Why ditching depth is dangerous: Insights from London into the social factors driving violent extremism

Michael Thompson and Michael McLean


In the race to generate instant insight and technological solutions, researchers are at risk of overlooking the fundamental strengths of qualitative approaches – depth of insight and understanding of social context. Opinion Leader's recent work informing the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy of three London Boroughs, shows how this can be avoided. The study employed a back-to-basics approach that addressed the full complexity of people's lives and motivations, demonstrating the value of qualitative research in addressing a matter of vital social importance.

Back to basics

The status of qualitative research is threatened by industry trends that favour speed and technological solutions over robustness and depth of insight. Much of the innovation going on in qualitative research is focused on real-time feedback, customer communities, data-mining and the quantification of insight. Though these approaches are useful and have their place in the researchers' toolkit, their limitations and drawbacks are clear and can briefly be laid out as follows:

  • Superficiality – Real-time feedback is often superficial and does not allow for the kind of immersion in people's lives and opinions that strategically focused qualitative research requires.
  • Disclosure – Participants in communities and other online methods have a high degree of control over what they disclose, making it difficult for researchers to get an accurate picture of them.
  • Self-selection – Fast-paced, online research is highly self-selecting, weakening the already limited claims to representativeness of ordinary purposive sampling.
  • Herding – Participants in real-time feedback and online forums often herd around particular points of view, making it difficult for researchers to analyse differences in opinion and underlying motivations.