A research colleague in Reading, Zainul Leitch, made me aware of this story – a 3 year old girl in Reading called Amelia who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Her parents are trying to raise money for treatment in the US, which seems the only hope.
They need to raise £200,000. What they need most at the moment is some national publicity, so please spread the word!
There’s more on the website above, if you click on the link. I’m sure they appreciate good wishes from as many people as possible.
Like the BBC’s flagship new drama series White Heat, I’m thinking just now about being young again. No, I’m not consulting Goldie Hawn‘s face doctor, I’m just doing a little job for the AQR. Having noticed that my youth has slammed the door on me, the AQR is involving me in a little initiative to connect with a few of those still in the room.
The idea is to help the, shall we say, more mature souls who tend to be active in the AQR get a better feel for how the latest generation of qual researchers see the world. I’ve put together a discussion guide, with the esteemed Lesley Thompson (of Changes Research) for a pilot evening we’re doing with a few up and coming qual researchers at around SRE/RM level. It should also help the 20-somethings involved at this stage connect a bit with the AQR and feel valued; or at the very least, slightly tipsy.
I’ll be particularly interested to hear how our participants found out about and got into qualitative research. Like Old Trafford football ground, qual has been something to which people come from a dizzying array of different places. I wonder if that’s still the case now, in an age where young people think more seriously and soberly earlier about their careers. People of my age and older often talk of having “fallen into” qual (though they value it no less for that).
The first episode of White Heat was on last night: it’s about a group of house-sharing 20-somethings in the 1960s and how they develop into their older selves. It’s been described as a new Our Friends In The North. If it lives up to that series, it will be great, even if I was never convinced by Daniel Craig as a Geordie tramp. It was one of the few British series to attempt the kind of grand social narratives that we often eschew in this country, but which come thick and fast from American novellists and tv writers. I’m thinking of series like Mad Men and The Sopranos and novels like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom.
I have to say I’m not sold on the MP’s son character; his flouncing public schoolboy mannerisms seemed anachronistically more early-1990s than mid-1960s. But Tamsin Greig was darkly brilliant as ever in her brief appearances; and some of the other characters were promising. You’ve always got to have a socially maladroit Northern scientist in there and let’s hope he grows out of the stereotype, there have been some flashes of depth from him. The first episode of these series are often the trickiest; once the characters and storylines are up and running, we get to really judge what it’s made of. I did think a lot of the initial set-up was pretty clunky though – particularly the sign-posting of the “social experiment”. We’ll see how it develops.
I wonder if here in 2012, the carefree period people enjoy in their early 20s is much shorter – or there at all? But I suspect also that there are limits to how serious and conscientious any group of people in their early 20s can be – tough economy or no tough economy, it’s a time for exploring what it is to be your adult self. That is always going to involve the personal and the playful as much as working life.
My own route into qual was circuitous. There was a law degree (aged 21), qualifying as a solicitor (aged 26) then spending a day at a career change agency (aged 27) where I decided qual was right for me, then several months taking days off work to do interviews and my first job in qual (aged 28). An unusual route perhaps; but the idea of coming to qual a bit late was well accepted and, it felt, not that unusual then. I do also think it gives perspective to have worked in a completely different industry and professional culture, if only because it makes me appreciate life as a qual researcher quite acutely. I suspect it may be less common (and more difficult to do?) now. But I’ll be interested to hear the 20-somethings on the options they see or saw themselves as having.
Will they see this period of their lives as characterised more by fluidity and openness? Or by the narrowing and hardening which tends to come as one’s 20s progress? The seven years between 21 and 28 can be as formative as the teen years: it’s full of big forks in the road and they tend to be decisive ones. It’s no mistake that in research groups, we tend to group 18-24s together and 25-34s as a separate stage. The transition can be difficult to get your head around: life can become very different in just a few disorientating years in your mid 20s.
Personally, at 21-24 I was still living a quasi-student life in multiple house-shares, doing proper “travelling”, drinking rather a lot of beer and enjoying not having very much responsibility. By 25, couples were starting to move in together, jobs started to matter more and social life calmed down from what one older colleague described, half in horror, as my “whirligig” lifestyle. Being comfortable and not too tired started to become important. I started to enjoy Friday night in. I wanted to eat in nice restaurants and do city breaks. And so to the dubious pleasures of being a “grown up”.
I wonder if, like the White Heat mob, the AQR cohort we gather will reassemble in 50-odd years, having married / cheated on / disembowelled / extradited each other from Belarus, in a maze of interweaving plotlines? Probably not, to be fair.
Don’t worry, I’m not claiming credit for it. But great that a short film called The Shore, set and made in my native Northern Ireland, won an Oscar last night. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m of course heavily into shore metaphors and a sucker for anything Ulster-ish, so I expect at the very least it will be interesting.
Hopefully film successes like this, the increasing prominence of our golf and the 2012 Titanic centenary (I watched the men in hard hats coming and going from the almost finished new exhibition centre in Belfast at the weekend – due open in April) will bring a few more visitors into the Province this year and beyond. The NI economy certainly needs it.
However, as a County Antrim man, I should say that while Co Down (the Mournes and the Ards peninsula especially) can be stunning, the North Antrim coast is the jewel in Northern Ireland’s crown. The other-worldly children’s story I’m working on starts there … anyone want to make a film of it? I can guarantee it will be better than anything from the other side of the Belfast Lough.
I once saw Belfast described on a tourist website as a “Hibernian Rio”, on the basis that it’s by the sea and it has a few hills around it. I wonder if the real historical divide between people in Northern Ireland is between realists and fantasists. I’d be on the side of the fantasists in normal circumstances, but in Northern Ireland these people come heavily armed so are much less fun. They also tend to have rubbish fantasies, usually involving mythical Celtic warriors or Eddie from the Iron Maiden album covers and in which they themselves are a heroic mix of the crucified Christ and Charles Bronson. “Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it.
Sadly, while I hope to enjoy The Shore, I have worries too, despite the Oscar. The history of the treatment of Northern Ireland in film has been a disappointing one for those of us from the Protestant community. As Brian McIlroy of the University of British Columbia put it in Shooting to Kill: Filmmaking and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, “the Protestant community is constantly elided by both British and Irish filmmakers and videographers.” I gather The Shore is about reconciliation told through the story of an Ulster emigré; I’ll watch with interest to see if it really can manage to succeed where many others have failed.
Post script: showing my shakey knowledge of cinema triv, I googled the director Terry George, to be reminded he was behind the resolutely partisan and much resented Some Mother’s Son – and that he was himself involved in an extreme nationalist terror group in the 70s. Suffice to say, my hopes have taken a nosedive, but if he’s managed to make a new non-sectarian start with this film, good luck to him. I will watch with interest. If proof were needed Northern Ireland is a divided place …
The debate about earnings, bonuses and fairness rumbles on and isn’t going to end soon. With the financial squeeze most of us are feeling, it is inevitable we look at the City in particular and wonder why they are still paying themselves so much, after all we now know about their endemic failures. Yet there is a debate (on yesterday’s World At One for example), because people in the City are sticking to their guns over the needs for massive financial incentives to “motivate” their top performers. This RSA Animate talk by Dan Pink, from 2010, is especially interesting on this topic – worth a look (it’s 10 minutes or so):
So, larger rewards lead to poorer performance, says Pink, for anything other than purely mechanical tasks. This isn’t some isolated study in one place, the findings have been repeated over and over again around the world. Once you pay people “enough to take the issue of money off the table”, further financial reward does not improve performance. What actually influences performance are the extent to which our needs for the following are satisfied: (1) autonomy, (2) mastery (getting better at stuff) and (3) purpose.
So where does that leave the City’s arguments that its high pay and bonus culture is essential to its future health?
The City’s best argument as to why they should award their employees massive financial incentives is perhaps then the very charge that is laid at their door: that they are uniquely motivated by money. For them, the issue of money is not “off the table”, because of their unusual obsession with financial reward as the measure of their status.
So the question becomes how to get them out of this mindset, which is unnecessarily damaging the investors they work for (including indirectly most of us as pension investors), not to mention the wider public concerns over fairness now voiced by the leaders of all the main political parties. Logically, we should be trying to get them to the lowest level of incentivisation at which money is “off the table” from a motivational point of view, without damaging overall performance. If they pay above that, employers in the City are simply wasting their investors’ money.
Easier said than done. And of course, those running the City institutions, the ones in control of this, have a personal vested interest in keeping pay high – because it’s their pay too. It may be that there is no way to make it happen without the government forcing action, for example through punitive taxation of bonuses. But if Dan Pink is right, a bit of cognitive therapy is what they need. The people in this overpaid bubble need training on the value of money – that is, the actual human value of it. It’s as if, like porn addicts, they see so much of it on their screens they become desensitised to the real thing.
We could all be better off if they understood two things better: (1) that they already probably have enough; and (2) that getting more for themselves should not be the measure of how successful they are as people. Perhaps twice weekly sessions at the shrink for people in City remuneration committees could be a good use of taxpayers’ money.
High earners generally understimate, sometimes quite dramatically, how high up the income scale they are, as my old colleague Sarah Castell showed in 2008 and 2011 in Ipsos MORI‘s qual work among the top 1% of earners on atittudes to pay: Ipsos MORI study on high earners’ attitudes to pay. The top 1% by the way is people earning £100,000+ a year.
But perhaps the City bankers receiving big bonuses are a special case even within this top 1%. It’s not so much because many earn well in excess of £100,000, but because their success is (as they see it) literally measurable in financial terms. They feel uniquely able to point to finite sums they have “made” for their clients (including, ultimately, all of us who have pensions) to which they seek to link their rewards.
This logic is based on a set of fallacies of course: that this money they are managing has grown only through their efforts to the exclusion of other factors; and that it is for the financial services industry to take whatever cut it wants on the profits it oversees. But they literally feel entitled to it. They act like a miner who wants to keep what he finds. The mining company invest millions in geological surveys and digging a deep mine; the trucks go back and forward on public roads and the mining company’s staff use schools, hospitals, public sewerage systems and so on. But the miner who first gets to the seam of gold sees the gold and reckons he should have a big percentage share, since he found it.
Unlike real miners, highly paid workers in the City are in charge – so they get away with it. And the mining company – that’s investors and the rest of us generally – can do little but accept the rest of the gold left over after the miner has taken what he thinks he deserves.
These are clever people, so here’s an intellectual challenge for them: re-imagine your working life so that the next person getting £50k more than you does not even slightly bother you. You are still rich but you are now measuring your satisfaction by how much autonomy you have, your mastery of what you do and the sense of purpose behind it. And you can know you’re actually doing the right thing by your clients and shareholders. Who knows, people might just come to respect you again …
Here’s a quote and a half – from the brilliant Straw Dogs by John Gray (Professor of European Thought at LSE), written ten years ago now:
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
There’s a lot in there, but the reason I quote it is Gray’s point about the widespread assumption in Western culture that science can deliver us from the human condition. Just stating the assumption brings out its inherent incoherence. But it’s an idea that seems to carry on regardless. An episode of Radio 4’sThe Infinite Monkey Cage back in December was a case in point: Audio clip: Infinite Monkey Cage, 5th December 2011
I’m usually a fan of The Infinite Monkey Cage: it’s Radio 4 doing some accessible science broadcasting through chat and gags. But what interested me here – and where I found myself on the opposite side from the scientists on the show – was that it seems some scientists at least, even some of the nice friendly ones, have come to believe that science can explain everything. Or at least, scientific method is pretty much always the best approach to all subjects (as biologist Steve Jones claims, about 19:45 into the broadcast).
On the face of it, the case for the universal relevance of scientific method might sound reasonable. However, to take one area of my work, interpreting how people respond to communications, I’ve always found the critical and interpretive skills I developed through arts ‘A’ levels and a humanities degree the bedrock of what I do. It is mixed in with social science approaches, business knowledge and so on – there is ‘science’ in the mix – but in working out how people digest the words and images around them, we miss a huge trick if we rely on modes of analysis derived from the sciences only. It would be like doing my job with one hand tied behind my back. It seems sometimes we are slightly afraid of using our whole brains.
So I found myself on the side of comedian Katy Brand in the debate on The Infinite Monkey Cage. There she was, alone as a non-scientist and non-academic (apart from Robin Ince, but he’s with the scientists), with three eminent and brilliant scientists: Sir Paul Nurse and Drs. Steve Jones and Brian Cox. And she finds herself defending people who listen to astrologers. Yet, in my eyes at least, she comes out on top. Why?
She says, at about 19:30 in:
It is not science’s responsibility to answer every single question a human might want to ask.
Steve Jones disagreed: he thought science should try and answer all questions. But as he talked, I wondered whether he had actually understood the point. Don’t get me wrong, this guy is way cleverer than I will ever be; but one of the marvellous things about life is that even very clever people aren’t very clever all the time at everything. There is more of the poor, bare, forked animal, as Lear said of the Fool, in us all than we care to acknowledge. Even science professors. Brand’s point was that science was not the only relevant discipline for humans to understand the world we experience.
Perhaps Steve Jones knew he was on a sticky wicket. His answer, in which he gave an example of how science had explained scientifically why people born in some months do better than those born in other months, did not answer the point at all, but merely showed that science can explain a lot of phenomena well. What none of the scientists on the programme could explain was why science must always be the best approach. Philosophy, for example, provides many tools for tackling the big questions of life in an intellectually rigorous way. And aren’t these actually the most important questions, if we have humility as humans?
It made me wonder whether the reason for this difference of view was that the problems that Steve Jones was interested in were the ones science is able to try and answer. Whatever he says, science doesn’t really tackle the big questions of what it means to be alive and how to live a good life. Perhaps by not being susceptible to scientific exposition, a question like this becomes less interesting to a scientist. And so the delusion persists that science is the way to explore anything worth exploring.
I wonder if this is why, in my field, survey researchers trying to understand responses to advertising have been so reluctant to acknowledge something as central as the role of emotion in people’s responses. Perhaps it’s a case of “Don’t know how to measure it and it’s ‘subjective’, so it can’t be important”. Will Goodhand of Brainjuicer’s amusing Valentine’s Day stunt on Millward Brown yesterday was making this very point – all captured on video: . Stop press: Millward Brown now disputes this – but much less amusingly. And crucially they didn’t bother making a film, though I suspect they are sufficiently piqued to launch a The Killing-style 20-part production in refutation of the upstart Juicers. Ah research agency spats …
So I’m not championing the humanities over science in a blanket way here – I’m just worried about science trampling over everything else we know in the name of methodological purity. It’s all thinking, ultimately. Whether it’s good or bad thinking – enriching and useful or mistaken and pointless – depends more on the rigour and range of the thinking than its adherence to any single methodology. The science / humanities divide is really a little artificial.
The tendency to bet all our money on science is, if you agree with John Gray, just a modern form of the ancient and not very scientifically kosher human need to put our faith in something outside ourselves to make everything OK. As he puts it in Straw Dogs:
By revering scientists and partaking of their gifts of technology, we can achieve what Pascal hoped for from prayer, incense and holy water. By seeking the company of earnest investigators and intelligent machines, we can stupify our reason and fortify our faith in mankind.
Gray does not believe in having “faith in mankind”. For him, science’s ability to improve human nature is just that – a belief without foundation in science itself.
Do read Straw Dogs by the way. You have to love a work of serious scholarship which does not wear its learning on its sleeve and that ends with:
Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?
So Capello walks from the FA, in a serendipitous sequence of events in which Our ‘Arry, until a few hours earlier about to get banged up good and proper, rises majestically to become the people’s favourite to manage England to a glorious footballing summer expedition to the lands between the Baltic and Black Sea. Or if you’re John Terry, between the Baltic and the “f***ing Black c*** Sea” (allegedly). It’s been reported that Capello felt undermined when the FA removed Terry as captain, that the FA stuck by their decision and Capello resigned on that basis. That’s all fine, but what was lost somewhat in the news I’ve been listening to today on 5 Live in the car – Reidy, Shilts, Pleato, Henry Winter-y and so on – is that this comes down in large part to Capello’s misjudgement of British society and the 21st Century social mores here.
Capello wasn’t here for Britain’s journey from widespread unthinking racism – my Mum’s 1940s school human geography textbook is jaw-dropping – to its now equally widespread and infinitely better zero tolerance for racism. Indeed, some people who were actually here missed it too, particularly those living away from the big urban melting pots and whose formative years were before the large waves of immigration of the 50s and 60s.
So Capello looked at the trouble over John Terry’s alleged racist comments towards Anton Ferdinand and saw only a distraction from the proper business of football management. He used the maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” to avoid engaging with the problem. The maxim is not of course the end of the story when someone is up on criminal charges. When charges are brought, the legal procedure around preparation for trial kicks in. The requirements of this inevitably put accused people temporarily in a different position from everyone else, innocent though they may be. And in most other professions, the awkwardness of this necessary state of pre-trial limbo is recognised through people being suspended from their duties until the case is heard – particularly if the case relates to their professional conduct. It certainly happened a lot to Starsky and Hutch (though they were usually given 48 hours to clear their names and Capt. Dobie helped them on the sly).
Capello is a football obsessive though and wider society’s non-footballing concerns, including the machinations of the courts, perhaps trouble him little. When he sees something like the Terry-Ferdinand incident, he asks himself only whether it affect Terry’s ability to play well at centre-half; not whether Terry may harbour unacceptable attitudes. Perhaps we should admire his focus. But Capello seemed also to overlook the impact on the morale of other players in the team of having Terry as captain. That is a football team management mistake and therefore much more surprising. How could he get this wrong?
Two explanations: one is about his management style and one about British society. His management style first: he is an old school, autocratic manager. So he perhaps takes “the dressing room” less seriously than some other managers might: players will know their place and do what they are told, so why should I worry about petty squabbles? I wonder if he gave much thought to how the black and mixed race players would feel being led out by a man about to go on trial for racial abusing a prominent black player (who happens to be the brother of his central defensive ‘partner’ in the England team).
Ironically, this style was actually just what England’s underachieving spoilt brats needed from a football point of view. There were signs it was starting to work too, with the victory over Spain. The debacle in South Africa, I suspect, was the growing pains of a bunch of footballers being asked to do some growing up and those footballers in response turning away and clinging to their over-extended adolescence. Capello carried the can as manager but these are players that, as a group, take precious little responsibility for their own shortcomings. Rooney’s angry rant at fans after one of his dismal performances summed up the mentality: self-pitying and brittle. No wonder they have a habit of making good managers look bad.
The second explanation of why Capello didn’t take the fall out within the England camp into account is that I suspect he also didn’t grasp how toxic any form of racism is in Britain. Capello, as well as being an outsider to the culture here, is also of a generation that never fully bought into the “zero tolerance” approach to racism which the under 50s in this country take for granted. And from Viv Anderson of Nottingham Forest winning his first cap onwards, English football has been one prominent area of British culture in which the change of public attitudes to race has been very publicly manifested. England cherishes its reputation as a country that is now genuinely colour-blind when it comes to its footballers, as Luis Suarez has learned recently to his cost.
Capello is no racist; he also cares only about the quality of the footballer. But this may have led him to think that race was not important. Racial issues are like rocks just below the surface of British society: if you use your maps and keep a lookout, you will navigate around them fine; but pretend they’re not there and you’ll quickly be holed below the water line.
I liked that Capello was divorced from British culture – I felt it meant he would take no nonsense from an under-achieving but self-important generation of players. But this very distance has been the undoing of him. Football doesn’t stand outside society, it is part of it. As an Italian, Capello should have understood that at least. So that’s a long way of saying the FA made the right call in removing the captaincy from Terry, once it became clear his name would not be cleared in time for Euro 2012.
In another twist of irony, Capello’s probable successor Harry Redknapp argued in his trial that he himself was part of a persecuted minority group – Cockneys.
He complained to the court that he was being victimised because of the stereotype of East Enders as shadey wheeler-dealers and because his name – ‘Arry – was the archtypal duckin’ ‘n’ divin’ Cockney name. Original defence.
At least John Terry’s unlikely to shout “f***ing Cockney c***” at him – unless he gets dropped of course. Though if Redknapp leads England to another set of performances like the ones in South Africa, I’d guess that phrase won’t be far from the lips of about 40 million football fans from outside the capital.
Capello is free now to take on the Northern Ireland job. Wonder if he fancies some rainy nights in Belfast?
Stuffed like a museum coypu with fieldwork last month, January was a vintage period for methodological learnings for me: new experiences and new twists on familiar ones in front of the Great British Public. Unlike the coypu, I’ll be living off the experiences for a while. The first one to muse on is this: how much can you get from purely visual stimulus, with no words?
We tested this to the limits in one set of discussion groups I moderated, whose ultimate purpose was to help some brand teams and their pack designers work out where they could and couldn’t go on pack shapes for their brands. We went in with two sets of stimulus: an image collage board for the brand, which we were testing for fit with public perceptions of the brand; and a set of 20 or so prototype packaging shapes, in the form of 3D plastic models. We wanted them to select for us designs that fitted both the brand values and the image of the brand expressed in the collage board. In the first group of the series, I wrote no words up for them at all – though we did introduce the (verbal) brand values at the end. The discussion was grounded completely in the collage board and the models. So how did that pan out?
I know I could talk for literally weeks about this image but only by veering off into the Olympics, the hall carpet in my old house, North Sea oil and the fin de siecle Paris of Toulouse Lautrec. Happily we weren’t discussing this picture, it’s from somewhere else. Thanks to colleterie.com for the image.
It went OK, up to a point, but it was hard work. We’d recruited “creative participants” and on the whole they were great at engaging with the images and giving us the feel we needed as to whether the design agency was thinking along the right lines. They had a good go too at the demanding task of spending 45 minutes or so with 3D models. They found it hard to verbalise at times but they made decisions about them by sorting them into groups and when they ran out of words, they could point to the object of their admiration or disgust and make faces. But I felt – and the (really good) viewing team agreed – that they had run out of puff in places because we’d demanded an awful lot of their visual articulacy.
So for the second group, we tried a twist. We started again with the collage boards and did a good half hour on those still with no words. But this time we then wrote up the brand values one by one and checked these against the visuals. I left them up on the flipchart as we moved into the packaging models section of the group. The result was that it worked a whole lot better.
It seemed the visual reference point of the collage board – strong though it was – was hard for people to translate straight into thoughts about packaging design. They were forming concepts in their heads about what the brand should be, trying to remember that, then going through 20+ models to see both what designs they liked and what best reflected the brand. This was intellectually very difficult for people not used to working in design. The brand values – just a few words – gave them another anchor. Rather than complicating things for them as we had feared, it actually helped them remember the big picture and the objectives of the task.
It’s accepted truth now that people think in “mentalese”, as Steven Pinker puts it, not words. What my design research exercise reminded me was that words are still often a key component of that mentalese. It is hard for people to think in images alone – especially when we are also asking them to articulate the thoughts into words for a group discussion. More was gained here by adding words into the mix than was lost by the potential conceptual confusion of doing that. The groups were still highly visually-driven after we made the adjustment – and we actually empowered participants to take their visual thinking further by giving them this safety net of a few words on a board.
Another little finding: it’s a cliché but it’s true, so-called “metrosexual” blokes are so much easier to moderate in a group than traditional blokes. The project was covering a portfolio of brands. The difference in approach to being male between the buyers of the three main brands was striking. I won’t name the brands, but I was so taken with the easy, open but self-confident rejection of macho values by the buyers of one of the brands that I’m thinking of switching to it myself.
But I’m not talking the Nathan Barley refugees here, I mean ordinary guys in their 40s and 50s who aren’t ostentatious but who “look after themselves” and feel they have nothing to prove to anybody on how male they are. So “metrosexual” may be a misleading word, with its overtones of fashion-chasing urban cool. Perhaps they are that old-new thing from the early 90s, the “New Men”. But this too sounds too flimsy.
These guys have a silverback air of authority and calm. They are more traditionally male than “metrosexual” suggests. But they are men whose thoughts are no longer dictated by testosterone to quite the same degree as before.
They were a joy to moderate. I joked to the brand team afterwards they could just put those guys in an ad and people would get the brand – which has struggled to find an identity – immediately.
Diane Abbott‘s twitter controversy last week was something of a storm in a teacup (white or black tea, it certainly could have done with some more sweetener in it). But what interested me was her defence: that it was hard to capture the context – discourses about the legacy of colonialist thinking – in 140 characters.
Subtle argument probably isn’t suited to the 140 character format; but arguably it is not suited to the vast majority of formats of discourse either.
Some would argue, anything other than full-blown academic rigour is likely to over-simplify, to the point of being misleading, most subjects of any complexity. The only problem is, we don’t have time – and there is such a thing as intelligent debate and opinion forming among non-experts. Surely in a democracy these opinions, though perhaps only partially informed, do matter?
Potted summaries are not to be sneered at – in an ever faster moving information age, where thinking people follow more subjects, but probably in less detail, than ever before, we have to accept that how topics are summarised could not be more important. Because this is how they will be digested.
But how do you get from the the stuff of university theses and ten-year-long studies by brilliant minds to the selection of the 200 words – or God help us 140 characters? Is trying to do this just a delusion – do we just have to accept complex issues should be kept for the experts and perhaps a small highly educated elite? I’m interested in this because I’m about to get involved in some work for the BBC on audience understanding of complex information in news broadcasts. I’ll have a more informed view in a few weeks, I hope.
Clearly, if we give up on the ability of the summary to get to the heart of the issues, we abandon a lot of public discourse to a small elite of academics and experts. There are big issues of accountability and democratic disempowerment in that. So for all these reasons, we need to be good at boiling down and summarising now more than ever.
Yet the standard in the media generally isn’t always that great. My Northern Ireland background has made me painfully aware of this. The Troubles are something I lived through in Northern Ireland and followed closely in the news media and in the wider media of films, dramatisations, novels even. These often involved attempts to provide context in a few minutes or pages. Growing up hearing and reading these potted summaries, I became painfully aware of how difficult it seems to be to capture the essence of a debate or of a piece of history simply and in a way that doesn’t plant mistaken assumptions in the audience’s head.
I started watchingFifty Dead Men Walking again the other night – a film set in the Troubles about Martin McGartland, a Catholic man from West Belfast who became an agent for the security forces and infiltrated the IRA. The first five minutes had a potted history of the Troubles. I’ve seen worse, but it was an all too familiar example that included misleading explanations of the inter-communal dynamic and more crucially a failure to represent who was actually carrying out the violence and in what proportions. [For information, Troubles deaths 1969-98 went roughly: 60 per cent by (Irish) Catholic terrorists; 30 per cent by (British) Protestant terrorists; 10 per cent were by the security forces. See NI Troubles, Annuals deaths caused by main players – Sutton Index stats.]
My point is not how complex the Troubles were – they weren’t really – but how many barriers there are to rendering a situation in an informative way that people can grasp. To ignorance of the statistics, we can add political agendas, the skewing effect of high profile but untypical incidents (Enniskillen, Bloody Sunday, Warrington), the need to squeeze events into familiar structures (victim vs oppressor, sensitive vs brutal etc) and even ethnic prejudice against one group or the other. In my view, you need a proper historian to have a decent go at it. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are good at telling stories fancy they are also good at explaining history.
In research we talk a lot these days about “story telling”. Much of this is for good reason: it’s about bringing our data to life and lodging the key insights in the minds of our audience. But there is a tension sometimes between rendering a clear story that gets rid of needless complexity – a good thing – and one that acknowledges and embraces the fact that some of the complexity IS necessary – an equally welcome grappling with the full truth.
Misleading cinema-goers with the opening to The Hunger is one thing – perhaps it’s not so important whether people understand The Troubles (though I think it is) – but in qualitative research our summaries are what go down as the only real record of what was going on. “Boiling down” is at the heart of what we do. We’re not dealing with the history of Western colonialism, but we do have to write bold simple statements to represent a complicated and nuanced reality. I do wonder sometimes if readers of these documents realise how much wrestling, rejecting, tweaking, and judgment we do before we can be happy with the “insight”.
Finding the right phrase – and avoiding misleading phrases – requires all my experience, knowledge and language skills to get right. The act of summarising is not necessarily a quality-lowering one. Done properly, boiling things down actually forces you to work out more rigorously what the underlying truths are – truths that can lie unchallenged in longer accounts.
I’ve come across colleagues in the past who have criticised some basic-looking qual slides for being shallow. The same people then produce proudly a long set of quant bar charts with a minimum of commentary. I have sat in client debriefs and watched as clients search for rigorous thinking among this, to no avail. Not only are these kind of decks too long, they actually lack real thinking and sense of prioritisation. In short, they don’t answer the client’s questions. Had these colleagues spent more time thinking about the summary, they may actually have got to the point of what the numbers really meant and better advised the client.
I must say these kinds of presentation were more common when I started in research; the quant side of the business does much less of this now. Qual debriefs can also be rambling and fail to get to the point. But the discipline of sweating over the summary means you can often get to more meaning in 3-4 slides than you could have expressed in a whole deck. This isn’t to say just write an exec summary every time. On the contrary, you need to do the long version (or at least think it through in long form) before you can do a really good short version.
A final word from an old qual colleague of mine. He used to often quote an aphorism (I’m paraphrasing):
“I wrote fifty pages because I didn’t have time to write two.”
Saying Merry Christmas with a seasonal Shore image from my native Northern Ireland: the two mile beach at Portstewart. The gorgeous white sands could be Antigua, except they are actually snow. Even by Portstewart standards, this picture must have been taken in a cold year.
2011 was a funny old year, from manically busy periods to quiet periods, usually at the wrong time – such is freelance. A big thanks to everyone who collaborated with me / Shore this year, I’ve enjoyed all my projects (and one of them is still going …). I think I’ve been involved in some fantastic projects. I hope to get around to thanking each of you individually over the New Year period (I zig when others zag when it comes to seasonal greetings cards … I know, lame excuse).
The year end finds Shore in good health, touch wood, with an unprecedentedly long list of possible jobs for January and February. Fantastic to be, I hope, working with old clients and new, on projects ranging from car clinics to charity segmentation (yes, it’s still going) to legal services to pet food. Further along, I may have some MROCs in the offing possibly too (market research online communities), an interesting piece of international project management and some design agency work, all of which I genuinely really enjoy. So lots, I hope, already to look forward to, even if a chunk of it doesn’t come off.
It has been a tough environment out there in market research, especially over the last 6 months or so – a straw poll of ICG members a few weeks ago confirmed this – but from a personal point of view, I’m feeling bullish about 2012. Freelance business success, as long as you’re good at your work, is about how efficiently you can fill your diary. This is very hard to control. I turned down a big tranche of work – about 7 weeks’ worth – for December and January, because I had a prior commitment for 2-3 of those weeks. But that’s how it goes: if you’re not committed completely to your projects and your clients, you can wave goodbye to a thriving freelance business. That, indeed, is the pleasure and value of freelance – that you can focus on what you’re doing and do it really well.
More prosaically, I’ve set myself (and promised the accountant) my own deadline of 6th January to sort all my 2010-11 self assessment tax stuff – so enjoy your Christmas while I will be trawling through receipts and cursing accounting software. Actually the software’s fine in this case, it’s the user that needs reprogramming. Like Churchill, I may need champagne to get my synapses firing through my darkest hour. That’s my excuse anyway.
Here’s a tip I’m happy to share with any other qual researchers reading this (and indeed anyone reading this, though others may not find it very useful). On my new project, which is a kind of qualitative segmentation exercise for a charity, we tried an opening exercise for a discussion group I hadn’t used before and which worked like a charm.
The project is unusual in that we are segmenting supporters of a charity, so our objective is really to understand what makes different supporters tick, at a pretty broad level.
The object of the opener was threefold: (1) to get the participants engaged in the group; (2) to reveal something of the personality of each participant by helping them offer a fresh insight on themselves; (3) to generate more insights on each person by enabling the others in the group to comment upon them in a supportive, non-threatening way. What we did:
chose about 20-30 abstract images from Google Images
printed them out and stuck them up on the wall(s) before the group started
after initial intros, we played the following game: each participant was asked to look at all the images on the wall and choose one that they felt a connection with, that said something about them. They were asked to say nothing and not reveal their choice.
we then took each participant one by one and asked the rest of the group to try and guess which image that person chose, based on their first impressions of them.
once the guesses were exhausted, the participant then revealed their actual image choice.
The images needed to be abstract so that the “literal” door was closed to them and they had no option but to find a secondary level of meaning in the image they chose. The images on the wall also made the room look pretty and stamped our creative identity onto an otherwise bland Holiday Inn meeting room.
What you get then are participants’ perceptions of each other – quite readily shared – and then a chance for people to challenge and “correct” what has been said about them. The game framework allowed people to venture guesses that told us about them and the person they were guessing about, without people feeling too uncomfortable.
In a mini-group of five, this took about 20 minutes or so. A luxury perhaps for most projects, but it meant we had a good feel for the personalities in the room quite early. We’d also got everyone strongly engaged in the session, which paid dividends later. Participants seemed to give each other respect and space to express themselves later in the group, I think partly because they had bonded over sharing their differences early on.
It was also an exercise in which participants could ease themselves into something creative without needing to show artistic skills – really everyone joined in more or less equally.
So, not for every project, but this brightened up a rainy night in Peterborough in December for us.