In Akira Kurosawa's timeless 1950 masterpiece (, a murder and a rape appear to have occurred in the deep woods of 12th-century Japan. A priest, a woodcutter and a man the script calls “the commoner” are taking shelter from a rainstorm in the ruined shell of a gatehouse. 

The priest and the woodcutter are recounting to the commoner their testimony at the investigation of the crime. The other witnesses before the magistrate were the bandit Tajômaru (the main suspect, played over the top by a young Toshiro Mifune); the wife of the stabbed samurai; and the dead man himself, who testifies via a spirit medium. Each witness tells a different story. The forest photography emphasizes the dappling of sunlight as it filters through leafy trees, neither completely clear nor completely dark, symbolizing ambiguity.

We see the testimonies via flashbacks. We are thereby certain of what each witness told the magistrate, but we have little idea what the truth is, or what the witnesses’ individual agendas might be.

Back (or rather, forward) at the Rashômon gate, the woodcutter tells the commoner and the priest (the priest only having met the samurai and his wife on the road outside the wood, without witnessing the actual crime) still another contradictory version of the event. The commoner is able to see through the woodcutter’s story and penetrate to some of the truth. The film ends with an event redeeming the woodcutter’s character, affirming the priest’s fervently desired faith in humanity, and the dying rainstorm giving way to sunshine.

My thesis students are discussing the qualitative research module, specifically interview-based management research. I show the film and ask the students: What if you are interviewing employees of a company for your thesis, and you get conflicting stories like this?

In each class there are math-shy students who are initially drawn to qualitative research because they think it’s easier than quantitative. It is at this moment that some of them begin to mumble, “Oh, shit…”

The first question to address is, why will a researcher be told conflicting stories, and even lies? The answer is that people suffer from perceptual bias (each employee may sincerely perceive and interpret an event in a different way), and that everybody is hiding something, wanting something, or protecting something.

People want the usual things: Money, power, sex, to love and be loved. Then too, as one Rashomon character wryly notes, “We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It's easier that way.” The priest at the Rashomon gate wants to believe humans are good.

People hide their misdeeds, real and imagined, past, present, and planned. We also hide the ethical lapses and illegalities committed by people who are important to us.

People protect their families, their health, their self-image, their reputation, and their beliefs. We utter the most outrageous inconsistencies if they leave our core beliefs unchallenged. Tajomaru, probably falsely, confessed to murdering the samurai, in order to maintain his aura as the fearsome bandit.

The qualitative researcher wants evidence of the truth or falsity of a set of propositions. To the interviewed employees, truth may be far less important than, say, keeping harmony in the organization, or pushing product out the door.

What should the researcher do? As the characters’ retrospective at the Rashomon gate suggests, the researcher should re-interview the respondents after a certain interval of time, and in a different setting. Don’t (necessarily) challenge the respondent to contradict his/her earlier statements. Instead, without naming the other respondents, choose statements made by them, and ask, “Isn’t it possible that…?”

Bring in a new analyst (“the commoner”) who wasn’t subject to the respondents’ initial charisma or body language, and have the new analyst “read between the lines” of the transcribed interviews. The new analyst might witness the re-interviews.

You might reassure a respondent that s/he is not the only person who has things to hide and protect.

Coincidentally, a week after my most recent classroom screening, “Actor Toshirō Mifune (1920-1997) will be honoured with a star bearing his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”