The devil is in the detail: reflexive accounting in qualitative market research

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 12 June 2009



Branch, J. (2009), "The devil is in the detail: reflexive accounting in qualitative market research", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 12 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The devil is in the detail: reflexive accounting in qualitative market research

Article Type: Practitioner perspectives From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, Volume 12, Issue 3

Researchers should report how they gained access to the research setting, how they presented themselves within it, including details of the roles taken … Ways in which data were collected and recorded should also be included, as well as lists of the various types of data available to researchers, and coding and other analytic procedures (Seale, 1999, p. 162).

The disclosure of research design for which Seale has made a plea is that which in ethnography is often known as reflexive accounting. Early anthropological works, for example, included natural histories – confessional tales of sorts – which buttressed authors’ claims of credibility. In more postmodernist research, reflexive accounting serves to de-emphasize claims of authenticity, instead, situating the research and, to some extent, encouraging different interpretations rather than single ‘truths’. But in either case, reflexive accounting makes researchers’ decisions explicit and methods scrutinisable, so that readers are fully informed and, subsequently, can arrive at their own conclusions (Becker, 1970).

A casual survey of recent qualitative studies in the marketing literature, however, suggests that Seale’s plea for reflexive accounting has largely gone unanswered. Indeed, details of researchers’ decisions and methods have been notably thin. The innumerable iterations of the hermeneutic circle of interpretation, for example, have been replaced in many instances with single phrases such as “I then analysed the data inductively”.

Perhaps journal editors have pushed for a slimming and trimming of Methodology sections, privileging instead Results, Discussion, and Suggestions for Future Research. Doubtless, there has been a convergence towards a single template for reporting research. Or maybe the growing awareness of qualitative market research in the mainstream marketing community has resulted in the assumption that its procedures are as standardized as those of traditional quantitative research... as straightforward as running a regression or calculating a χ squared. In a subtle twist of irony, it seems that the lack of reflexive accounting has also contributed greatly to the scepticism among critics of qualitative market research. Indeed, claims that it lacks scientific rigour, employs makeshift methods, is rife with bias at every research stage, and generates useless results, are common.

The rationale for Seale’s plea, however, is clear, and addresses concisely these potentialities. First, there is no universal template for reporting research. The fundamental differences between qualitative and quantitative research necessitate a different type of reporting. The concern for natural, subjective language of research participants, for example, must be reflected in the rhetoric of the report (Firestone, 1993). It encourages “researchers to make words mean something by virtue of their resonance in human lives” (Holbrook, 1995, p. 24). Its emergent nature also suggests a much more ‘convoluted’ approach, rather than the linear, step-wise norm of quantitative research. In summary, qualitative research requires a non-technical style, which “is more adapted to a description of multiple realities; suited to description of influences, value positions of the researcher, methodological paradigm, etc” (Lincoln and Guba, 1985, p. 39).

Second, in contrast to the multitude of survey and statistical techniques of quantitative research, few (if any) standardized instruments are available to the qualitative researcher. Indeed, the “researcher is essentially the main ‘measurement device’ ” (Miles and Huberman, 1994, p. 6) – that is to say, qualitative research relies solely on the “human instrument for generating the thick description, content, and the textual analysis” (Murray and Ozanne, 1991, p. 133). Reporting of qualitative research, therefore, cannot be trivialised – reduced to one-sentence statements in a methodology section.

And third, qualitative research, at its foundation, is paradigmatically different from traditional quantitative research (Hirschman, 1986). It has different research goals (Smith, 1983), makes different philosophical assumptions (Hudson and Wadkins, 1988), and employs different methods of study (Hughes, 1990). Its reporting, therefore, is also different. Indeed, quantitative research “should not serve as the foil against which standards for qualitative research should be developed” (Howe and Eisenhart, 1990, p. 3).

I urge editors, therefore, to embrace the importance of methodology, demanding reflexive accounting in their authors’ submissions. Similarly, I urge them to reconsider their template and stylistic policies, encouraging instead a variety in research reporting. I also implore my fellow qualitative researchers to avoid standardising their Methodology sections, which thereby propagate both the misunderstanding and dubious reputation of qualitative market research. Reflexive accounting is an integral component of qualitative market research – part and parcel of its research rigour– and therefore paramount to its acceptance in the mainstream marketing community. When it comes to qualitative market research, the devil is in the detail.

John Branch


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