilot, by guiding Brian, links with the sensations felt. He objectifies, thanks to the sensations felt by the qualitative researcher, his thoughts and demonstrates his experience:

the Pilot is not just telling me how it is (‘Now you are going nose up’) but he is asking me how it feels (‘See how little it is?’). Here, I developed an opportunity for knowing that did not only require listening to what was said, but feeling how it felt. Sensorial data is a rich resource allowing understanding to permeate through experience.

Tips for your qualitative research

Brian McDonough’s research shows very clearly that a participatory approach to qualitative research is sometimes necessary. The words used; the semantics employed by the respondents can be clues for the qualitative researcher that a transition to a participatory approach is essential. The difficulties a respondent may have in “verbalising” his or her thoughts should be a warning to you. Sometimes you need to be able to “help” respondents. The qualitative researcher is a catalyst for talking. He or she must report it as faithfully as possible but must also know how to put in place methodological tricks to allow the words to take on their full meaning.

The podcast questions

You wrote an article in the Journal of Qualitative Research entitled : The Hands have it : tactile participation and maximum grip in the aviation sector”. How would you sum it up for those listening to us today?

your research makes numerous references to phenomenology and in particular the work by Merleau-Ponty. Can you explain the relationship with qualitative research and how it inspired you?

In your research you highlight the role of senses in qualitative research, and in particular what you call “haptic”. Why is it important?

In your paper you write that “hands are repositories of memory”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

In your article you describe the different steps that led you to realize that using your hands to understand the interviewee’s world was important. Can you explain us how you felt that need?

Can we say that you moved into participatory research?

there is kind of a tension between participatory and non-participatory research. What are the advantages of each approach according to you?

Qualitative research also revolves around bringing a fresh look to a problem. Didn’t you feel you lost that fresh, naive look at things when you embarked in participatory research?

Don’t you think that objectivity is gained through distance with the subject ? How do you remain objective in such studies, particularly when you develop such deep involvement with the subject?

How would you recommend that haptic be applied to lead to better qualitative studies?

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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