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Qualitative research; let's get critical
I was tutoring some young qualitative researchers recently on the Association for Qualitative Research (AQR) moderation skills course and while discussing their hopes and fears the conversation turned to ethics and the politics of qualitative research. For graduate researchers fresh from university, with a heightened critical sense of the ideology implicit in marketing, the question of politics is a personal ethical one which will inform their careers and the research world which they will shape. They were nervous about being active agents of the global capitalist hegemony (although not quite in those words). I reassured them that while they would find many like-minded people in the marketing research community, especially qualitative researchers, they might not necessarily find a satisfactory ethical answer.
Recently I had also given a practitioner's view of emerging “critical” issues in current qualitative research practice at an academic seminar on critical marketing. These two experiences and subsequent explorations and discussions have led me to believe that the issues of the changing relationship between qualitative researcher and consumer/respondent require some pragmatic, ethical and even political analysis with a view both to kindling a debate in this area and also being more open about the real deal when it comes to what research is for and the role and rights of the respondent. (At this stage I have focused only on immediate interested parties in the research situation – researcher, client, consumer. However, questions of corporate social responsibility and environmental politics are also relevant and should be included in future debate.)
The critical perspective in marketing is of increasing interest to academics and it is probably worth summarising the issues here before adopting a similarly critical approach to our investigation of contemporary qualitative research.
Let's define some terms, at least for the benefit of practitioners and I suspect for some academics too. “Critical” is a term used with a specific meaning in critical marketing. It refers to a Marxist flavoured deconstruction of marketing which highlights the ideological assumptions and world view of marketing. In short, marketing is an exploitative ideological tool or apparatus of capitalism and serves either to overtly dupe the vulnerable masses into consuming and thus maintaining the capitalist status quo or, somewhat more benignly, makes consumers of us all replacing our profound and structural alienation with the shallow and fleeting satisfaction of consumption.
How might this apply to qualitative research?
First of all let's look at the consumer-researcher relationship in qualitative research. The dominant narrative tells of qualitative marketing research as a way of sensitively understanding consumers' needs so that marketers can better meet those needs with appropriate products and services. This construction makes consumer and marketer roughly equal participants in a mutually beneficial contract, negotiated through market research. Macro political dimensions of the discipline are made micro and become ethical considerations which tend, in turn, to focus on the way in which research is conducted to ensure that it protects the individual rights of the consumer to anonymity, etc. In this sense it is rather passive and this is reflected in MRS, ESOMAR, AQR guidelines and codes of conduct.
If we accept this broadly benign paradigm of the macro relationship between researcher and consumer, then newer methodologies might be considered to push at least the individual ethical envelope. I would like to look at three indicative areas: ethnography, consumer connection and idea generation approaches.
In ethnographically flavoured approaches the relationship between consumer and researcher is arguably somewhat uneven as the former is observed maybe with no clear idea of the specific object of study. Moreover, researchers tend, methodologically correctly, but maybe ethically questionably to adopt a faux nai¨ve perspective to disguise the real object of their study. In a group discussion, this seems quite acceptable indeed a game of “guess the real agenda” is often subtly played out between moderator and savvy consumers. But in intrusive observational research where a researcher is rummaging through the fabric of people's everyday lives, it seems a little more ethically ambiguous, unseemly even.
Consumer connection (clients refreshing their intuitive picture of consumer reality by meeting some real consumers) remains fashionable and popular amongst clients wishing to gain up to date, immediate experience of real consumers doing real things. This is clearly a great idea, but it does fall somewhat on the edge of the research-ethics paradigm. It is not research, its connection; it is not done by researchers, but by clients; consumers are not protected by the various codes of conduct, they are in principle open to the whims of non-members of the researcher club.
Finally, idea generation; not research per se, but still using the power of consumers (maybe carefully selected, groomed, well rewarded professional creative panellists) to help to create and exploit significant opportunities for companies. One might argue that companies can gain enormous benefit from this comparatively cheap creative labour which has no subsequent right to the ideas which they have been so essential in creating. In this instance, from a traditional Marxist or a more contemporary critical perspective there is a great deal of surplus value created by this creative proletariat and harvested by the capitalist machine.
Now, there is a problem with both a macro critique of these approaches (they are an insidious form of marketing exploitation) or a micro level questioning of their ethics (they deliberately keep consumers in the dark in order to trick them into revealing things they would otherwise have not) and it is this.
As any practicing researcher will know, that consumers really love these approaches – they are more interesting, more engaging, they appear to be giving them a more direct “say”, they are even providing 15 minutes of fame, digitally immortalised doing the dishes, clipped choosing chips. Similarly, creative people find creative idea generation sessions inspiring and interesting ways of punctuating their everyday lives and feeding their creative spirit – and they are usually generously financially rewarded, as well as being rewarded with cultural capital in the form of the secret satisfaction and knowledge they glean from being temporarily on the inside of the marketing machine.
So what of an alternative critical perspective on the relationship between consumers and researchers; it is not about better meeting needs, this misses the ideological dimension of market research: is market research an agent of capitalism with the interests of the producer rather than the consumer intrinsically at heart? Put simply, rather than being about better matching needs and products/services, could market research be a sophisticated tool for better exploiting consumers against their interests? How far does this match the experiences of practicing researchers?
This is generally not a view that they hold; and the reason why it might emerge only at dark moments of self doubt or training courses, might be that at an individual level the relationship between consumer and researcher seems nothing other than mutually beneficial (They get £40 and have a nice time, we get the insights). It is only really when we reflect on the relationship between researchers and consumers collectively that we might start to be critical.
A critical approach, however, tells us that just because consumers enjoy themselves and are paid a token, there is still a political and ethical case to answer – we are not operating in the realm, of ideas, but of ideology.
So who is right? If consumers are happy, clients are happy, researchers are happy and just the grumpy old Marxists are the ones spoiling the party, then why not continue guided by the “informed consent and no damage” model ethics.
What is more perhaps we are not crediting consumers with very much savvy or power. Indeed the dominant construction of post-modern consumers makes them savvy, powerful prosumers actively engaging with brand owners who make their brands available for creation by consumers rather than handing down images, identities and lifestyles dogmatically. On this basis, consumers are collectively and individually able to exercise a great deal of resistance to brand, marketing and advertising hegemony, making active choices which suit them. (Whilst at some level this is clearly true, we must also remember that most mainstream consumers seek out nuggets of identity from what is available at their local Tesco, rendering their identity projects somewhat proscribed.)
There seems to be a tension between the macro political and the micro ethical. What is more in everyday market research discourse the political or power relationships between consumer and researcher tend to be disguised in abstraction. Fieldwork is just one stage of the research process, the bit involving real people and it is only at this stage that ethical considerations play much of a role. After this point “needs”, market opportunities, gaps, brand weaknesses are exploited rather than real people. It is rather like the relationship between the lamb on your plate and in the field.
So the abstract construction of consumers tends to allow for or encourage a pragmatic suspension of ideology when it comes to the relationship between consumer and researcher, even amongst people who might lean politically towards a critical perspective, (such as my qualitative research trainees).
How then might we navigate these increasingly difficult ethical and political waters in the future? On the one hand I think the research and para-research industry is increasingly ethically fragmented and open to a charge of not always considering the best interests of individual consumers let alone consumers collectively. On the other hand the Marxist reading of research as ideology does not seem to be terribly helpful and is also rather patronising to the consumers who I meet daily who are complex self aware characters who playfully engage with research and with capitalism for that matter and look quite happy on it!
Further discourse and research is needed to get the perspectives of academics, practitioners, consumers in the debate. Perhaps there is simply a need for more openness and transparency between the various interested parties. After all, as social exchange theories suggest, people are inherently social and social interaction always involves give and take and comparison with alternatives. Marketing and qualitative marketing research are simply sophisticated iterations of this social exchange. There is something in it for both parties and how much or how little will determine how much and what is shared.
This feels intuitively like it explains the day to day experience of practising researchers who find consumers keen, willing and able to share their innermost feelings and also to reveal needs which they did not know they had but which they are happy to have met by brands. At a cultural level, brands provide people with building blocks of identity, they feel that they use brands rather than the other way around. The critical perspective might say that this identity creation and sense of power is vacuous and represents a false consciousness of the underlying exploitative structure of contemporary capitalism which has replaced an overtly exploited producing proletariat with a rabidly identity obsessed apparently satisfied consumerati.
However, members of that consumerati will disagree and, true to the phenomenological perspective which my chosen qualitative world adheres, I will leave the final word to consumers and how they experience research. They continue to vote with their feet by turning up to groups and willingly inviting researchers into their homes, their fridges and their souls. As responsible researchers and indeed members of the human race, we practitioners need to be sure that what we are asking of people when we accept their invitation, is ethical, honest and that we are being as open as possible. Indeed the final political and ethical arbiter could be the simple question: if I were in this consumer's shoes would I be willing and happy to do this? If the answer, hand on heart is “yes”, then we can have a clear conscience. If it is “no” or even “maybe”, then there is at least an ethical case to answer.
Andy BarkerAccount Director, Spinach, London