Opening up the black box

Date of publication: December 1, 1995


The paper argues that, while we have refined the moderation of qualitative interviews, for reasons that are sometimes as much political as practical, we have neglected the study of the interpretation of qualitative data, consigning it to an unknowable subjective black box. We have done this at our peril! The genius of the individual researcher is the foundation of the guru status of leading practitioners but it is also the single most damming weapon our detractors have against us. For the sake of our own accountability to ourselves and for comparability across studies, but also for the sake of the long-term reputation of the industry, we need to switch the paradigm and start from a theoretical position of how consumers are making sense of the research proposition, rather than from the sensitive interpretation of what they say. This is the critical approach and it provides the foundation for the main part of this paper, wherein I range around modem theories of consumption, developing them into new ways of looking at the data, as well as re-evaluating what we are already doing. Most of the suggestions derive from cultural and communication theory and, as such refer to the insights of structuralism and semiotics. However it is the averred aim of the paper to switch the paradigm, not to switch off the reader. I have kept it simple. In this context, it is important to make the point that I am not suggesting a move from artist to scientist, rather the switch of emphasis from researcher to consumption. From this shift, all else will flow.

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