Hans Rosling: Selling Qualitative Research to Castro

Many researchers are familiar with having to explain and defend the choice of qualitative methods for their studies. Typically, the argument in favor of using qualitative methods must be made to a dissertation committee. Imagine making the argument to Fidel Castro! That is just what Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, did! I came across the story this morning on the TED Blog and I just had to share it.

Rosling was part of a team of scientists that traveled to Cuba in 1993 to investigate an outbreak of neuropathy. As he tells it:

I told Castro that I would like to use qualitative research methods, incorporate some anthropology. But this was 1993, and it was very early to be using these methods in public health research. Now it’s totally accepted, but then it was a very new idea. And it was important to use in this case as I had noticed that the tobacco-growing provinces had much higher frequency of the condition. Also, the food distribution was equal in Cuba but the disease distribution was unequal, so that link was gone. So I said, “Let’s not just do a questionnaire here.” Quantitative people don’t like you to say that. So there was some argument, and that was the moment when Castro came in.

We sat for three or four hours and we got into a discussion over the details, the very smallest details. At one point I said, “We need to do good research.” He misunderstood me and thought that I meant that the research of his scientists was low quality. So he also had to give me a long lecture about how good the Cubans were at epidemiology. And it’s difficult to stop Castro when he begins talking — almost as difficult as it is to stop me. But then I said, “Can I tell you a story?” And as a Cuban, he immediately said, “Yes.”

So, I told him that I had watched a documentary on him, and he asked me more questions to verify that I remembered it all correctly and it was all true — and I passed. And then I said, “I liked especially when you lived in the Sierra Maestra. You worked along with the people, you ate with them, you played with their children. You must have learnt so much about them.” And he said, “Yes. Yes, we did.” And I replied, “But you didn’t have any questionnaires!” He laughed at that. So, I told him, “You see, today the methods of Sierra Maestra have become science.” He sort of liked that.

The next day the Minister of Health and the head of the Armed Forces and such all sat down with me for a meeting and said, “We would like you to stay in Cuba for the next six months. Tell us who you would like to work with.” So I stayed, and we did exactly the studies I had proposed.

What a brilliant use of storytelling! The story conveyed the power of qualitative research. At the same time, the story was persuasive because Rosling knew the story of his audience and was able to step into that story as he made his own case.

Carpenter, S. (2009, May 15). Q&A with Hans Rosling (Part 2): How to change Fidel Castro’s mind … and everybody else’s. TEDBlog. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/qa_with_hans_ro_1/

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