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Why Not Ask Why?

Why Not Ask Why?

iModerate Author

Aug 29, 2012

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As qualitative researchers we are often told to avoid using the word “why.” But being the curious creatures that we are we can’t help but respond by asking “why not ask why?” The text books say we shouldn’t, the classic school of thought says refrain from it, and those that trained us “back in the day” said to wipe the three letter word from our moderating vocabulary: but really, what is wrong with why? To dive into this topic further, I solicited feedback from our experienced moderating and qualitative team. Here are some of their thoughts on the subject…

Simply asking “why”, can…

  • Make it “sound like you think they are an idiot” and seem “condescending in a conversation”
  • Be viewed as “overly harsh, especially if you use it repeatedly”
  • “Make the conversation seem like an interrogation”
  • “Be seen as confrontational – both because we use it sarcastically in our culture (“Why would someone do that?”) and because it’s more personal”
  • “Make them (respondents) feel the need to justify their response”
  • “Put the respondent on the defensive” from the get go and alter the tone of the discussion
  • Make it seem like they are talking with  “a persistent three-year-old”

Not overly positive, huh? However, despite all the potential negative results of using the dreaded word, there was an overwhelming consensus among the team that using the word “why” can still be effective, and even necessary at times. Used properly, “why” can solicit a quick and direct response, an asset in the world of qualitative research. So before you completely dismiss the word, try integrating it smartly into a conversation using the following iModerate tips:

  1. Creatively weave the word into your conversation instead of asking it right off the bat.
  2. Soften the use of the word.  Instead of simply asking “why?” ask “I’m curious, why do you say that?” or “why is that the case for you personally?”
  3. Keep in mind that sometimes, especially when speaking with someone whose first language isn’t English, “why” is just necessary to uncover true reasoning.
  4. Read the respondent. Sometimes, using “why” can actually make the conversation more relaxed and natural.

So here is the bottom line. We can’t simply throw out what has been taught to us in the past because there is some truth to it. Using “why” can be risky and therefore, it can not be counted on by itself to successfully reveal consumers’ true thoughts and beliefs. But, given the potential positive results that were agreed upon by our team, we also can’t just dismiss the word completely. “Why” can still be a valuable asset as long as it is used thoughtfully and strategically, and is coupled with a range of other moderating tactics.

iModerate Author

  • Hmm. I can see both sides of this particular coin. Constantly asking ‘Why?’ means you refuse to take the first answer as valid, enough, reasoned/reasonable in itself. Perhaps we should check if we really mean ‘Why?’ rather than ‘What makes you say that?’ or ‘Could you say a little more about the process leading up to that?’ – more ‘What?’ than ‘Why?’. AND Do we mean “Why do you SAY that?” or “Why do you DO that?”

    Also, as Wittgenstein/Lewis Carroll would no doubt notice, you could go on forever and still not ‘understand’- you risk making yourSELF seem an idiot – one who does not share the inter-subjectivity of language or the world. Additionally, early in my career as a language teacher I learnt that (especially Italian!) students’ ‘Why?’ grammar etc questions were a distraction and superfluous: I taught them acceptance instead -“Oh, that’s how you say it in English! – Good I’ll make a note of that”! – and ethnographers should copy this, perhaps.
    However, a note of caution with cultures (e.g. Orientals) who seem quite comfortable with silence and utterly taciturn/non-forthcoming (probably due to their own sense that everything is obvious, so there is nothing more to say!) – it can be interminable unless you prompt/prod them somehow!

  • Nan Burgess-Whitman

    I believe its all in the tone of your voice and the stance of your body. Why will garner defensive reactions, in most cases, but if you are leaning in, tilting you head, nodding your head (affirming said remark by participant) and emphasize parts of the sentence that contain the why, its communicated appropriately and effectively.

    There are a lot of words we use in qualitative that our clients feel might be too leading, or too provoking (versus unaided) but remember, we are the experts at communicating with our respondents, its our job to get their responses, and our expertise. Thats WHY.

  • I completely agree with the four proposed actions in the second half of the article. Failing to ask follow-up questions defeat the purpose of qualitative research and in many instances, why is a perfectly acceptable question when posed properly.

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