What qualitative research can be? by Ronald jay cohen

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Psychology & Marketing Vol. 16(4):351–368 (July 1999)
q 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. CCC 0742-6046/99/040351-18
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What Qualitative Research
Can Be*
Ronald Jay Cohen
R. J. Cohen Qualitative Research
ABSTRACT
Corporate America deserves more than it has been getting for its
qualitative research dollar. Qualitative research with consumers can
be more systematic, more psychological, and more innovative. The
everyday business of qualitative research has the potential of
becoming a true profession. The added value psychologists can bring
to this profession is explored with reference to an approach called
dimensional qualitative research. It is argued that quality in
qualitative research with consumers can best be achieved through
the systematic application of a psychological model that allows for
innovation. 1999 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. q
What added value do professional psychologists bring to research with
consumers in a marketing context? This was a question I was compelled
to grapple with nearly two decades ago. A fellow psychologist who
worked at an advertising agency had asked me whether I would be interested in conducting research with consumers. The objective of the
research was to explore the dynamics of male–female interaction in coed games. More specifically, the question of interest for the client, a beer
maker, was “Which games are most appropriate for depiction in beer
advertising that shows adult men and women at play?”
When approached to conduct this study, I was a licensed psychologist
in independent practice in Manhattan who had recently completed a
*Rajan Nataraajan, Executive Editor of Psychology & Marketing, served as the action editor for
this article.
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clinical psychology internship and a stint as a Senior Psychologist at
New York University–Bellevue Medical Center. Although I had studied
human motivation from behavioral, psychoanalytic, and humanistic
perspectives, I had no experience in applying such knowledge in a consumer context. My colleague at the advertising agency insisted that
such a lack of experience was not an obstacle.1 She strongly encouraged
me to take on the project, promising in part that I would find the assignment both intellectually and financially rewarding. She was also
not opposed to the use of flattery to achieve her desired ends; she assured me that my personality, in combination with my professional
training, education, and experience would make me an ideal person to
moderate focus groups. How could I refuse? My response went something like this: “Okay. I will moderate the focus groups. By the
way . . . what’s a focus group?”
In the two decades that have passed since I raised that question, I
have begun to achieve an understanding of not only what focus groups
are, but what they can be. I have learned about the expectations of the
corporate world regarding qualitative research, and I have come to believe that clients are entitled to expect much more than they typically
receive for their qualitative research dollar.
SOME THINGS QUALITATIVE RESEARCH CAN BE
In this article, I would like to share some of my thoughts and feelings
regarding what qualitative research can be. I will illustrate how I have
attempted to implement this vision in my own approach to such research. Finally, I will suggest some strategies for improving the overall
quality of qualitative research.
Qualitative Research Can Be More Systematic
Reading a number of reports of qualitative research from different research companies will reveal great variation in approaches to research,
including research assumptions, strategies, methods, analysis, and reporting. Ideally, such diversity has the net effect of enriching understanding by providing fresh perspectives. However, my sense is that this
has not been the case. The wealth of approaches to qualitative research,
combined with a general lack of any systematic framework for interpreting qualitative data, compels the user of such research to eye critically the assumptions made, the techniques used, and the conclusions
drawn. And although users of quantitative research are confronted by
similar issues, they have a more systematized and consensually vali1She also insisted that I keep my lack of experience to myself, and not disclose to the client that I
had never actually done focus-group work before. (Now it can be told!)
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dated body of knowledge from which to evaluate assumptions, techniques, and conclusions.
Owing to the many qualitative research projects I have worked on, I
have been privy to many reports written by qualitative researchers. If
there is one commonalty among these reports, it is their general deficiency in exploring targeted areas of interest in a systematic and comprehensive way. Typical in this context is a qualitative research study
that purports to identify consumer motivation. In the end, few reports
rise above the like/dislike or buy/not buy level of analysis. No doubt like/
dislike and buy/not buy information is useful to the client. However, at
some point I think we need to raise questions such as, “Is that all there
is?”, “Is that what we should continue to expect from qualitative research?”, and—more to the point of the present work—“How can we
systematically work toward obtaining more value for qualitative research dollars spent?”
Often, what is important in understanding a product, a positioning,
packaging, or some related aspect of the question of interest in a consumer behavior context is the why of the behavior. From my reading of
a healthy sampling of research reports, it would seem that many qualitative researchers deceive themselves into thinking that they have gotten to the heart of the “why” question simply because they have posed,
and received responses to direct questions such as “Why do you like it?”
or “Why wouldn’t you buy it?” Of course, in cases where the respondent
both knows the complete answer to such questions, and is willing and
able to share convey these answers in sufficient detail, the researcher
may indeed have satisfactorily addressed the “why” question. However,
it is very often the case that the respondent cannot or will not provide
an accurate answer to such questions. This can be so for sundry reasons
attributable to the respondent, a partial listing of which would include
intellectual deficit, lack of insight, lack of candor, social desirability,
response bias, or simply a desire to provide as minimal an answer as
possible in the hope of concluding the session as quickly as possible.
What is needed in these latter types of cases is the knowledge, imagination, skills, and tools to systematically coax, and ultimately elicit, the
“why” from respondents. In this context the word systematically merits
emphasis; qualitative researchers need some systematic way to explore
human motivation. Serendipity in the course of research is fine, but it
simply does not occur reliably enough to count on for research insights.
Qualitative Research Can Be More Psychological
Early on in their education, students of marketing learn a great deal
about a number of “p’s” in the marketing mix, such as product, packaging, price, place, and promotion. Especially for students of market
research, it would seem that another p merits more emphasis than it
hitherto has received. Psychological factors are as key to understanding
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marketing-related issues as any of the other “p’s” in the marketing mix.
Psychological variables such as behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, motivation, and cognition are highly relevant to an understanding of the
relationship between people and products. The annals of marketing history are strewn with marketing failures, many of which can be attributed to a situation in which key psychological factors were minimized
or ignored by researchers (Hartley, 1986; Ricks, 1993). Even findings
from large-scale, competently executed quantitative studies can profit
from supplementation with psychologically sensitive qualitative research.
As an illustration, consider Coca-Cola’s rollout of New Coke, arguably
one of the most spectacular failures in recent marketing history. According to Ringold (1988), factors such as declining market share and
the generally favorable public reception of competitor Pepsi’s Taste Test
Challenge prompted Coca-Cola to consider reformulating its flagship
brand. Coke launched a four-million-dollar research project that employed over 190,000 consumers in 25 cities to conduct its own taste test
research on a new formulation. They found that the new formulation
was preferred to the existing formulation by a margin of 55% to 45%.
Those numbers reflected preference when the two formulations were not
identified. When consumers were informed that one of the beverages
was Coca-Cola and the other was its new formulation, preference for
New Coke jumped even higher, to 61% versus 39%. New Coke was also
found to be preferable to Pepsi by a margin of 56% to 44%. But can
190,000 subjects in 25 cities be wrong? Before responding, let us rephrase the question in a manner that focuses more on the critical importance of psychological variables in market research: How important
is it to supplement quantitative research with strategies designed to
explore motivational and other psychological aspects of the phenomenon
under study?
On May 9th, 1985, the new formulation of Coca-Cola replaced the old
formulation on store shelves. Within six weeks after the introduction of
New Coke, Coca-Cola had received over 40,000 telephone calls from
irate consumers. Protest groups were being organized, demonstrations
were being held, and one lawsuit had been filed. Cases of the old product, previously selling for 5–7 dollars, were either being hoarded or sold
on the black market—at upwards of 30 dollars per case. Perhaps most
fascinating from a psychological perspective is the marked shift that
took place with regard to reported taste preferences. Two months after
the introduction of New Coke, Coca-Cola’s own ongoing research indicated that when both formulations were labeled, the old formulation
was now preferred in taste tests by about 60% of the respondents. What
went wrong? And more to the point of our focus on qualitative research,
was there a question that management could have raised to prevent
such a fiasco? Might psychologically sensitive qualitative research have
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helped identify potential problems attending the introduction of New
Coke?
Although no one can say so with certainty after the fact, it does seem
that competently executed qualitative research may have helped the
Coca-Cola Company anticipate the furor precipitated by its new product
entry, and the sudden demise of a national icon. Exploration and skillful
probing of issues related to the withdrawal of classic Coke, especially
with brand-loyal respondents, might have gone a long way toward alerting the company to the possibility of a consumer revolt. In her in-depth
analysis of this fascinating fiasco, Ringold (1988) made a compelling
case for the failure of New Coke in terms of Brehm’s theory of psychological reactance. Others, including Pepsi’s president and chief executive officer, also made reference to a minimizing of psychological factors
on the part of the Coca-Cola marketing department: “For all of their
marketing savvy, they must have completely ignored one of the most
common truths of human nature: We tend to love what we can’t have.
And because original Coke was no longer obtainable, it seemed to taste
better and better with every passing day; in memory, at least, it was a
far, far sweeter drink than New Coke could ever be” (Enrico & Kornbluth, 1986, p. 229).
At the very least, the New Coke case illustration teaches us about the
importance of conducting research that is closely tied to real-world contexts, and real-world motivations. Taste tests conducted in a vacuum,
so to speak, may yield data that are meaningful and actionable only in
that same vacuum. Coke learned the hard way that factors other than
taste contribute to the public’s receptivity to a particular beverage. An
untold number of other companies have learned similar lessons with
regard to their own products, packaging, promotions, and public image.
The message could not be more clear via-a-vis the p’s of marketing research: minimize or ignore psychological variables at your peril.
Qualitative Research Can Be More Innovative
For many people who conduct or consume market research, the term
qualitative is closely identified with terms such as focus groups and indepth interviews. To the extent that this narrow conception of qualitative research is in place, there is much to learn from fine symphonies in
which variations on the same theme are presented in seemingly endless,
highly engaging, even enlightening ways. If there is a major theme running through all such interview/discussion methods, it is communication. And like the major theme of any classical piece, communication
can occur in sundry ways that range in complexity, depth, obviousness,
and other variables. There are, for example, intriguing technological
alternatives to ordinary conversation and dialogue in interviewing (cf.
Cohen, 1985, 1987). Moreover, in addition to interview/discussion meth-
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ods, other approaches to qualitative research exist, including observation and document analysis. Within each of these major approaches to
qualitative research lie many dimensions or continua that may be accessed through the use of many different innovative, and for the most
part, underutilized techniques. For example, with regard to the structured/unstructured continuum as it applies to interview/discussion
methods, there are widely used research techniques on the structured
end of the continuum (such as questionnaires), and other methods at
the unstructured end that are used relatively infrequently (such as projective techniques). Both have their place in the qualitative researcher’s
armamentarium of tools, and some are better suited to certain research
objectives than others.
Qualitative Research Can Be a Profession
The practice of qualitative research does not currently rise to the status
of a profession—at least not in a way similar to, say, the practice of
medicine, law, psychology, and so on. To understand why, consider the
way profession is typically defined and used in everyday conversation.
At one level, we speak of a profession as an activity or trade by which
one is able to earn a living. This definition—in popular use at least as
long as the phrase “world’s oldest profession”—carries with it no assumptions or implications regarding background, education, experience, or competence. Rather, if someone is earning a living doing something (anything), that something may be referred to as a profession, and
the person earning a living doing whatever is referred to as a professional.
Contrast the definitions above with more rigorous definitions of profession and professional that specify basic and specialized education and
training in a particular discipline as requisite criteria. It is my impression that the field of qualitative research is dominated not by professionals in this latter sense, but rather by people who are involved in the
business of research, that is, moderating focus groups, conducting individual interviews, and engaging in other such research-related activities on a fee-for-service basis. This impression was formed early on
when, as a professional psychologist and novice (nonprofessional) qualitative researcher, I was challenged to apply psychological expertise not
to psychopathology, but to unfamiliar areas such as new product research, advertising evaluation, and brand image development. As a clinical psychologist in training, I had had thousands of hours of experience
in areas such as diagnostic interviewing and individual and group dynamics under the supervision and tutelage of credentialed and highly
accomplished mental health professionals. Surely, I believed, there were
people conducting qualitative consumer research who could serve in a
somewhat similar capacity, be it role model or mentor.
My pursuit of education, inspiration, training, and a viable role model
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led me to attend a number of conferences, workshops, and other such
forums to hear presentations by people billed with titles such as “professional qualitative research consultant.” Too often, however, the presentations amounted to rediscoveries of bits of psychological knowledge
by psychological dilettantes who had been intrigued and (overly) impressed by some limited exposure to the scholarly literature. Worse yet,
some of the presentations amounted to thinly veiled promotions, seemingly designed more to attract new business than to disseminate academically informative material. The practicing focus group moderators
and interviewers who I met informally at such meetings tended to have
very varied backgrounds. Perhaps the only thing they had in common
was no formal academic training in research. Although friendly, engaging, and nice enough at a personal level, most of the people who were
earning a living in the research business seemed to me to lack the background, training, and bona fide expertise in research methods to do what
they were doing. There were focus-group moderators who harbored only
the most primitive understanding of group dynamics. There were consumer-behavior research consultants who waxed on about notions of
consumer motivation—notions that to a trained ear sounded as if they
were straight from the book jacket of one of Abe Maslow’s books. Many
of these self-proclaimed researchers boasted membership in an organization of professional qualitative researchers—which to my mind was
professional only to the extent that its members were earning a living
in the business of qualitative research. This was so because the organization maintained no education, training, or competence requirements for membership. A woman, for example, might one day have been
an unemployed brand manager who left her former position as a result
of problems stemming from adult attention deficit disorder, including
problems such as impatience and an impaired ability to listen to others
speak. Yet once that same individual redefines herself as a focus-group
moderator and is able to get work in that capacity, she may become a
member in good standing of such an organization of qualitative researchers. All of that is well and good provided such organizations honestly represent themselves as interest groups, which is really what they
are.
Without a role model, a mentor, or an organization in which I could
place my faith and trust, I began to question whether I really had a
place in the business of qualitative research. And then I attended a
conference at which Dr. Ernest Dichter presented an article. It wasn’t
so much what Dichter had to say—I did not agree with his psychoanalytic approach—but it was more about who he was and what he was
doing. Here was a successful, well-regarded professional who made a
sincere effort to deliver on all of the promise of market research; a focusgroup moderator who really could focus, and an in-depth interviewer
who probed beyond the surface level of consciousness. I, like most everyone else, was intrigued by Dichter’s ability to go beyond the level of
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self-report and strive to derive valuable, actionable, and non-obvious
conclusions from the verbal and nonverbal behavior of respondents. The
fact that there existed such a widely respected researcher was enough
to restore one’s faith in the field of qualitative research. It helped me in
my own search for an identity as a professional in this field.
Dichter had demonstrated that it was possible to bridge the gap between market research and clinical psychology. But the bridge Dichter
built had its foundations in psychoanalysis, and psychoanalytic theory
can be more of an art than a science; the exact same verbalization or
nonverbal behavior can be interepreted by different analysts in different
ways. Perhaps because of the nonreplicability of the psychoanalytic approach in a marketing context, Dichter had achieved something akin to
mythic status. Perhaps another bridge could be built, one anchored in
a more contemporary, cognitive-behavioral approach, and one more usable and accessible by mere mortals.
A COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL APPROACH
During the course of my clinical training, I had had exposure to a number of different approaches to therapeutic intervention. The cognitivebehavioral approach had always held the most intuitive appeal to me,
and of the many varieties of therapy that could be grouped under that
umbrella area, I felt that multimodal therapy was the most systematic
and comprehensive. Multimodal therapy was developed by psychologist
Arnold A. Lazarus. It focuses on seven overlapping psychological dimensions for consideration in the context of diagnosis and treatment.
These dimensions are sometimes referred to by Lazarus as modalities,
because each may be employed as a modality for effecting adaptive behavior change. The seven modalities are behavior, affect, sensation, imagery, cognition, interpersonal relations, and drugs. Taking the first
letter of each of the modalities, the acronym BASIC ID is derived.2 In a
number of publications, Lazarus (1973, 1976, 1987, 1989a, 1989b, 1992)
illustrated how the BASIC ID can serve to ensure that diagnosis and
interventions are both systematic and comprehensive.
Perceiving a need for an equally comprehensive and systematic approach to qualitative research, I adapted methods employed in multimodal therapy to develop what I call dimensional qualitative research
(DQR). A complete description of DQR is beyond the scope of this article.
However, in the interest of illustrating a model of what I believe qualitative research can be, a thumbnail sketch of DQR is presented.
2Id is pronounced the same way as the psychoanalytic construct id (rhymes with did). Readers who
are psychoanalytically gun-shy may, however, pronounce id as i.d. (as in an abbreviation for
identification).
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Dimensional Qualitative Research
DQR represents a comprehensive and systematic model for approaching
and ultimately realizing the objectives typically set in a qualitative research study. The dimensions of the BASIC ID, of proven diagnostic and
therapeutic value in a clinical context, can be employed to systematically explore, evaluate, diagnose, strategize, and intervene in marketrelated contexts. The dimensions of the BASIC ID provide a useful point
of departure to systematically gather actionable information with regard to variables such as new products, established products, packaging, pricing, promotion, public image, distribution, brand perception,
brand loyalty, and so forth. The result of such evaluations and descriptions can be highly effective market-related interventions designed to
meet sales, public image, or other such objectives. To better understand
how and why this is possible requires some elaboration. Definitions of
each of the BASIC ID dimensions as employed in a market research
context follows. Note that in my own system, I added an S to the end of
ID to refer to an eighth dimension, sociocultural aspects; hence, with
regard to DQR, the applicable acronym is BASIC IDS. Note also that
although some general illustrations of these dimensions as applied to
market research are provided, exactly how these dimensions will be
applied in a particular study will be dictated by a number of different
factors related to the research objectives of the study. Let us also state
again, for emphasis, that each of these dimensions is non-exclusive and
overlapping.
Behavior. Behavior refers not so much to what people think or believe
as to what they do. In qualitative research, it is respondent verbal behavior that is perhaps most often studied; that is, respondent self-report
in the context of an individual interview or a group discussion. Less
often, the subject of evaluation in such contexts are variables such as
respondent nonverbal behavior, respondent performance on some task,
and respondent reaction to an experimental variation. Observation and
document analysis are probably two relatively underutilized but very
powerful tools for understanding behavior.
With regard to an existing product or a proposed new product, questions with regard to the dimension of behavior may relate to what consumers do or might do before, during, and after the use of the product.
Related questions might explore the use of the product in different
places and contexts, as well as aspects of product usage as it relates to
variables such as durability, portability, duration, and convenience. Focus on the behavioral dimension in qualitative research can lead to the
discovery of new uses and/or new positionings for products. For example, ordinary baking soda has been found to have many applications in
the home beyond baking. People use baking soda to remove odors from
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refrigerators and to help chemically stabilize their swimming pools. A
manufacturer of children’s candy might have developed a particular
candy with taste in mind, only to find during DQR that the candy’s
primary appeal to children has to do with its play capabilities, both in
hands and mouths. Such findings will have important implications for
positioning, advertising, and other elements of the marketing mix.
Affect. Affect refers to how people feel. DQR may explore, for example,
feelings and emotions during, prior to, and subsequent to exposure to a
particular stimulus (such as a corporate logo) or the use of a particular
product. Other common affect-related questions may probe the mechanisms by which such stimuli or products change the consumer’s feelings
or emotions. Verbal behavior in the context of interviews and discussions may be used to explore the affect dimension, but so can careful
observation of nonverbal behavior and research of documents and case
histories.
People strive to maintain what psychologists refer to as an optimal
level of arousal. Yet what is optimal for one person may be far from
optimal for another person, and the same person may have different
needs for arousal at different times. So, for example, one person may
strive to maintain an optimal level of arousal by frequently engaging in
activities such as roller-coaster riding and bungee jumping. For another
person, maintaining an optimal level of arousal may entail frequent
napping and meditating. A challenge in DQR is to learn about how a
particular product helps members of its targeted market to maintain an
optimal level of arousal. Does the product work, for example, to stabilize
affect that has been placed out of kilter? Alternatively, does the product
work to magnify and enhance a preexisting state of neutral or positive
affect? Can the product work in both ways? How else does the product
effect affect? These are examples of questions that may be systematically addressed during the course of DQR. And as with other BASIC
IDS–related questions, the answers derived will have critically important implications for positioning, advertising, and all other elements of
the marketing mix.
Sensation. Sensation refers to perception of visual, auditory, olfactory,
gustatory, tactile, and related sensory input. What color or colors should
this new product be made available in? Would this commercial be more
effective in black and white? What effect do colors in the packaging have
on perception of the product and its price? What audio volume is optimal
for the figure and ground in a radio spot? How should this product smell
when it is new? Would this new model car be more appealing in moonlight, daylight, spotlight, or the light of a candle for this television commercial? Does watching this trailer for a new horror film do what is
intended and really make the viewer’s skin crawl? How does wearing
this pair of shoes compare to wearing no shoes at all? These are the
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types of questions that may be raised when exploring the sensation dimension of the BASIC IDS.
The sensation dimension is particularly important in DQR focused
on foods, beverages, medications, and other ingested substances. A partial list of the sundry sensation-related variables that may require exploration would include gustatory dimensions (e.g., sweet versus bitter),
tactile dimensions (e.g., smooth versus rough), olfactory dimensions
(e.g., natural versus artificial), visual dimensions (e.g., aesthetically
pleasing versus repulsive), auditory dimensions (e.g., loud versus soft;
crunchy versus plain), oral dimensions (e.g., mouth play versus no
mouth play potential), and postconsumption variables (e.g., filling versus nonfilling; satisfying versus nonsatisfying). Both verbal and nonverbal means are useful in gathering information related to the sensation dimension.
Imagery. Imagery refers both to stimuli depicted in the real world (as
in the pictures depicted in advertising), as well those more elusive and
unique representations perceived only in the mind’s eye. Imagery can
be an exceedingly important variable in positioning, promotion, and
other elements of the marketing mix. In advertising for children’s toys,
for example, children are encouraged to conjure wondrous imagery related to the use of products. Owing at least in part to success in eliciting
such imagery, it is little wonder that children are so often disappointed
with the real thing in their own hands, and why toy wear out can occur
so quickly. Of course, advertisers of adult toys and other products have
had their own agendas with regard to eliciting imagery. Consider, for
example, the different images used in car commercials as one moves
from the bottom-of-the-line to the top-of-the-line vehicles. Consider also
how imagery may drive the sales of a wide range of products including
cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and coffees.
Beyond being a critical BASIC IDS variable to be explored in all DQR,
the study of imagery in advertising is fascinating in its own right. For
example, if you mow your lawn on a riding mower, the Toro company
apparently has some imagery they might like you to consider before you
don your work clothes. The riding mower driven by a middle-aged man
in one of its television commercials resembles a 50s-style hot rod, complete with painted-on flames. The loud rumbling of a riding mower’s
engine has been transformed, at least symbolically we might surmise,
into an exciting opportunity to re-rev one’s engine. While in the act of
caring for our lawns we are carried far afield of grass, fertilizer, and
ragweed. The fatigue-inducing act of mowing the lawn has been magically transformed into an invigorating and revitalizing activity in which
the power, energy, and reckless abandon of a spent youth is restored, if
only fleetingly. In clinical psychology, magical thinking in adults tends
to be thought of as symptomatic of severe disorder. Quite to the contrary
in consumer psychology, a little magical thinking every now and then
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can be, well, magical. The imagery dimension in DQR can help guide us
in gauging just how magical an experience is.
Cognition. Cognition refers to thoughts, beliefs, attributions, rationales, values, and all that comes to be known or believed through perception. It is this BASIC IDS dimension that is probed in a number of
different market-research contexts such as research on attitudes, attributions, risk level, humor, recall and memory, public image, brand loyalty, product warranties, frame of mind, fears, values, persuasion, product evaluation, purchase decision making, and learning of marketing
information. A closely related area is the study of so-called subliminal
influences on consumer behavior (see, for example, Merikle, 1988; Pratkanis & Greenwald, 1988).
As with other BASIC IDS dimensions, many methods exist for exploring aspects of the cognition dimension. For example, as an alternative to simply posing questions and noting responses, an interviewer
or moderator can ask respondents to share their thinking aloud. This
sort of think-aloud technique has found application in a variety of psychological studies (Cohen, Swerdlik, & Phillips, 1996; Davison, Vogel,
& Coffman, 1997; Duncker, 1945; Gann & Davison, 1997; Haaga, Davison, McDermut, Hillis & Twomey, 1993; Hurlburt, 1997; Kendall, Williams, Pechacek, Graham, Shisslak, & Herzof, 1979; Klinger, 1978; Montague, 1993; Randall, Fairbanks, & Kennedy, 1986; Sutton-Simon &
Goldfried, 1979; White, Davison, Haaga, & White, 1992) and can be
effectively employed in market research applications to explore the cognitive dimension.
Interpersonal Relations. This dimension of the BASIC IDS addresses
the fact that we are all social beings. We all have needs, albeit to varying
degrees, for affiliation, friendship, companionship, social contacts, nurturance, and the like. We all have needs—again, to varying degrees—
to communicate with others, to be liked by others, and to be treated
properly by others. We want to see our children, other family members,
friends, and others close to us be well and thrive. We tend to see interpersonal attributes such as physical attractiveness, sexiness, power,
and wealth as desirable. And we tend to respond favorably to products
and services that overtly or tacitly promise that they can help us attain
or retain such attributes. We tend to see embarrassment, humiliation,
interpersonal conflict, and litigation as undesirable, and we tend to respond favorably to products and services that overtly or tacitly promise
that they can help us avoid such occurrences.
A number of products and services emphasize the interpersonal dimension of the BASIC IDS in their marketing efforts. We see it most
obviously in the marketing of diamonds, flowers, insurance, overnight
delivery services, home security services, and long-distance service providers, among others. Yet it can be evident, perhaps less obviously, in
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the marketing of sundry other goods and services including all of those
that rely to a great extent on sex for the purpose of arousing consumer
interest.
In DQR, a product or service may be placed under scrutiny to focus
on the extent to which the interpersonal relations dimension is critical
in terms of individual elements of the marketing mix. Such in-depth
exploration might suggest, for example, that a particular modality for
distribution (a virtual storefront on the internet as opposed to a real
storefront in a mall) will optimize the chances for the success of a new
product or venture. Another result of such an investigation might be a
better understanding of the interpersonal aspects and “personality” of
a product itself. Some products may be, in a sense, “social,” while other
products are “asocial.” Candy bars tend to be asocial, whereas candy
pieces tend to be social. What is meant by this is that candy bars are
not typically meant to be shared; they are in this sense “loners” to be
consumed only by the purchaser. By contrast, candy pieces tend to be
more social because they readily lend themselves to being shared. In
fact, particular brands of candy pieces go beyond being merely shared;
they are frequently used as what might be termed “goodwill offerings,”
placed in a bowl on someone’s desk from which any co-worker (or other
passerby) can partake.
The interpersonal aspects of a product may be discovered by various
means, including interview/discussion methods, observation, and document analysis. However discovered, the information has relevance to
the positioning, packaging, promotion, distribution, and other elements
of the marketing mix.
Drugs. This dimension of the BASIC IDS is applicable to all physical
aspects of products and services.3 It has to do with physical health, dental concerns, weight-related concerns, sickness, nutrition, exercise,
medication, bodily processes, addiction, intoxication, and cravings. It
has to do with vitamins, herbs, natural foods, artificial additives, and
homeopathic remedies. It has to do with barbells, physical trainers,
health clubs, thighmasters, juicers, nasal sprays, cough drops, and
learn-to-meditate cassettes. It has to do with the health-related concerns that would prompt one to purchase a particular product or service.
It has to do with the health-related concerns that might result as a
consequence of having used a particular product or service. It has to do
with consumers’ perceptions of druglike effects induced by particular
products or activities. In health-conscious America, this dimension of
the BASIC IDS is sometimes key to understanding why a particular
3The drug modality might more accurately have been described by Lazarus as the physical dimension, as it applies to all physical variables (see Fay, 1976). It seems reasonable to presume that
Lazarus christened this modality as the drug modality, as opposed to the physical modality, so
as to retain the integrity of the BASIC ID acronym; after all, “BASIC IP” just doesn’t cut it.
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product or brand is warmly embraced or soundly rejected in the marketplace.
Sociocultural Aspects. Culture may be defined as “the socially transmitted behavior patterns, beliefs, and products of work of a particular
population, community, or group of people” (Cohen, 1994, p. 5). It is
through sociocultural mechanisms that we learn not only the language
we speak, but how to communicate and interact nonverbally, how to
think of ourselves in relationship to others, and how to think of others
in relationship to ourselves. We learn what to celebrate and prize, and
what to reject and despise. Because we learn so much about how to
think, feel, and relate through sociocultural mechanisms, the importance of this dimension in DQR cannot be overstated. Given the great
weight culture must be accorded if we are to truly understand an individual or a group of people, it is essential that DQR be conducted with
sensitivity to the effect that a respondent’s culture may have on verbal
and nonverbal responses. A complete review of many of the complex
issues involved in such cross-cultural research is beyond the scope of
this article. However, discussion of these and related issues may be
found in Cohen and Swerdlik (1999), as well as the large and growing
literature on this subject (e.g., Alden, Stayman, & Hoyer, 1994; Brislin,
Lonner, & Thorndike, 1973; Cheng & Schweitzer, 1996; Conrad, Brown,
& Harmon, 1997; Dichter, 1986; Donthu & Cherian, 1992; Goldsmith,
Freiden, & Kilsheimer, 1993; Green, 1996; Green & Alden, 1988; Gregory & Munch, 1997; Han & Shavitt, 1994; Hays, 1996; Hinkle, 1994;
Hirschman, 1981; Irvine & Berry, 1983; Keillor, Parker, & Schaefer,
1996; Lonner, 1985; Lopez & Hernandez, 1987; Ownbey & Horridge,
1997; Pitts, 1986; Roslow & Nicholls, 1996; Stern, 1988; Stith, 1989;
Sundberg & Gonzales, 1981; Webster, 1991; Yau, 1988; Yi, 1998).
TOWARD QUALITY IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
Many of the questions being asked by corporate America and others who
commission qualitative research in marketing contexts are psychological in nature. In turn, many of the conclusions being drawn, and the
recommendations being made as a result of such research, draw heavily
on psychological constructs. This situation seems odd to me, especially
in light of what appears to be a marked dearth of psychological expertise
and sophistication among most of the people conducting qualitative research. One wonders, for example, how many brand-managers-turnedqualitative-research-consultants (a) have actually acquired the skills
needed to systematically conduct such research, and (b) can capably
organize all of the input into a psychologically meaningful and actionable report. At the other end of the spectrum, there are psychological
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gurus who reach their conclusions in seemingly magical, or at least nonreplicable ways. It seems to me that we need fewer gurus, and more
researchers capable of systematically conducting psychologically sophisticated research. DQR was introduced as one example of a psychological framework within which meaningful qualitative research can be
conducted. The dimensions of the BASIC IDS can provide a uniform yet
systematic framework for exploration and intervention, yet be flexible
enough to allow for the implementation of new techniques and innovation. Anchored in logic, it is an approach that is accessible by nonpsychologists who seek to become more knowledgeable in the ways that
psychology can be applied in marketing contexts. In addition to DQR,
or as a supplement to it, a number of other approaches are worthy of
review for researchers intent on couching their research within a framework that allows for systematic exploration and innovation. Researchers may find inspiration, for example, in the methods used in ecological
psychology (Barker, 1968), human ethology (Blurton-Jones, 1972), and
cognitive anthropology (Spradley, 1979). Regardless of the specific
framework adopted by a researcher, it seems high time to acknowledge
that we are all feeling, sensing, behaving, imagining, thinking, socially
relating, and biochemical beings who are products of our culture. Once
this acknowledgment is made, and once we strive to routinely and systematically account for such variables in marketing research, we can
begin to appreciate the added value psychologists bring to qualitative
research with consumers in a marketing context.
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Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to: R. J. Cohen, R. J.
Cohen Qualitative Research, 39 Harmony Hill Rd., Pawling, NY 12564
(rjcohenphd@juno.com)

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