Academics, Practitioners and Qualitative Market Research

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During the 1980s, market research practitioners and academic marketing researchers witnessed a growing interest in qualitative research. A review of the practitioner and academic literature on qualitative market(ing) research reveals the commonalities and the differences in the ways each group represents, thinks about and practices qualitative research. Areas where both groups might benefit from sharing ideas and information and from closer links generally are discussed. Article Type:

Literature review

Focus groups; Marketing concepts; Market research; Market research companies. Journal:

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal




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The differences between academic and practitioner research in marketing are a subject for debate within industry and the academy. Practitioners consider that much academic research is irrelevant to the problems they face, difficult to understand and often unreadable. By contrast, academics complain that practitioners ignore their work. Relations between market research practitioners and academic researchers have never been entirely easy and it is not unusual to find the academic and practitioner dichotomy used to justify one type of research by pointing out the limitations of the other (Brinberg and Hirschman, 1986).

Emphasising the differences between the two groups can be counter-productive since both can benefit and even thrive on the cross-fertilisation of ideas (Wright-Isak and Prensky, 1995). Academics can provide a flow of new ideas without which professional practice might become stale. Practitioners have the opportunity to undertake repeated tests of academic ideas in the marketplace and often develop new approaches and methods of data collection in the course of addressing clients’ problems. The benefits of co-operation and collaboration can be seen when we examine the history of market research. The most significant methodological developments in survey and opinion research occurred during the 1930s and 1940s, when the links between academic researchers (such as Paul Lazarsfeld) and market research practitioners (such as George Gallup) were particularly strong in spite of some acrimonious debates between the two groups (Converse, 1987).

It was during this period too that there were significant developments in qualitative market research both in Europe and North America (Fullerton, 1990; Smith, 1954). In 1955, Paul Lazarsfeld reviewed the previous two decades of qualitative market research in the USA and drew attention to two trends which he considered detrimental to its future. First, the lack of detailed scrutiny of research methods was blocking progress. He made specific reference to the lack of attention given to qualitative data analysis. Second, he argued that expediency was leading to deterioration in the field. The use of “quickies” undertaken for advertising clients would, he warned, lead ultimately to a disappointment with qualitative research. Even though it is now over four decades since he made these observations, Lazarsfeld’s words have a certain resonance for many of today’s practitioners.

Qualitative market research is a story of success and triumph over adversity, or, perhaps, this should read adversaries (Achenbaum, 1995). In spite of this success, many of its leading practitioners are distinctly uneasy about the practice of qualitative market research in general (Reuter, 1995; Cooper and Patterson, 1995) as well as specific practices (Robson and Hedges, 1993). Cooper and Patterson argue that the future of qualitative market research will depend on a greater understanding of what qualitative research is about and how it can inform marketing decisions. They identify a number of issues that need to be addressed and these include specifying the domain of qualitative research, raising its theoretical...
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