From the vantage of late middle age, I find myself increasingly impatient with the promise that we can predict human behaviour with certainty – big data, algorithms, predictive modelling. Yet I am also old enough to know that it won’t go away. So we have to balance it with some humanity. Although doubt is being cast on people’s ability to answer the question "Why?", it is more important than ever to understand some of the "whys" in the face of data manipulation that tells us simply "what".
For too long now, qualitative research has been about inviting people into "our" world; the focus group, the viewing room. It rather feels as if there has been an industrialisation of qualitative research where the techniques are simplified so that they can be used by junior researchers to the greater profit of the research companies rather than the greater insight of clients. Now it’s time for us to go into "their" world.
At Hall & Partners, we are making a conscious effort to downweight the psychology and upweight the anthropology.
This is not to say psychology is unimportant. In qualitative research, it has a fine tradition stretching back through Bill Schlackman via Ernest Dichter to Sigmund Freud. Daniel Kahneman (the winner of the economics Nobel Prize) is, of course, a psychologist.
Anthropology as an inspiration has been rather submerged in quantitative research as the positivist survey methods of the Gallup organisation overshadowed the humanist perspective
of the Mass Observation movement. (Curiously, an insightful contribution to consumer understanding was made by renowned anthropologist Mary Douglas.)
So we need to get out more. Fieldwork needs to become work in the field. It has been interesting to see big companies such as Procter & Gamble urging their marketing executives to spend more time with the people who buy and use their products. To me, this signals a perceived failure in the role that should be played by qualitative research. It has become too sterile; literally behind the looking glass (with all the associations of Alice and The Wizard of Oz).
Some of the tools that have been used more recently are in this anthropological tradition. Accompanied shopping is an old favourite and digital cameras have transformed the world of ethnography for researchers. But ethnography must be more than digital filming; how much are we eating with our respondents, how often are we watching TV with them? (And while I’m on the subject, doesn’t "respondent" feel very old fashioned? We just call them people.) We need to be more imaginative and more bold.
We need to understand the context and culture surrounding behaviours. This poses particular challenges for international projects, but no worse than the issues of translation. Are we tapping fully into the work of semioticians whose daily bread is understanding behaviours and things in their cultural contexts?
How are we marshalling the skills and techniques of linguistics? Looking not just at the content of what we are saying, but how we communicate in both verbal and non-verbal ways. How much do objects contribute to our understanding and indeed to our storytelling? Field workers in anthropology collect actual things to explain the lives of those they are trying to understand. (See the fascinating History of the World in 100 Objects, a project created in co-operation between the British Museum and BBC Radio 4.)
How do we do field work in the world of social media? It may be relatively simple to participate, but raises immense questions not only of ethics, but also about whom we are actually interacting with online.
To what extent are people who they say they are? Do they mean what they post? What does a "like" mean? How much does all that matter if others are experiencing it in good faith?
All this is a big project with many implications. What sort of people do we need to hire to be successful? What does it mean for sampling and sample sizes? To what extent will findings be reliable and replicable? How do we prevent cowboys pretending to work in this way without the skills? What will clients think? What is it all going to cost?
All these questions notwithstanding, I feel very strongly that we have to press forward. We will experiment and we will learn. We will take inspiration from new directions and new people. We will capture the full story by bringing new depth to our understanding of behaviour and thereby get greater value from the number-crunching, which is not going to disappear.
Paul Edwards is CEO Europe of Hall & Partners
|My most bizarre "insight" China has a quarter of the world’s feet but makes a third of the world’s socks.|
|If I could ask one question of the universe, it would be Why?|
|I get my best insight from
|The most recent insight I’ve imparted is private.|