Nursery Blog

The researchers who never ask why

The more you learn about being a qualitative researcher, the more you value the power of asking fewer questions. Most importantly, you tend to stop using the word ‘why?’

‘Why’ is just not a terribly nice word. It’s sharp and aggressive. It’s accompanied by a challenging question mark or is asked with a quizzical lilt. It piles the pressure on. It impels people to rationalise their ideas, thoughts and behaviour. It encourages people to provide an ‘answer’.

But qualitative research isn’t about hunting for answers and identifying truths. It’s about understanding the messy, incoherent, irrational, ill-considered, spontaneous world of human behaviour. We know that people don’t know why they do a lot of things they do and yet we still ask them ‘why?’. Research is also about helping us understand the likely impact of ideas and communications on future behaviour. If people don’t know why they behave the way they do now, they’re never going to tell us how they’ll behave in the future.

So rather than asking ‘why’ we suggest that qualitative researchers be true to their pioneering spirit and have a conversation. Even better, stop asking questions at all. ‘Tell me about it, describe how that felt, bring it to life for me, explain it a bit more, just talk about it - all suggestions and prompts rather than anything direct. And if people do have the answer they’ll tell you anyway.

So no whys and no question marks. And we’d love to know how you feel about that …