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FEATURE1 January 2010

Shelf life

Michael Warren reviews Levitt and Dubner’s sequel to their phenomenally successful Freakonomics and Sheila Keegan’s new book on qualitative research

Superfreakonomics

Authors: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Publisher: Allen Lane/Penguin

The original Freakonomics, which we reviewed back in August 2006, was a publishing sensation, perhaps not in the Harry Potter class but still something special. So it’s not surprising that the authors have now had a second bite at the cherry, not only because they’re clearly on to a good thing, but because their offbeat and revelatory approach to analysing social and economic problems has, I think, genuinely changed the way we work. Or at the very least given us the opportunity to change.

The range of topics explored is again wide-ranging and unexpected. Why, for example, do some American sex workers get busier on and around the 4th of July? And why has a particular, once somewhat specialised sexual service become far cheaper in the last 10 or 20 years?

There’s a fascinating section on altruism which suggests that we’re not as selfless as some simplistic or misinterpreted data has seemed to suggest, and a surprising argument that, contrary to what we’re led to believe, many of the things which genuinely save lives in large numbers tend to be relatively cheap, though only once the nature of the problem is understood. Think, for example, of car seat-belts, doctors and nurses washing their hands more, and beta blockers.

And parents should certainly read the section on the apparent links between television viewing by young children and the children’s later crime rates. On this topic even the authors are not sure why the links seem to exist, but have little doubt that they’re real.

This second book has had criticism, partly on the grounds that it’s more of the same and partly because there are genuine disagreements about some of the findings, not least, and not surprisingly, on the vexed question of global warming. My response is simple – just try it, whether or not you read the first book. It’s enormous fun and can undoubtedly change the way you see, analyse and understand the world.

Qualitative Research: Good decision making through understanding people, cultures and markets

Author: Sheila Keegan
Publisher: Kogan Page/MRS

Thorough without being intimidating and accessible without being simplistic, this book is a straightforward and admirable guide to the current whats and whys of qualitative research.

It starts with an overview of market research and qual’s place within it, and of the types of investigation that lend themselves to our techniques. After which there are examinations of the methodologies (including brief guides to ethnography, deliberative research, semiotics, observation, etc) and assessments of interviewer skills and how they can be improved, of stimulus material and of projective techniques.

Analysis and reporting /presentation are also explored, of course. Keegan notes that computer-assisted qualitative data analysis, though widely used in academic research, has barely impinged in the commercial sector, and discusses why this might be. There are two chapters on research design and management plus a final look at multi-country research. In other words all the essentials are there.

En route, the book looks at the validity of qualitative research and its relationship with quant, and mentions Martin Callingham’s suggestion that instead of comparing the two approaches, it is better to ask whether qualitative research helps decision-making in a company, to which the answer is that it seems certain that it does.

There are some interesting and perhaps unexpected people called in evidence – Durkheim and Idris Shah amongst others – and there’s a useful range of books, papers and articles listed as references. In the section on international research, the author mentions a few wonderful mis-translations from English into Chinese, including turning “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead”. Who said advertising sometimes makes absurd claims?

Keegan has been busy. This is the second book she has produced in a couple of years (we reviewed the previous one in October 2008) and here, once again, she has provided a valuable addition to our literature.

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