Words Vs. Numbers Social Science in the Commercial World

Photo by bplanet
Photo by bplanet

I left academia 12 months ago. The decision was made partly because of lack of opportunity and partly because of disillusionment with the Academy. 12 months on I do not regret the decision or the twists and turns that have occurred over the last 12 months. I remained in Education within the public sector for 9 months and then I moved into the Commercial Education. I love that I have face-to-face interaction with students again but what has confused me is the emphasis on numbers as a way of measuring success.

I am a Qualitative Social Scientist. I believe in that words tell you more than numbers and the emphasis on numbers in my current working environment has led me to think about why I feel so strongly about the importance of words and what Qualitative Social Science can offer the Commercial world. This leads me to make suggestions for ECRs considering leaving the Academy.

Why words are more important than numbers:

I describe myself as a Qualitative Social Scientist, more specifically a Behavioural Geographer. My interests lay in the cognitive processes, which underpin spatial reasoning, decision-making and ultimately behaviour within online spaces, particularly online spaces used for learning. My Doctoral research took on a Critical Realist framework thus, in my humble opinion, numbers can tell you how many times something happens but only words can explain why something happened. I think this is particularly important when dealing with student feedback. On the face of it the phrase ‘85% of students ranked the class a 4 or above’ sounds positive however, when you dig a bit deeper and find out that only 30% of the people in the class answered the question that 85% looses its impact. Words on the other hand are harder to manipulate, they also tell you why someone voted a particular way and to improve your delivery and thus your customer satisfaction you need to understand the why’s.

What can Qualitative Social Science offer the Commercial world:

A deeper understanding of your customer’s feelings and thoughts towards your product alongside an understanding of how they intend to use your product and what you can do to improve it. What can the individual numbers tell you about how to improve your product or service? Very little, without an understanding of why people gave something a particular score.

So why are Commercial Outlets less interested in Qualitative work:

The answer it seems is speed; Numbers can pulled out of feedback very quickly and in an environment where time matters and things like Return on Investment (ROI) need to be communicated quickly figures win. They can also be manipulated, as cynical as it sounds, see above.

What do Qualitative Social Scientists need to do to make an impression?

For other Qualitative Social Scientists out there looking to leave the Academy how can you make an impact? In my opinion this is by knowing your words, how to talk about Qualitative work, how to analyse them and most importantly how you can add value to the numbers.

Know your words: You need to be able to talk confidently about Qualitative techniques and what they can offer the commercial environment. Do your research on your intended sector and show what techniques can be used, how you would analyse the feedback and what they can use the analysis for.

Know your techniques: As I stated earlier the commercial world is interested in speed and it seems the assumption is that Qualitative analysis is slower. So make sure you can analyse big data sets 5000 plus pieces of feedback text quickly and efficiently. If your Nvivo skills are rusty then go on a training course, no point talking the talk if you can’t walk the walk.

Show how you can add value: Numbers will always be important to those who work in commercial environments the key task of the Qualitative researcher is to show how your knowledge and understanding of what people say and how you can use this understanding to develop the product or service in question and thus improve the numbers.

Qualitative Social Science has a great deal to offer the Commercial world and offers researchers a huge variety of opportunities to transfer their skills outside of the Academy. To do so ECRs need to be aware of the impact their specialist skills can have on the sector they are looking to move in to. So if you are looking to move into the commercial world, keep your practical skills and theoretical knowledge up to date and show how your skill set can improve a companies ROI.


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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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Hi Sarah

In the context in which you speak, I agree with much of what you say. Words can tell you much more, assuming what you are being told is the truth. Numbers cannot lie. Numbers can be used to tell a lie, when given out of context, as in the example of the student feedback. But words are needed to create such context. So yes words are the more important of the two, as they can both enlighten and deceive.

I also find it amusingly ironic that speegster made a grammatical error whilst criticizing your grammatical errors :0)

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