Why Qualitative Data is Critical for Social Change
The Story in the data
The story in the data
By Stacie Hanson
At Vantage, we love to say that we make data sing, and as a singer myself, I love this analogy! Just as music helps us tell our stories and interpret our world, Vantage helps organizations use data to tell the story of the change they are making in their communities.
When you hear the word “data,” what’s your first thought? I’m guessing it has something to do with numbers, spreadsheets, or statistics. But most people who work in the nonprofit world do not enter this field because they love math. They work in this field because they love people.
So lean in close as I tell you my dirty little secret: I, Stacie Hanson, Social Worker and Evaluator, don’t really like numbers either. Now, to be fair, I am an evaluator, and I can geek out in Excel with the best of them. But do you know what I really love? People—and their lives, stories, and connections. So luckily for me, there’s a different type of data that can also teach us a lot—qualitative data.
Quantitative data—numbers and statistics—can tell us so much about the scope of an issue, but it is qualitative data—words and stories—that provide nuance, details, and context. And you need both types of data as you work for social change. If you want to understand the breadth and depth of poverty in your city, you need to look at economic indicators such as poverty rates, unemployment, and the number of children eligible for free/reduced lunch in schools. You need to analyze these pieces of data by race, ethnicity, and gender to understand how poverty disproportionately affects families of color and single mothers. You then need to overlay these statistics with housing data to understand how historic practices of legal housing segregation created whole neighborhoods with inequitable access to economic opportunity.
These numbers are, of course, important and necessary and, when paired with effective data visualizations, provide an excellent picture of poverty in a given city and help point toward possible solutions. But they don’t provide insight into the stories and experiences of people living in poverty.
For people to care about social issues facing our communities, we have to humanize these numbers and tell people’s stories. We have almost become inured to statistics. When we hear that 90% of students in urban schools qualify for free and reduced lunch, we forget that these are not numbers—they are children. They are children who are going hungry while living in the wealthiest country in the world. Their stories are key to helping us understand why we must work for change.
Both types of data are also needed when evaluating systems and programs. Humans thrive on storytelling, and while there will always be an emphasis on “proving” a social program works through statistical analyses, it is also important to understand the lived experience of the people being served by that program. Survey and administrative data help program staff see where their resources are going and where they are being successful, but qualitative data gleaned through client interviews help staff understand individual experiences that provide context for the quantitative findings. Moreover, many community-based programs may have small numbers of clients who do not lend themselves to vast statistical analyses. But these clients still have stories and experiences that can be systematically analyzed to understand the strengths and challenges of the programs.
Vantage recently started working with a parent education and support program that is just starting to expand its evaluation work. The organization collects quantitative data in the form of intake sheets and surveys and is beginning to analyze these data. But one qualitative story shifted the organization’s understanding of its program. An educator told the story of a family who brought their baby to a parenting class with a filthy bottle that had to be thrown away and replaced. By the third class, the bottles were clean, indicating that the family was applying the parenting lessons they were learning. Although this is one small anecdotal example, imagine if this organization were able to collect such stories from its clients and systematically analyze these qualitative data for themes. The organization would gain a rich, nuanced view of the families it works with in addition to the survey data, which may tell them, for example, that “77% of their clients improved their knowledge of child nutrition.”
Qualitative data is still “data” that should be analyzed using rigorous methods. We are not encouraging organizations to collect anecdotal stories, “get a feel for it,” and come to hard conclusions about their programs! But when analyzed systematically, mounds of qualitative data come together into crystallized themes and lessons learned. When you’re in the midst of coding and analyzing qualitative data, it feels so messy, and you become lost in details and individual examples. But as you work your way through the process, those connections and themes start to form and then become obvious, and you are able to zoom out from the trees to see the forest.
That forest of beautiful quotes and stories is the key to understanding the lives and experiences of the people your program is impacting.