The Plural of Anecdote

In the Hutong
Waiting for a Skype Call
2004 hrs.

Listening to a podcast of a lecture on UChannel not long ago I was pleased to hear a respected researcher suggest to his audience that “the plural of anecdote is data.”

Since then I have had some interesting discussions with people who collect data for a living, and it is clear that the more orthodox of the researchers are not happy with that definition.

With many things in China, however, we are faced with a lack of data in the form of scientific evidence or peer-reviewed research. Even when we do have access to those things, they are of questionable reliability, out of date, or incomplete. Let’s face it, this is a lousy environment for private data collection, and if government statistics are any indication, public data is not much better.

While all of us would love to be able to make our day-to-day decisions based on hard data that was collected using methodologies that would pass muster with our b-school statistics professors, that kind of data in most cases simply does not exist.

We must then, I’m afraid, fall back on a far less scientific means of operation, which is to rely on the collected anecdotes we have that are relevant, being as careful and thoughtful about the credence we give them as we would when critiquing an expensive bit of research.

In a market like China, where data is hard to come by and the pace of change is so fast that it outruns research at any rate, in most cases we need to rely on what Lily Tomlin once called our “collective hunch” about the world as it is.

Does that excuse us from being as informed as possible and collecting as much data as we can? Of course not.

But I have seen too many opportunities squandered in this market by people who “need to see more data.” Some days, it’s a good day to rely on a series of reliable anecdotes as your data, provided they capture what you and your team know in your guts to be the real situation on the ground.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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