What is the value of an anecdote?

Last week, at the end of a long day training in the art of qualitative interviewing, one of the course participants asked me: ‘but how can we show it is not just all anecdotal?’. I felt frustrated, to say the least, but I must have failed somewhere in my explanations of the value of a qualitative interview. 

pinterest-441-anecdoteAntidoteThere is such a lot of angst about how to assess the value of qualitative research that still, it seems, we haven’t fully addressed this. In my experience, the problem often seems to come from the fact that people doing qualitative research feel they need to explain why they don’t do certain things – like testing for reliability, representativeness, and validity. 

How do we know quantitative work is good quality? How many people have actually asked to see all the questionnaires, and checked them all? How often is the basic operationalising of a concept or the choice of potential responses queried? How do we know the design of questions is not anecdotal? 

It seems to me that qualitative researchers need to 1) stop being defensive and 2) recognise what they aim to achieve, before 3) thinking about how to show they’ve achieved it. 

Let’s start with the notion of an anecdote. 

It is anecdotal that every week my neighbour puts her bin out near my car and it is not always easily visible. So, every week, I check before getting in the car to ensure I don’t drive over it (again). My experience has affected my behaviour, and it works in practice! 

This is the same logic we use for qualitative research. We are trying to understand how people’s experiences and understandings affect (or might affect) their behaviour. I can’t design a survey to test for this because I won’t know what questions to ask, or responses to suggest. It is irrelevant whether the experience or understanding is an anecdote or not. It is how the person’s life is shaped by experience and how they communicate that, that matters. 

Furthermore, if by anecdote we mean something said quickly and flippantly without depth, then one thing we should be ensuring as qualitative researchers is that we explore in depth what people tell us, by listening and hearing, and working to achieve complexity, nuance, and richness (and perhaps doubt and ambivalence).

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