Research by numbers works

Iain Murray’s item on qualitative research (MW January 5) claims that assessing the electorate is unimportant. But politics is about having a certain attitude. Politicians can be careless with other people’s (working) lives, and any profession – including qualitative research – that gives politicians a reality check on the view from the Clapham omnibus can’t be all bad.

But no one is arguing that the electorate should be the final arbiters of economic and social policy. Clearly, political parties have a philosophy and agenda they wish to pursue, irrespective of the electorate’s prevailing views. Politics is a mixture of pursuing one’s own belief structures, while keeping in touch with the hopes, dreams and fears of ordinary, decent people.

Murray also suggests that qualitative researchers struggle to understand the way in which attitudes are formed and may change over time.

There is a robust underpinning for qualitative research. Reassurance probably comes best via example. Let’s take the railway privatisation. I would argue that the Government’s current initiatives would not have been derailed if they had coupled the advice they received from mandarins and aparachiks with observations taken from qualitative research.

I wouldn’t mind betting that feedback from 30 or so respondents (that’s about six sofa loads in Murrian terms) would have pinpointed most of the operational – not to mention political – concerns likely to destabilise this initiative. Exposure to such a qualitative exercise may have shaken Mr Murray from his view that the electorate are simple ballot-box fodder.

So qualitative research – far from being the false and unreliable brew referred to by Murray – can provide businesses and government with a key reality check. It is a sound starting point for sensible business planning and the efficient and equitable allocation of economic resources.

David Smith


Market Research Society

London EC1

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