Corporate Constraints, the Dehumanisation Of Research & Insight and Some Thoughts on Recovery
Or Why Resisting Managerial Agendas Might Make More Meaningful Market Research
“Magical, fantastic, dreamlike experiences are almost by definition unpredictable. … Both control and the nonhuman technologies that produce control tend to be inimical to enchantment. … Fantastic experiences can go anywhere; anything can happen. Such unpredictability clearly is not possible in a tightly controlled environment.” George Ritzer, the Irrationality of Rationality
“A lack of genuine connection with people’s lives. A research industry that doesn’t understand insight. Planners that can’t think outside the ordinary. Creatives that live in a world of cliché…I welcome any research agency with open arms if they can genuinely tell me something new and insightful. Not my standard experience. …” Richard Huntington @adliterate
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It is almost twenty years since Virginia Valentine offered a template and language model for repositioning the priorities and values of insight industries. Her 2002 paper Repositioning Research: A New MR Language Model suggested a route away from discourses of rationality, risk-aversion and certainty towards research cultures that privilege imagination, exploration and the tolerance of ambiguity: the stuff of interpretive research.
Yet all the available evidence suggests that we continue towards the former in the shape of ever more quantification, automation and standardisation at the expense of the latter, and particularly at the expense of interpretive qualitative research.
For all the talk of disruption, everything has become a lot more, rather than less, like it was before. Rather than delivering any revolution in insight, the hegemony of mobile and the availability of naturally-occurring social listening data have merely accelerated previous trends that have been in train since the industry’s formative years: more automation, greater standardisation, more emphasis on quantification, etc. i.e. the continued rationalisation of data collection and analysis, at the expense of skilled analysis and interpretation by research professionals.
None of this is unique to market research — these are the organising principles of contemporary corporate culture. But, applied to market research, it results in a preference for forms of market research that prioritise corporate agendas above the priorities and perspectives of the researched.
Set against this context, interpretive qualitative research methods, such as discourse analysis, ethnography, narrative analysis and semiotics, provide marketers with a broader exploration of how people make sense of their lives through the analysis of cultural and social categories, distinctions, identities, relationships, and discourse, etc. In so doing, they turn away from narrow corporate concerns towards the priorities and perspectives of the researched. They reject standardisation and afford flexibility and autonomy to both the researcher and researched.
At a time when organisations are finding new ways to reduce human influence through replacement or constraint in service of efficiency, interpretive qualitative research has become counter-cultural.
The Nub: The corporate world has a missing persons problem.
Like many industries, market research often appears to measure its progress by the degree to which non-human technology has replaced the work of humans.
In quantitative market research, we have progressed from interviewers conducting surveys with pens and paper through computer-assisted telephone / personal interviewing to computer-administered research. We have progressed from the moderation of interviewer variability through its constraint right through to its elimination and on to the elimination of interviewers.
Increments of dehumanisation are often supported by what might be called a discourse of methodological merit.
That is, we are told that automation will lead to an increase in quality through the reduction of ‘bias’; that switching from manual to automated coding or to automated analyses and reporting ensures consistency from wave to wave. Underpinning this discourse are ideas that people (even skilled research professionals) carry a threat to the integrity and quality of the scientific enterprise which can be avoided by deferring to the mechanical certainty of machines.
People are unreliable and risky, machines are not (and, yes, of course, this is based on a superficial understanding of how automated systems, including ‘intelligent’ ones, are developed and the mistaken belief that they don’t involve ‘bias’, let alone obscure, embed and deepen discriminatory biases).
On this basis, we might expect the gradual erasure of human influence to result in better research. Yet, insight seems to be in ever decreasing supply.
Instead, we see more and more complaints that a concern with neutrality and universality undermines our ability to deal with the layered messiness of everyday life.
“Literally every time I read a strategy deck from a creative agency these days it’s like the author has never lived in the real world.” Tom Goodwin @tomfgoodwin
Often expressed as frustration with proxies, personas, customer journeys or other abstractions, industry critics remind us how far removed what gets traded as insight is from “the real world” and humanity of our own experiences. Martin Weigel’s polemic Escape from Fantasy was a case-in-point.
Much of the research that generates frustration is itself inhuman, the product of automated and highly standardised data collection, analysis and reporting (both quantitative and qualitative) of abstract, experimental and contrived scenarios, remote and mediated participation.
People are missing from research outputs because they are missing from the input.
And when you try sticking imaginary flesh onto disembodied Excel data cells to fix the problem, the poverty of much ‘insight’ is laid bare:
The insights we trade in are necessarily the products of the methods we use to generate them; and it is difficult to connect with people’s lives when our methods involve removing them from the messy detail of lived experience and as far away as possible from any sort of interaction or environment that might be considered natural.
Instead of getting closer to people and customers, research is taking us further away.
Where’s Qual When You Need It?
Historically, at this point, interpretive and naturalistic qualitative approaches might have been suggested as a route through which deeper and more sympathetic understanding of people’s activities, experiences and meaning-making could be recovered, as a remedy for those seeking surprising, insightful or creative research or who just want to inject a bit of humanity into insight.
In theory, interpretive qualitative research is characterised by an ability to respond to emerging themes and tangents, to explore the unexpected as collection and analysis develops, to generate hypotheses and discard them as data collection proceeds. The skilled qualitative researcher does not tie themselves to a strict schedule or script but adapts dynamically to the contingencies of the research contexts they find themselves in.
Aristotle used the term phronesis to describe the practical wisdom that allows us to apply knowledge, judgement and intuition to make decisions. This type of insight is accumulated through professional experience and is critical in qualitative analysis and strategic thought.
It is a form of expertise that experienced professionals can intuitively recognise but which is also less amenable to standardisation and measurement than other forms of knowledge. And because it is less amenable to being counted, it is often obscured in controlled corporate environments. And because it is less amenable to being counted, there is less incentive to notice it, and it becomes less valued.
Just as people are increasingly missing from all points of the research process (i.e. automated data collection, analysis, reporting, etc), there is a parallel erasure and constraint of qualitative skills, including professional knowledge and creativity.
Applied to the research process, this extends to constraint of: interviewers’ and researchers’ skill, judgement and experience; the spontaneity of research participants; recognition of our abilities to navigate the socially situated and contested meanings of everyday life.
From a managerial perspective, particularly one which emphasises ‘control’, interpretive research and creative thought is unpredictable and inefficient.
The flexibility and autonomy afforded to the researcher and researched by constructivist and interpretive qualitative research approaches are the antithesis of contemporary corporate cultures obsessed with efficiency and control.
Culturally, they don’t quite fit.
And so interpretive qualitative research methods, including ethnography, discourse analysis and semiotics, methods uniquely designed to produce knowledge grounded in the lives and everyday practices of people, are struggling for visibility and receding from view.
Instead of making a case for the distinctiveness of qualitative inquiry, the typical industry argument in favour of qual presents it as a ‘complement’ to the ‘rigour’ of quantitative research. Another form of the discourse of methodological merit.
Even amongst specialist qualitative agencies, the emphasis is on highly standardised research designs and products that guarantee outputs, if not outcomes.
This is how we end up with ‘discussion’ groups barrelling through standardised guides which barely allow the moderator to breathe between the batteries of topics to be covered, emerging insights constrained through tightly specified prompts and timings, reducing the opportunity for either flexibility in moderation or expansion of participant response.
It’s how we end up with something called a “qualitative omnibus” discussion group, where clients buy 15 minutes of discussion within a group. Perhaps a stretch to think of it as qualitative research, but it’s certainly efficient.
It’s how we end up with qualitative research being required to justify itself in terms of a managerial logic that is fundamentally opposed to it e.g. “how many groups?”, “how representative are they?”.
Thus, much commercial qualitative research appears to be bending to make itself amenable to cultural values (efficiency, standardisation and rationalisation) that, applied to qualitative research, undermine not only its capacity to surprise, but its very purpose.
Taken to extreme, this level of acquiescence contributes to a culture in which automated qualitative moderation seems reasonable:
This is also a further example of how the distinctiveness of qualitative inquiry is being sacrificed in service of corporate organising principles: “will save countless hours in researcher time”. The constraint of curiosity and creativity is seen as a reasonable exchange for increased efficiency.
Perhaps this is the most sensible business decision.
It underlines the fact that many see the future for qualitative research — and strategic/creative thinking — through alignment with managerial norms, rather than defending and protecting its distinctiveness on its own terms:
“Any question about sample size must not be answered right away until you understand the context of the question. Otherwise, you will fall into the trap of justifying qualitative research by using the criteria for quantitative research. It’s a set up for failure. Avoid. … say the inquirer is unconvinced. Says that they don’t believe in subjectivism, relativism, interpretivism, constructionism, etc. You’re not in the business of EVER trying to convince anyone of anything that they are not willing to believe.” Kakali Bhattacharya @drkakali
However, it seems reasonable to suggest that your ability to provide bold or daring insights and strategies might be slightly curtailed when your organisational cultures and organising principles reflect the largely homogenous corporate norms and managerial agendas that dominate all workplaces.
Managerial cultures, by definition and by necessity, prefer control over autonomy, predictability over uncertainty, concreteness over ambiguity; preferences which are inimical to qualitative inquiry and creative thought.
Again, the real world and humanity is missing from research outputs because it is missing from the input.
Here are some suggestions to recover humanity.
5 Routes to Recover Humanity
- See Yourself: Reclaim and Recognise Your Own Humanity
For all the talk of ‘connecting’ with customers or customer-centricity, the highly-structured research methods that dominate corporate life tend to create an artificial distance between researchers and research participants.
Even ostensibly qualitative approaches, such as the classic corporate focus group, with clients observing remotely, manufactures an unnecessary emotional distance between two groups of otherwise indistinct people.
And one of the problems with exploring people’s attitudes and behaviours under highly abstract, hypothetical and experimental conditions is that you tend to start talking about people in highly abstract and unrealistic ways (e.g. “Marketers have to get to the future first and welcome consumers when they arrive.” Keith Weed @ Marketing Week 2019).
Much of this is based on a false distinction between the presumed professional, rational perspective of the corporate world — and corporate words — of marketing, brand and strategy and the common-sense and socially-situated, everyday worlds of the people it is selling to (and which the people who inhabit the corporate world share).
“…the tendency to think of customer/ reader/ viewer/ consumer as a moron remains a metaphorical pandemic of the world of marketing.” Kalyan Karmakar
Setting aside the methodological merits of various research approaches, think how much of the professional discourse of marketing constructs people’s decision-making and behaviour as somehow incompetent, deficient or in need of remedy.
“Consumers tell many lies. While engaging in deception can provide a variety of benefits, a potential danger when lying is that the consumer may subsequently forget aspects of the lie told. To ensure the deception is not inadvertently revealed later, the consumer must remember the content of the lie.” Elizabeth Cowley, Christina Anthony, Deception Memory: When Will Consumers Remember Their Lies?, Journal of Consumer Research, , ucy066.
It seems unlikely that anyone as flawed, as morally and cognitively deficient as the ‘consumer’ portrayed above, could be trusted (or able) to hold it together for all the other significantly more important tasks they have to attend to on any given day: parenting, relationships, work, etc.
Swap out ‘consumer’ in the journal article extract above for any other categorization (e.g. ‘spouses’, ‘children’, ‘pensioners’, etc) and see how much we are prepared to believe of ‘consumers’ that we might not accept of other identities.
To recover humanity, we must recognise that we are ‘members’ of and inhabit the same everyday worlds that we are describing for clients.
“No one spending $50k or even $20k on a new car would pick one without plenty of qualitative research, so it’s strange that those same people would eschew research before investing millions of their company’s or investors’ money in an idea.” Erika Hall @mulegirl
We must turn our attention away from the priorities of the corporate world and towards an exploration of the ordinary, everyday cultural and social categories, distinctions, identities, relationships, and discourse through which people make sense of their lives.
2. Defend Yourself: Challenge the Notion of Human ‘Bias’ & Deficiency
The justification for constraint (& control) in market research is continually cast as a methodological argument against people and their influence, perpetuating the stereotype that the distinction between quantitative research and qualitative research is a distinction between robust, objective, impersonal research and subjective, prejudicial, ‘biased’ research.
For example, the Association for Qualitative Research, describe “bias” in these terms:
“Bias: In qualitative research this is a problematic concept, since by definition the qualitative researcher is part of the process, and all researchers are different. This human factor has been said to be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of qualitative method.” https://www.aqr.org.uk/glossary/bias
This idea of the flawed, human investigator is a recurring one. Sometimes, I wonder if one of the reasons for Behavioural Economics’ corporate appeal isn’t that it provides a scientistic accounting of consumers’ multiple flaws: attentional bias, automation bias, belief bias, confirmation bias, congruence bias, courtesy bias, distinction bias, expectation bias, hindsight bias, and so on and so on and so on. And so on.
(Thankfully, clients and agencies — non-consumers, presumably — purchasing or selling BE are immune to these cognitive limitations. Otherwise, it would be hard to know for sure the degree to which any or all of their decisions are impaired by such biases.)
Methodologically, many of the approaches that dominate in marketing and advertising are based on ideas that people cannot know themselves or speak for themselves. We trade in theories that construct people as untrustworthy, prone to misreporting themselves or with little ability for insight or self-reflexivity.
Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace our subjectivity, the situated and contingent nature of our decision making. This acknowledgement is a methodological strength of interpretive qualitative inquiry, along with its commitment to transparency in detailing how data is collected, what data is used, the research context and the decisions the researcher makes in terms of analysis along the way.
Its strengths are distinct from those of the quantitative-experimental paradigm, not simply complementary. Quantitative research reduces complexity, qualitative research articulates it.
Its weakness is perhaps not making these arguments often enough.
By contrast, many methods that are standardised and automated, particularly algorithmic methods, not only involve bias, but often obscure and deepen bias:
“…algorithms are often implemented without any appeals method in place (due to the misconception that algorithms are objective, accurate, and won’t make mistakes)… algorithms are often used at a much larger scale than human decision makers, in many cases, replicating an identical bias at scale (part of the appeal of algorithms is how cheap they are to use).” https://www.fast.ai/2018/08/07/hbr-bias-algorithms/
This suggests that the methodological impact and weakness of the “human factor” is less of an issue, than convenience and cost, for preferring automated analysis systems over researcher-led methods.
3. Surprise Yourself: Embrace Uncertainty.
The fundamental problem for market research and insights users who are looking for something surprising or unexpected (or even creative) from their research is that predictability is a feature, not a bug, of most bureaucratic/corporate organizations.
The emphasis on control in standardised research approaches, whether qualitative or quantitative, produces a diminished capacity for flexibility and improvisation that inevitably results in a reduced appetite for surprise. And a lot of work goes into ensuring there is none.
“The single most important thing to remember when presenting work to clients is that they are terrified of what they are going to be shown.” Adrian Shaughnessy, Graphic Design: A User’s Manual.
A dispreference for surprise may lead to lower expectations of what constitutes “insight” or, worse, a preference for conservative insights that conform to our existing expectations or prejudices.
Indeed, Twyman’s Law (“If a statistic looks interesting or unusual it is probably wrong”) can be seen as a natural outcome of business cultures that prioritise standardisation and routinisation.
All of which is likely to support research approaches and methodologies that are directed towards controlling, and where possible eliminating, the natural but unpredictable dimensions of everyday life.
Bureaucracies desire certainty.
The lack of methodological and epistemological debates in commercial market research perhaps reflects a desire amongst agencies and researchers to preserve the illusion of concreteness about results. (Consider, for example, the complete lack of engagement with or attention paid to the replication crisis in psychology and behavioural economics amongst market researchers).
Debate suggests uncertainty.
However, when we ignore the conditions of unpredictability and uncertainty under which all of our actions, including professional judgements and creative decisions, take place, we are denying our lived experiences. To produce genuinely human insight, we need research methods that can expose the qualitative unpredictability, the tensions and messy details of everyday life.
“95% of clients have no idea how to create the conditions that surface insight. An ‘insight’ more often than not takes time & comes from unpredictable places.” Daniel Brown @mrdanielmb
Sense-making and decision-making is highly complex, contingent and unstable, yet the methods we typically rely on professionally to study people sanitises this for the purposes of abstraction.
The industry’s desire to trade in universal, generalizable truths about people’s behaviour means that we often overlook the specific and particular meaning of this culture, this behaviour, this language.
4. Reveal Yourself: The Obscured Interpretative Aspects of Objectivity
Through the language and practices of ‘objective’ rational systems (including quantitative and standardised qualitative approaches), organisational cultures often force us to deny our humanity by diminishing interpretive decision-making to the point of invisibility.
Our ability to engage in contextual, critical reflection and the ability to apply discretionary knowledge is what separates us from machines yet this ability is constrained by and obscured within overly controlled and standardised environments.
To recover humanity in our work, we must oppose the idea that the rational systems through which our work is organised and valued are necessarily superior to the contingent and situated decision-making we employ to do work. We must also make our interpretive work visible.
If you have any experience of bureaucratic form-filling (time-sheets, expense claims, interview panels, procurement decisions), you’ll recognise the substantial amount of evaluative work that goes into reducing a highly complex decision-making process to a tick-box or a number. Translated into a quantitative value, it gives the illusion of concreteness, stability and removes any semblance of uncertainty or ambiguity.
We are encouraged to accept that these rational systems built on solid numerical and categorical foundations, that stand on the shoulders of other slightly less solid numbers, exist because they are more objective and transparent than our own flawed and fallible human decision-making. When, in fact, it is a sleight of hand in which interpretive decision-making is not removed, or improved, but obscured by reducing it to an opaque and unarguable metric.
Again, we restore the detail of everyday lives and behaviours by studying the contingent aspects of our behaviour and attitudes in context.
5. Develop Yourself (& Clients): Broaden Your Research Palette.
“A discipline dominated by stock quantitative and qualitative methods is a discipline not only lacking in imagination, but also one that in spite of its claims can never be empirical in any meaningful sense.” Nicholas Gane (2011). Measure, Value and the Current Crises of Sociology. The Sociological Review, 59(2_suppl), 151–173.
While the discourse of methodological merit is often invoked against interpretive research, it rings a bit hollow when we consider the popularity of Net Promoter Score (NPS). If we were motivated by methodological merit, then it’s unlikely many millions would be spent year-after-year on NPS without checking first that it had any validity. (Spoiler: it doesn’t, but it does turn up quite a lot of qualitative detail in the verbatims, the richness of which is unfortunately under-appreciated).
And if the objectivity of inquiry or an emulation of the natural sciences was a motivation, then quantitative market research agencies would perhaps be more concerned with the falsification and replication of marketing theories or with rejecting the (efficient and amenable to automation) use of rote threshold approaches in favour of contextual interpretation to determine the statistical significance of results.
Instead, research methods often dominate for cultural reasons. Not just because of cultural fit but also because they are familiar, comfortable and conventional. But a limited research palette can frustrate our ability to learn or deliver something new or surprising.
The problem with an excessively supine client orientation (“giving the customer what they want”) is that, if the customer is always right, we reduce the motivation and need for researchers to develop the deeper methodological knowledge or expertise to challenge them. The incentive for agencies to explore alternative approaches is similarly reduced.
Giving the customer what they want tends to produce a stock palette of approaches leading to standardised services that involve only a superficial understanding of methodologies or techniques to supply.
In the long-term, this is deskilling for researchers AND clients. A lack of exposure to alternative methodological approaches (and epistemological traditions) undermines both clients’ and researchers’ confidence in new methods.
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Trends in market research or planning do not emerge in isolation from broader trends in corporate culture; anti-social creatives, planners and strategists reflect much wider structural issues that frustrate those looking for surprising, insightful or creative research.
Despite what the dominant industry discourses sometimes suggest, most of the emerging trends in research and insight have little to do with methodological merit.
The truth is that any lack of connection with people and the real world (and the devaluing of interpretive qual) in strategy and insight is less likely to be a consequence of anti-social creatives, planners or strategists and considerably more likely to reflect the cultural practices, including language, through which their work is organised and valued.
The argument put forward throughout this article is that, applied to research, values such as control, rationalisation and efficiency that motivate many organisational — and especially corporate — cultures are complementary to the quantitative-experimental research paradigm, but directly opposed to the spirit and principles of interpretive qualitative research (and creative thought).
These values undermine the flexible and reflexive nature of qualitative research and, in so doing, impinge on the quality of researchers’ outputs.
There is a place in research for the type of results that quantitative-experimental research provides and for the type of phenomenon interpretive qualitative research investigates.
However, without recognising the ways in which organisational and professional cultures shape our views of what counts as legitimate knowledge, the market research and insights industry is condemned to continue to pursue the managerial agendas of the corporate world at the expense of the ‘meaning-full’ perspectives and priorities of the researched (and researchers).
And is condemned to continue complaining of the scarcity of insight.
Without resisting these cultural pressures, we will be left with a very narrow conception of how valuable insight can and could be generated, as well as an impoverished research palette for both researchers and clients.
A Reading List
For anyone interested in reading more about some of the issues raised in this article, here are just a small selection of the articles and chapters that I was thinking about when I wrote it and which reflect some of my thinking about the tensions between corporate culture, rationality and qualitative research (and creative thought) over the years.
I limited the list to articles that were available (legally) online. Hopefully, they are of use and interest to some of you:
1. On the unreasonableness of rational systems — the irrationality of rationality.
Ritzer, G. (2018) The McDonaldization of society : into the digital age. Thousand Oaks, CA, : Sage Publications Ltd.
2. On the socio-cultural and historical contexts of research methodologies in marketing research.
Tadajewski, M. (2016) ‘Focus groups : history, epistemology and non-individualistic consumer research.’, Consumption markets and culture., 19 (4). pp. 319–345.
3. On the practical wisdom and undecidability involved in interpretative work.
Macklin R., Whiteford G. (2012) Phronesis, Aporia, and Qualitative Research. In: Kinsella E.A., Pitman A. (eds) Phronesis as Professional Knowledge. Professional Practice and Education: A Diversity of Voices, vol 1. SensePublishers, Rotterdam
4. On the nature of interpretive research.
Yanow, D., & Schwartz-Shea, P. (2009). Interpretive research: Characteristics and criteria. Revue internationale de Psychosociologie, 15(35), 31–38
5. On the relationship between thin data and thick data.
Why Big Data Needs Thick Data — Tricia Wang
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Emmet Ó Briain is founder of QUIDDITY — an insight consultancy specialising in the qualitative analysis of organisational, customer and public discourse and cultures using naturally-occurring data and language.
If you enjoyed this article, I would be grateful if you could share it with anyone you think might find it interesting.
Any questions, get in touch.
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