What kind of Brexit? Don’t just ask the 52 per cent – we’re all leaving


Where are we going? Please not further north …

Brexit means Brexit. When I studied law, that’s what we called a “circular definition”. The question of what it does mean – that is, how Brexit is to be carried out and what future relationship with the EU we are aiming for – has been deferred. Until now that is. The political mood seems to have changed since the party conference season. After a strange “Phoney War” hiatus, the debate is really kicking in now on (1) what we are aiming for, and (2) how we go about it – by executive action only or involving parliament, and if the latter, what influence will our elected representatives have.


Bryan Ferry has got divorced twice

There has been a lot of talk about “what the people meant” when they voted for Leave by 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the referendum. I’m not a pollster, but as someone working in public opinion research (albeit a qual specialist and mainly in non-political topics), I take a particular interest. Here’s my take on what kind of guidance the people have given the government on what Brexit should be like.

A word on polls first as I’ll be citing a couple. Surveys used alone are blunt instruments. They ask fixed questions, don’t get to see people’s body language or mood when they answer, can’t pick up easily on nuances of meaning and aren’t always great at digging beneath the surface for people’s real motivations. This isn’t to do them down, just to point out that you often need complementary qual (like wot I do) to build a full explanation of what people are really thinking and feeling. An election is an extremely reduced version of a survey – one question is asked and a whole raft of interpretation is then rammed into that cross-in-a-box.

In a general election, there is some interpretive help: there are manifestos to go on. That is, there is a convention that the party that gets elected into government with a majority of MPs is deemed to have a democratic mandate for the programme it published before the election. A referendum, on the other hand, is an even more extremely reduced version of an election. It decides one question, the one on the referendum paper:


With a referendum, there is no manifesto, there is no programme or even political party that people voted for. There is just the question.

Technically, the EU Referendum was advisory, but in reality parliament is obliged to enact its recommendation to leave the EU. That much is clear and agreed by almost all. But what else does it mean – what is the “will of the British people” beyond that, for example on what Brexit ought to entail?


It’s a real pea-souper, this one

The short answer is that it is, contrary to some claims, very unclear what the will of the British people on this is. And the referendum cannot itself clarify that. All it told us for sure was that the British people voted 52/48 for ‘Leave’.

People appeared to be worried about immigration levels – but were they voting for an end to open borders? Maybe. The truth is we don’t know. 52 per cent voted to leave the EU, but might some of them actually want to stay in the single market and keep free movement more or less as before? 48 per cent voted to stay in the EU, but might some of them actually like more immigration controls? This matters, because it only takes a few per cent fluctuation for there to be a decent majority for keeping something akin to the free movement we currently have. A coalition of the 48 per cent plus the soft Brexiters is not hard to imagine and would, it would seem, command a majority.


Vinnie Jones playing for AFC Brexit here, man-to-man marking President of European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, here dressed in his novelty Paul Gascoigne costume.

“Hard Brexiters” are arguing that the 52 per cent for Leave equals 52 per cent for hard Brexit (i.e. some arrangement involving leaving the single market). Former Remainers and soft Brexiters point out that leading figures in the Leave campaign like Boris Johnson explicitly said Brexit did not necessarily mean leaving the single market. The Leave campaign did not, of course, campaign on one single shared message on the form Brexit should take: they were a broad coalition of people with different positions. It was not necessary for the purposes of the referendum to have an agreed position on what form Brexit would take, because – and we come back to it – the referendum was on one question only: should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave it? That was all they needed to agree on as a campaign; and it was all the public was voting on.

As with any snapshot of voter opinion, voters have lots more going on in their heads than just a simple cross in a box can express. So was this, as some are saying, a vote “against immigration” and if so, against how?

It is true that there is big concern in the UK about immigration. Britain is not alone in that, it is a global phenomenon, as the Ipsos MORI release from August shows (Ipsos MORI global survey, immigration, Aug 2016):

Although in Britain views tend to be more negative than positive, we are actually mid-table on most measures, and there are some more positive views on immigration than in previous years. Thirty-five percent of Britons think that immigration has been good for the country (up from 28% a year ago, and 19% in 2011), while 49% think there are too many immigrants in the UK, down from 60% a year ago and 71% in 2011. These positive changes are despite a significant increase in immigration and the recent EU Referendum, where reducing immigration was a key factor behind the vote for “Brexit”.

Still, 49 per cent is a big, politically significant number of people to think there are too many immigrants in the UK, even if it’s a snapshot of a trend of opinion apparently on the way down. Does this impel the government to go for hard Brexit? Perhaps not: there are contrary indicators of how the public feels on this too. British people have also been increasingly seeing immigration in positive terms in recent years:

British people have become more positive about the impact of immigration over recent years. Forty-five per cent say immigration has been good for the economy, up from 38% a year ago and from 27% in 2011, and 38% say immigration has made it harder for native Britons to get a job, down from 48% a year ago and 62% in 2011. However, Britain is one of the countries most worried about the pressure placed on public services by immigration, with 59% concerned – although this too is down from 68% a year ago and from 76% in 2011, when Britain was the most worried of all the countries surveyed.


“As long as they join the queue, remove all distinguishing features and douse themselves in the Dulux children’s range, I’ve got nothing against them …”

The worry for those in the UK who are worried seems to be the pressure being put on public services. Arguably, that is an issue that could at least in part be addressed by better funding of public services, rather than necessarily cutting immigration numbers. Labour’s argument, if its solipsistic leadership team actually managed to put one forward cogently, would be that it was the under-availability of public services after David Cameron’s over-enthusiasm for austerity which caused large sections of the public to form a negative view of immigrant numbers. But still, we have that 49 per cent figure to take into account, the number who think there are now too many immigrants in the UK.

So what kind of Brexit does this mean people want? The referendum itself  was silent on that, so we must look again for other evidence. Luckily, some pollsters have actually bothered asking them.

In August, YouGov carried out this poll: YouGov poll: what sort of Brexit do we want? Do read the whole thing, it is fascinating and you can impress your friends no end by quoting the stats next time Julia Hartley-Brewer gives one of her many pearl necklaces another outing on national tv. As Anthony Wells of YouGov explains:

There is little support for a so-called “hard Brexit” – even among Leave voters. Only 10% of people think Britain should leave the EU completely and not seek any sort of formal trading relationship and only 22% think we should drop out of the EU as rapidly as possible.

The preferred scenario for Brexit so far appears to be the “Canada” one. This is where Britain would have “a limited free trade deal with the EU – there are no tariffs on goods, but service sectors like financial services would not be able export freely to the EU. Britain would make no financial contribution to the EU and EU citizens would have no right to live or work here.”


But the point is, none of them commands, or is likely to command, the support of a majority of the population. It certainly seems there are some options voters see as “not respecting the referendum”. That is politically significant; but technically, all the options here “respect the referendum”, because they all deliver Brexit. Political leadership may be needed to remind voters that all the referendum decided was leaving the EU. YouGov’s question on “respecting the referendum” is really interesting – it’s important people feel the referendum has been respected – but there is also an onus on political leaders to remind the public accurately what the referendum did and didn’t decide. We are not used to referenda and it seems some may be getting carried away in how far they are stretching their extrapolations from this one.



What’s more, as Wells says, it is early days.Voters don’t know an awful lot yet about the pros and cons of the Brexit options. If I were to do discussion groups on this, I would expect to have to provide stimulus and definitions before we could pin the discussion down, voters are not in a position yet to be able to just discuss Norway vs Canada vs Switzerland vs WTO terms unaided. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet and when asked about this in a survey, many respondents I assume may well have felt quite shakey on their answers. Certainly I would struggle. With the Canada option, for example, when voters realise the hit to the economy involved in not being able to passport financial services, they may take a different view. Views may also change as we get poorer as a nation over the coming months and voters start to notice it as the cost of living rises. So, these are soft, initial figures.

But they do seem to kill off for good the notion that the Brexit vote was a mandate for hard Brexit of the kind advocated by, say, John Redwood. Far from it, it would seem. Redwood seemed particularly tetchy on Newsnight last night – nerves are starting to show, particularly with the pound now tumbling. It seems the Three Brexiteers may have some serious persuading to do if they want the British people to support their apparent direction of travel. Brexit may be in the bag, but hard Brexit isn’t.

Theresa May is more grounded and practical than any of them; if they are inclined to be cavalier towards public opinion, she as Prime Minster can’t be. Riding high in the polls and the overwhelming choice of Conservative MPs for unity candidate PM, May is at the moment politically unassailable. How Brexit plays out really comes down to her. She can go either way, hard or soft. She’s giving mixed signals at the moment as to where her arrow will be aimed. But if she does go for hard Brexit, she’ll be doing it against the wishes of most of the electorate. She’ll have a keen eye on that.


We’re all still here …

There is an argument for a referendum on the final deal in two years’ time. But if we don’t have that, it seems the public does need a say through parliament on what form Brexit takes. It will be the biggest decision in half a century and we’ll live with its consequences for at least a generation. Important though the vote to leave the EU was, it cannot surely be the last reference to public or parliamentary opinion in the process. It seems to me, it was only the start.

The 52 per cent are being listened to: we are leaving the EU. But in how we do that, all 100 per cent of Britons come back into play. Going forward, the Brexiters must remember that the British people consists of 48 per cent of people who want the same relationship with the EU as we currently have, plus, shall we estimate here, at least a good 5-10 per cent of the 52 per cent Brexit-voters who want some kind of single market membership (I’m plucking that figure from the air but it’s an educated guess). That would make a clear majority for a single market, or quasi- single market, arrangement.

Indeed, the YouGov survey backs that up, with 60 per cent prepared for the UK to follow EU regulations relating to the single market (and only 17 per cent finding that unacceptable); and 52 per cent in favour of allowing EU citizens the right to live and work in the UK:


These figures are a couple of months old at the time of writing, but we weren’t ready for the debate in August. It feels like we are now. It will be interesting to watch these numbers morph and shift in the run-up to the triggering of Article 50 in Spring 2017, as ideas crystallise (or remain vague … I’m not counting on anything!). Interesting times. And much is still up for grabs.




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Brexit brands: catching up with the left behind

Campaign: Brands Favoured by Remainers and Leavers

Back at my desk / wheel / digi-recorder, I wanted to register this article I missed in August before we all move on and forget the summer ever happened (some of us would prefer to; but every day I wake up and it turns out it still did). It’s the first of a few blog posts about the dreaded issue we can’t get away from now for the foreseeable future, Brexit.

If anyone can do it, Branson can

If anyone can do it, Branson can

I first read about this study of brands favoured by Leave vs Remain voters in the new ‘pop up’ print newspaper venture  The New European (which went from wild idea to print run in less than two weeks earlier in the summer – a pretty remarkable event in itself). Needless to say in my neck of the woods, central Oxford, we have The New European on display outside the local Co-Op. That’s because it’s one of those ardently ‘Remain’ bubbles that are dotted around the country, in not quite big enough numbers. Oxford also voted ‘Yes’ in the Alternative Vote Referendum, 2011 – remember that one?  No, I didn’t think so.

There is much to be said about the referendum but for now, I offer just some brief ruminations on the fascinating list of brands generating by some nice big data stats crunching by RKCR/Y&R and YouGov.

The brands most favoured by Remain voters apparently are:

Living in someone else's house trying not to mess it up does not relax me but it takes all sorts. It's new, innit. Kind of. Represents the new economy anyway. I'm a curmudgeon about all this cutting out the middle man stuff tbh. I like middle men.

Living in someone else’s house trying not to mess it up does not relax me but it takes all sorts. It’s new, innit. Kind of. Represents the new economy anyway. I’m a curmudgeon about all this cutting out the middle man stuff tbh. I like middle men. Underrated.

BBC iPlayer
London Underground
Virgin Trains

The Brexiteers however have quite a different list:

HP Sauce
ITV News
The Health Lottery
Birds Eye
Sky News
Cathedral City
PG Tips
Richmond sausages

Emily James of RKCR/Y&R summed up the Leave brands list as “traditional, straightforward, simple, down-to-earth, good value and friendly.” I’m fond of several of these myself but overall I think that’s quite a diplomatic description. We have to be diplomatic in this game, as we’ll probably end up doing branding research for one of them eventually. I’ve already worked on a couple of that list. But it doesn’t reflect the outward-looking, buccaneering version of Britain that the Leave campaign claimed Brexit was all about.

James describes the Remain brands, on the other hand, as “progressive, up-to-date, visionary, innovative, socially responsible, intelligent.” And wasn’t this really the divide in British society that Brexit has revealed? It is, by the way, most definitely ‘revealed’, not caused: in my view the vote wasn’t that much about the EU at all. It’s the coming home to roost of decades of social sundering.

The divide is between, on the one hand, the self-confident part of Britain that is not just at ease with modernity and change but actually driving it; and on the other hand, those parts of Britain that either got left behind or who never wanted to be part of that project in the first place.

It’s easy, especially if you’re a Remainer like me, to paint the two in Manichean terms – that Remain is progressive, liberal, open and optimistic and that Leavers are the opposite of those things. And there are some Leavers who are indeed dangerously stuck in the past, intolerant and inward-looking. But it would be short-sighted to write off all of the 52 per cent of the British population quite like that.

Birdseye: not a man to be ignored. No more EU quotas for him. His parrot though is still advocating an Australian-style points system for fish fingers. That ship has sailed, move on Polly

Birdseye: not a man to be ignored. No more EU quotas for him. His parrot though is still advocating an Australian-style points system for fish fingers. That ship has sailed, move on Polly

There is a positive to come out of this for us in a ‘progressive’ bubble: we can no longer ignore, patronise or marginalise such vast swathes of our fellow country people and expect this to have no negative consequences. Britain has been a deeply divided country for some time between people who benefit from the status quo and people who don’t. Those of us who are reaping the benefits should perhaps have listened more carefully to those who haven’t and we should have done something about it earlier. Perhaps now – too late? – we can start to understand there are other Britains beyond the ones we personally inhabit – and they can look very different. They are interesting and they all count.

There is a third list of brands, ones that have somehow managed to connect across this perilously divided nation. These brands are split equally between Remainers and Leavers:

Money Saving Expert
TK Maxx

Look at all the money Martin Lewis has made. He possibly should have made it in smaller, more portable denominations. How's he going to buy a packet of cheese 'n' onion with that?

Look at all the money Martin Lewis has made. He possibly should have made it in smaller, more portable denominations. How’s he going to buy a packet of cheese ‘n’ onion with that?

Martin Lewis, Mr Money Saving Expert himself, regularly features near the top of list of the most trusted people in Britain, usually right behind the almost deified David Attenborough. Lewis has a phenomenal and rare combination of qualities: the ability to fully understand complexity, render it simple and explain it clearly and engagingly. Sounds simple but no one can do it quite like him. He’s great on the tv, he’s amazing on the radio and he can write. The magic ingredient though is this: he gets that his area of expertise isn’t innately engrossing for most people. Life is about, well, life – not money, for most of us. He doesn’t look down on us for that, or think we’re lazy or stupid for it. He accepts us. And thus a relationship is built. Add to that that he seems to know his stuff backwards and we readily trust him and hang on his words. Qual researchers presenting our insights can learn a lot from Lewis.

M&S is another success story. A bit too upmarket though for Brexiters? That would be to underestimate two things: (1) how many affluent middle class people are Brexiters; and (2) M&S’s symbolism as an aspirational food shopping brand to people who can’t afford to shop there much. The way we do our food shopping now, increasingly in fits and starts, many of us have repertoires of stores that include both an M&S and an Aldi, or a Waitrose and an ASDA. It’s easier now for a premium retail brand to be relevant across SEGs; and the same goes for a value-driven retail brand. Look at the rise of the likes of Home Bargains and B&M. I interviewed shoppers in those stores earlier in the year. It was fascinating to see their recent evolution and how much shoppers are now embracing them. They are now becoming very mainstream places to shop and they have changed to reflect that.

So perhaps to surf on the crest of the post-Brexit divide, as we researchers have to, we don’t have to go to Iceland (and endure the orange glare off the faces of Peter Andre, Jason Donovan and Kerry Katona). The reassuringly expensive lure of Marks and Spencer’s is still something Remainers and Leavers can agree on.

See also: BBC News online: BBC – Brexit brands, divided Britain

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Harry Frankfurt on “Bullshit” – with thx to Martin Weigel’s blog

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted… Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it […]

via Bullshit — canalside view

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Gender Pay Gap: Still Holding Britain Back

If you’re a woman coming into the workforce in Britain, the best advice seems to be to join the police and make it to chief constable, go into IT, or drive a train. There you have a chance of being paid more than a man. Otherwise though, it seems you can expect to earn less because you have a uterus. Click on this Information Is Beautiful visualisation: Information Is Beautiful: The UK Gender Pay Gap

Really, Britain, in the 21st Century? Come on guys …

These things don’t correct themselves through some mysterious natural force, as some perhaps wish to imagine. Nor can it be acceptable surely for this to continue for yet another generation? I’m a bit astounded – and a bit not – that we’re still in this predicament in 2016. I used to be a lot more laissez-faire and on the fence about all this stuff in my 20s. I kind of believed things were OK, moving in the right direction. Now I’m in my 40s, with a working wife and a daughter, I can’t really take such a Pollyanna-ish view of it any more. It’s not changed the way I thought it would and I’ve had to revise my views as a result and accept laissez-faire on this one is inadequate.

women_like_men_onl_3010598bOf course a gender pay gap does not necessarily mean women are not on average getting “equal pay for equal work” – as the gender pay gap involves a number of disparities in working patterns between men and women – but it does seem pretty likely to be true. Weirdly, there is no official information on that, according to the Equal Pay Portal (http://www.equalpayportal.co.uk/where-to-start-2/), which is a good place to start finding out more about all this. I’ll quote their summary of the situation on the gender pay gap in full:

  • Women are entitled to equal pay with male colleagues doing equal work; workers from all of the groups protected against discrimination are also entitled to equal pay;
  • There is no official information on the extent to which women are getting equal pay for equal work;
  • Equal pay is about equality in contractual terms; the gender pay gap is about differences in average earnings;
  • Headline figures on the gender pay gap are published annually by the Office for National Statistics; in 2015 the median full-time gender pay gap was 9.4 per cent;
  • The gender pay gap is not only a burden on individual women, it has a negative impact on the UK economy;
  • Closing the gender pay gap requires action to tackle all of the four main causes: occupational segregation; pay discrimination; the unequal sharing of family responsibilities and the undervaluing of women’s work. In particular, the part-time and full-time gaps call for different approaches – there is no one size fits all solution.

See also the Fawcett Society, who also press the need for a big improvement on all this: Fawcett Society – gender pay gap and the ONS statistics: ONS gender pay gap statistics. A recent report by Glassdoor Economic Research showed Britain well down the league tables for the equal treatment of women in the workforce across a range of measures: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/may/18/uk-has-one-of-worst-records-for-gender-equality-at-work-report. For an alternative view, the Daily Telegraph is convinced there is no problem – we should all carry on as we are and see the disparities in positive terms: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/12153967/The-gender-pay-gap-might-be-unfair-but-its-not-the-fault-of-sexist-employers.html  It’s a view, is all I will say to that …

Millie Tant may just have had a point on this one

Millie Tant may just have had a point on this one

The gender pay gap is partly about the kinds of work done predominantly by women being undervalued financially. It’s also about women being held back from promotions through unconscious biases. The problems some bosses seem to have with understanding fairness issues around childbirth and early years parenting has particularly impacted upon the career trajectory of women in their 30s, in way it hasn’t with men. It’s not just some “Millie Tant” lefty feminist issue – it is, many economists and investors now think, holding back the economy considerably.

It’s not a UK-only problem, as this work by The Brookings Institution shows in the US: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2016/04/12-gender-pay-gap-equality-and-beyond-sawhill. And tackling it is complex stuff. But not, one feels, beyond the wit of man, or woman, to start addressing. The will has to be there.

BBC FOI survey on gender pay gapBy the way, there is an excellent series of academic articles on the future of pay more widely pulled together by The Resolution Foundation, in its Securing A Pay Rise document, downloadable here: http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Securing-a-pay-rise-the-path-back-to-shared-wage-growth-web-version.pdf.  Among other things, it shows that the apparently positive news of the narrowing of the gender pay gap in recent years may not be as positive as it seems – it’s been the result of the real pay of both men and women falling, men’s pay just falling even more than women’s. Not the kind of progress you’d hope for.

Low and unfair pay generally is a massive issue for the UK, as for many advanced economies currently. But that’s probably for another post, possibly by another blogger. Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government happens to be at the top of my road, and the blog of Professor of Economic Policy there Simon Wren-Lewis, Mainly Macro, is as good a place to start as any: https://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/a-general-theory-of-austerity.html

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“Growth mindset”: praising process, not intelligence

This is a neat little 10 minute talk by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford in the US (http://mindsetonline.com/abouttheauthor/), explaining the simple but powerful idea of the “growth mindset” for learning.

This is going to end in a fight. Growth Mindset would be well advised to leg it before Fixed Mindset lamps him. He's well hard and a bit mental.

This is going to end in a fight. Growth Mindset would be well advised to leg it before Fixed Mindset lamps him. He’s well hard and a bit mental.

The basic idea, based on real life study results, is that pupils with a “growth” mindset about their abilities ultimately out-perform and become more self-motivated than pupils with a “fixed mindset” about them. In the growth mindset, pupils believe that their abilities are not fixed but develop over time.  They believe that effort activates their abilities; and setbacks or deficiencies are taken on the chin as just part of the process of learning. By contrast pupils in the “fixed mindset” believe intelligence is innate and relatively unchanging. it is revealed rather than developed. Effort is associated with a lack of ability; activities in which they may not be proficient are avoided and mistakes are hidden, because they jar with the self-narrative the pupil wants. As a result, they tend to try less hard, give up more easily when they hit a difficulty, and ultimately do less well.

Fatboy Slim was onto this 20 years ago. As was this fat boy.

Fatboy Slim was onto this 20 years ago. As was this fat boy.

We can all see that the growth mindset is better. But I suspect many people I know were raised to some extent with the fixed mindset. We’ve been told at some point we are bright and we came to believe it. That said – and I did pretty well at school, if I can be so immodest – it strikes me listening to Dr Dweck that the secret may have been that I never really believed I was particularly bright (and probably indeed wasn’t). This probably gave me a growth mindset by default – a belief that my brain would be capable of nothing much without a lot of work and organisation.

I’d never seen it as positively as the term “growth mindset” suggests though, I must admit. I diagnosed it in my later teens as something of a curse: a product of chronic insecurity, something I actually needed to conquer. And for a good while I probably lost my “growth mindset” as a result. That was probably exacerbated by the cultures at both Oxford, where I was a student, and the law firm in the City I worked at in my 20s, where many people seemed to be obsessively evaluating and commenting on others’ “intelligence” or “how bright” they were. I feel like I have been in recovery from that stultifying habit of thought for a good while now. Changing career to qualitative research helped me get back to my old curious and engaged self. More recently, seeing my elderly mother’s struggles with memory and cognition is another regular reminder that the brain changes, and the person with it. Cultivating what you have is the only response to that.

Dr Dweck has some simple advice too on what this means for praising your child. “Praising children’s intelligence harms them,” she says, as it pushes them towards the fixed mindset. Telling them how smart they are turns kids off to learning. Instead, send the message that you value process, regardless of the end result. Engaging in something vexing and difficult should be presented to them as desirable in itself. (Note to self: my teenager-esque performance yesterday, groaning loudly then rolling around and pounding the floor repeatedly because I couldn’t make iTunes work, may have sent my 12-year-old son the wrong message about perseverance).

The RSA, by the way (whence the Dweck film comes), is a great resource for discovering new thinking and sharing big ideas about society. If you become a Fellow, it also provides a great place to go for a few hours to get some work done in central London, not to mention opportunities to collaborate with other fellows, if you have the time and inclination. I am a fan.



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Machine learning and the future of human-shaped qual

Doing some research on this soon and it’s pretty new to me. Here’s an interesting article that explains the basics for anyone interested: Tech Crunch: machine learning

I’m pretty confident it will be a long while, if ever, before machine learning usurps the proper research consultant as the deliverer of insights. But it’s worth thinking about what kinds of qual data gathering may in future be enhanced by forms of machine learning – web-scraping springs to mind – to give us more tools, or indeed to perhaps reduce our role in certain types of data gathering. However, qual is more protected than most from being simply dumped out of a job by this technology:

  • our role has long been partly as a “reality check”, a complement to the “desk” data that shows clients whether what the data seems to be suggesting about people’s thoughts and behaviours is really the case in real life. In a machine learning age, that is no different.
  • much of our data generation is from human interaction, usually face to face – people often need social interaction, prompting through ‘natural’ conversation, to open up and share what’s interesting. We’re the masters of that.
  • qual is participant-led – that is, we’re not throwing batteries of questions at people, we let them lead while we gently steer the topic flow. We respond to particular comments and probe on what they mean, both individually and in relation to what other people are saying. This isn’t something machine learning could easily be applied to, even if we can imagine a robot moderating a group (and that’s some leap, for now at least).
  • In the analysis, we listen not only to the literal meaning of words, but also need to assess their meaning in several contexts (e.g. as part of a story, in a physical environment, within the wider language, within the wider culture, their meaning in brand terms, in business terms, etc) – not to mention the participant’s tone, body language, mood and so on. We jump between these islands and these layers of meaning to reach holistic insights that draw it all together and make sense of it, to create advice for our clients. Again, for machines it’s the stuff of artificial intelligence, way beyond where machine learning is now or is likely to be any time soon.

I don’t want to sound complacent – who knows where we will be in 20 years – but it does strike me that qualitative research data gathering, analysis and insight, being about as far away from mechanistic thinking as it is possible to be, is one of the least machine-replaceable pursuits there is.

We  in qual are a bit different and a bit removed from the usual worlds of our clients in business, government or NGOs. We sit partly in their world but we move to the rhythms of the wider public more than the rhythms of our clients. It’s been thrown back at us as a weakness. But this, I passionately believe, is our very strength – the source of the real value to our clients. Being a human-shaped practice could be what keeps us relevant and needed, not only  in the face of the rise of technology but because of it.

Qual is a messenger from the real, messy human world, into the sometimes sterile environments decision-makers find themselves inhabiting. The messy and the human have plenty of life left in them yet.

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Top Qual Tips 1: the generation vs illustration dichotomy

It’s time to post something actually useful – I hope – about qualitative research.

Inspired by the best

Inspired by the best

After a long hiatus with this blog in 2015 for technical reasons – WordPress somehow produced an unbreakable security loop which prevented me and my IT guy accessing it for several months – I’ve managed a couple of ultimately quite self-indulgent posts in the last week to blow away the cobwebs. Now for some qual. This is my circumlocutory “announcement” of a new occasional series of practical qual tips, which I’m calling Top Qual Tips. Before long, the chattering classes will be casually referring to them as The TQTs. “Read the latest TQT?” they’ll splutter, over lunchtime tapas and mescal at the local roller disco. “No,” will come the response. “How did you get in here? This place hasn’t been a roller disco since 1982. This is a Pets At Home warehouse facility. Now leave that gerbil alone or I’m calling the police. And take those albondigas with you.”

So, to business: TQT No1. Generation vs illustration. It’s really just a rule of thumb I came up with, aimed at non-qual-researchers or clients who are planning a project in which they have an inkling qual might be useful. It’s this: at a very basic level, before you think any further about methodology or sample or anything else, ask yourself whether this qual’s basic purpose is “generative” or “illustrative”.

The drawings are better when the book's been written first. I say "written" - this is from 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas', so I use the term loosely

The drawings are better when the book’s been written first. I say “written” – this is from ‘Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas’, so I use the term loosely

The purpose is really to properly identify illustrative qual projects early on and thereby make sure they are designed with their real purpose in mind. This liberates them into being the best they can be. Because otherwise, illustrative projects can be commissioned that are also expected to generate insights. It’s like driving with the handbrake on and the insights end up being thin too. Worst of both worlds.


So what do I mean by generative vs illustrative? It’s pretty simple:

  • Generative – any qual whose main role is to generate new insights into a topic – explore it and tell us things we didn’t previously know, or weren’t sure about. Isn’t that all qual, you ask? Almost, but not quite … because a small minority of projects are illustrative and the illustrative project is quite a different beast.
  • Illustrative – where a piece of qual work comes in after the insights have been generated and the territory mapped for the client, to bring it to life. It’s not there to generate any new learnings, just to illustrate the learnings we already have. Typically this is about showing the reality of people’s lives through pictures, visuals and films, or it can be using sounds, objects, anything to help an audience connect with, ingest and subsequently remember the research findings.

I should also say, many projects have elements of both – and that’s of course fine. But do ask yourself quite hard: am I going to be using the outputs in a basically illustrative way, or to establish new insights? Of course it’s not always going to be either/or. But asking the question makes you think more clearly about how the outputs of the research are going to be used – how you want the findings to live on within the client organisation after debriefing is over. And it really helps you think clearly about what the recruitment and fieldwork needs to look like to produce those outputs.

It may be that you want to do generative and illustrative qual, but realise you need to dedicate some particular parts of the fieldwork more purely to the illustration task. Or it may be that you realise, actually, we need a separate illustration piece after the main qual fieldwork is done.

There's room for some production values at this stage

There’s room for some production values at this stage

Or it may be that what participants have been doing in the name of generating insights will also double up nicely as an illustration – collages and scrap books, little clips from interviews, pictures taken in-home and so on (usually it does work well). But it’s good to ask the question: do we need something more dedicated here?

Typical examples of illustrative pieces are:

  • in segmentations where we are “bringing a segment to life”
  • in a shopper study, where perhaps footfall and EPOS data has identified a particular interesting purchase behaviour and you now want to just show people doing it and listen to them talking about it
  • as an accompaniment to innovation research, you want to show the exact place in a family’s home life where there’s a practical gap or problem a product can address (say with kitchen appliance designs, for example).

There are many more of course; arguably all qual has some kind of illustrative aspect, I’m just picking out examples where a pure illustration piece might be needed.

What kind of approaches might you see then in a dedicated illustrative piece that are different from a “generative” methodology?

  • recruitment may well be different from a generative piece, because having the previous insight work at your disposal allows you to focus now on particular types of people you already know are interesting or important. You’re not casting the net and hoping, you are homing in on particular people. When you meet them, you can go more or less directly to those behaviours; you don’t have to spend time working out what they are. You can just prompt them and get them to show you what they do. You produce a lot of relevant illustrative material this way.
  • You have freedom to be a lot more visual in the data you collect – and you’ll need it. Ultimately, your outputs have to be strongly visual, so designating a piece of work as “illustrative” frees you up to really focus on that in the fieldwork. So, you’re going to be thinking of film, of capturing detailed pictures of relevant environments like in-store fixtures and signage, of picking up objects that can represent an idea, a segment or a kind of person. Think audio too – turns of phrase, but also music that helps capture an idea or a person’s behaviour.
  • Linked to that, you can also deploy short-form methodologies that you avoid like the plague when seeking depth, e.g. 5-minute vox pops to capture some talking heads in situ.
  • Perhaps you might bring in a creative non-researcher to help craft the outputs, since the task is really one of producing an engaging piece of communication, whether in a film, a workshop presentation or a slide deck.

One of the most enjoyable pieces of work I’ve been part of was a partnership with segmentation gurus Bonamy Finch on consumer insurance segments. It worked so well, I think, because we separated out the stages so clearly. I did an up-front generative stage, Stage 1, full of creative material and itself really rich – but the client had the foresight to commission, after the central Stage 2 quant segmentation, a Stage 3 dedicated to segment illustration. We recruited three in-home “ethno-depths” per segment, which I conducted with professional film-maker Tim Crawley [https://vimeo.com/tctv] on hand, designed to generate between them a three-minute segment film.

Removing the creative shackles: focussing on illustration for what it is can free you up as a communicator and transform the qual piece.  It's not as scary as it seems ...

Removing the creative shackles: focussing on illustration for what it is can free you up as a communicator and transform the qual piece. It’s not as scary as it seems …

As an interviewer, I was freed up to focus on eliciting the key things from the participants that I knew we needed to be in the segment film (but with them talking naturally about themselves, not pre-scripted). I intervened and mmm-ed much less than in a ‘normal’ qual depth interview, so the audio on the footage would be clean; and we took footage and stills of household items that reflected the segment we were illustrating. We also used visuals from Stage 1 scrapbooks and collages in the final three-minute segment films, a kind of montage approach. The films were then used in the client business to educate staff on customer segments and remember how they differ in their needs and attitudes around risk and insurance issues.

Nine times out of ten, qual is commissioned to be basically generative in nature. But asking the “is it really illustrative?” question early on can be liberating for those qual projects that are really about illustration of already established insights. It allows it to do that illustration job properly, unshackled from the need to generate insights. Illustrative qual might be seen as fluffier than generative qual, because all the hard thinking is done. But it’s actually no easier, it’s just a different kind of challenge – a creative challenge.

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