Written By: Svend Brinkmann, University of Aalborg, Denmark
In a recent analysis, Clive Nancarrow and co-workers (2005) have argued that qualitative marketingresearch has undergone a process of McDonaldization. McDonaldization is a central aspect of consumer society that has been studied for decades by sociologist George Ritzer (2008). I believe that qualitative research more broadly and globally stands in danger of falling into McDonaldization, when it becomes an industry that affects and is affected by consumer society.
In his books on McDonaldization, Ritzer highlights four primary components that have been perfected at McDonald’s restaurants, but which have spread throughout consumer society:
The first component is efficiency, which means employing the best and least wasteful route toward one’s goal. The current emphasis on methods in qualitative research, which can sometimes even be characterised as methodolatry,or a worship of methods, is in line with the call for efficiency. The term ‘method’ originally comes from Greek and meant “a way to a goal”. Methods are supposed to get us from A to B as fast and efficient as possible.
The problem with efficiency is that imaginative and penetrating research demands time and patience. We cannot demand, when we do research, that everything should be geared toward minimising time. Proper field work may take months or even years. If you want to know and understand other people, you need to spend time with them, but today it is the case that we, as qualitative researchers, are rather like tourists, who visit others for a brief period of time (maybe just one hour), take our snapshots (i.e. record the conversations), and then leave for the next destination. Interviewing is becoming the preferred choice in qualitative research, not because it is always the optimal way to answer one’s research question, but because it appears to be less time consuming than ethnographic fieldwork, for example.
The second component is calculability, signalling the audit culture that is part of McDonaldization. Initially, calculability sounds like it should be far away from qualitative concerns. However, anyone who has read qualitative research proposals will recognize this trope, for example when it is stated that “30 people will be interviewed, 15 men and 15 women” and the like. Why 30? Why not 4 or 300? How can we know in advance how many participants we need? Such questions are often bypassed when qualitative researchers emulate the kind of calculability that may be a virtue in quantitative research.
The problem with calculability is first and foremost the fact that it sits uneasily with the emergent and imaginative processes of qualitative research. In general, when the goal is to know and understand other people, calculability will restrain the potentials of qualitative research.
The next component is predictability, defined by Ritzer as uniformity across settings and times. It means that people will everywhere receive the same service and product every time they interact with McDonalds. Like calculability, predictability often goes directly against the promises of qualitative research to be inductive and flexible. The virtue of predictability is “no surprises!”, but granting that this can be seen as a virtue in the fast food industry, it is more like a vice in qualitative research. Qualitative research is increasingly becoming standardised, witnessed for example in the enormous amount of technical “how to” books that tells you what to do, regardless of the subject matter, context and basic philosophical approach. Just as a Big Mac is the same all over the planet, interviewing others is often supposed to be a process that can be standardised, whether the interviewee is a single mother in Ghana or a senior citizen in Denmark.
The main problem of predictability is therefore that qualitative research, which is interested in contextual experience and emergent meaning making, simply cannot be rendered predictable. We need qualitative research exactly when we can not keep controlled factors constant. We need qualitative research when we want to be surprised and cannot predict!
The final component is control, which, for Ritzer, refers to the non-human technology that speeds the operation, or, to put it in more negative terms, takes skills away from people. In qualitative research, there has been a growth in the number of research projects that employ CAQDAS – computer assisted qualitative data analysis software. This may increase the feeling of control when dealing with very large amounts of data, but there are also dangers associated with the outsourcing of central aspects of analysis to computer programs.
The problem of control notably concerns the fact that existing computer programs are primarily developed for coding strategies, whereas the many other forms of analysis, such as narrative and discursive analyses, figure less in the computer-assisted programs for textual analysis. There is thus a danger that the ready availability of computer programs for coding can have the effect that coding (and related approaches such as Grounded Theory) become a preferred short-cut to analysis, at the expense of a rich variety of other modes of analyses.
The antithesis to McDonaldization is craftsmanship, and in the 1950s, C. Wright Millsfamously depicted social research in general as intellectual craftsmanship:
Be a good craftsman: Avoid any rigid set of procedures. Above all, seek to develop and to use the sociological imagination. Avoid the fetishism of method and technique. Urge the rehabilitation of the unpretentious intellectual craftsman, and try to become such a craftsman yourself. Let every man be his own methodologist; let every man be his own theorist; let theory and method again become part of the practice of a craft (Mills, 1959,p. 224).
To mechanically follow prespecified methodological steps does not guarantee scientific truth, let alone interesting research, Mills argued. Rather than distrusting our ordinary human capacities for observing and communicating about our lives, and allocating understanding to specific methods instead, we should as qualitative researchers focus on the person of the researcher as the actual research instrument itself.
My own mentor, Steinar Kvale, once told me that after having written an international bestseller on the method of interviewing, and having read countless doctoral dissertations based on interviewing as well as numerous research proposals, he had come to the conclusion – toward the end of his life – that there is a negative correlation between the number of pages devoted to methodology and the quality of a manuscript that communicates qualitative research. The more methodology, the less valuable the contribution, was his analysis. “Why so”, I asked him, when he revealed this surprisingly negative attitude toward methodology. “Because”, he answered, “those who have discovered something novel and important through their studies will focus onwhat they have discovered, whereas those who have not really found anything of interest can always fill their manuscript with sections on methodology”.
Downplaying methodology may be at the expense of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control, but it does not havetobe detrimental to high quality research that not only lives up to the standards of the craft, but constantly pushes these further.
This blog post is a much condensed version of a keynote speech, entitled “Current dilemmas in qualitative research”, given at the 17th Qualitative Health Conference, held in Vancouver, Canada, October 25-27 2011.
Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. (This edition 2000). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nancarrow, C., Vir, J. & Barker, A. (2005). Ritzer’s McDonaldization and applied qualitative marketing research. Qualitative Market Research, 8(3): 296-311.
Ritzer, G. (2008). The McDonaldization of Society. (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.