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 [] 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.

Julia Holter: lucidity by the shore

Since I branded my qual consultancy Shore in 2010 – the ‘shore’ idea being qual research as a liminal, in-between place between communicators and the public – I find myself regularly awash with cultural references to shore-related stuff. I think it’s like when you buy a new Toyota Avensis and suddenly start noticing how many other Toyota Avensises there are out there. I don’t have one, it’s just a simile. Anyway, sometimes I feel the urge to decorate my Shore blog with a particularly enjoyable addition to the coastal cultural treasure chest. So, here is the video is for a nice Julia Holter track from last year, Sea Calls Me Home.

Losing My Edge. The heartbreaking thing listening to that brilliant and genuinely funny LCD Soundsystem track is: AT LEAST HE USED TO HAVE SOME EDGE
Losing My Edge. The heartbreaking thing listening to that genuinely funny LCD Soundsystem track is: AT LEAST JAMES MURPHY USED TO HAVE SOME EDGE. But hey, edge is overrated anyway. The Middlemass is where it’s at.

The album it’s from, “Have You In My Wilderness”, has been a grower in our house in recent months. I usually run about 5-7 years behind even the mainstream music industry these days, let alone the more interesting stuff. I used to be a reliable 2-3 years behind, but I’ve lost a yard of pace after a series of injuries. So only being a few months behind on this one makes me feel like Brendan Foster challenging for Olympic silver (never gold; not Brendan).

In the marathon of musical life, my old mate Paul Margree is a kind of front-running guardian angel. His excellent new music blog is We Need No Swords. Despite being near the front, Paul regularly scrapes me up gasping from the tarmac as I get trampled by hundreds of luminescent pairs of New Balance, administers a pouch of PowerGel and whisks me up to the top of the field, just behind the four Kenyans and the emaciated Sale Harrier who’s gone too soon. It’s in such moments I “discover” new favourite artists.

Clifton: brutally competitive as a runner and a trombonist
Clifton: brutally competitive as a runner and a trombonist

My utter lack of cardio-vascular fitness soon sends me plummeting down through the field once more, to be elbowed to the ground and vomited over by Bernie Clifton in an ostrich costume.

Julia Holter’s back catalogue is more ‘avant garde’ than you would guess from “Have You In My Wilderness” – here’s a really nice Pete Paphides review of the album for the Grauniad which may also serve as a gateway into her stuff.

Holter ends the song:

I hear small words from the shore
No recognized pattern

I’m sure I overheard one of my clients saying that …

Drive to Swindon and find inner peace

Sometimes – well quite often – I come across a little film or piece of writing that identifies something I’ve long felt and articulates it better than I could. This piece from the School of Life, on what some time behind the wheel on the open road does for you, encapsulates why I’ve come to find driving therapeutic. It’s one reason I’ll sometimes choose car over train for getting to fieldwork.

The narrator comes from Belfast, like me, so it even sounds like me.

Neglected parts of one’s inner life emerge on the road …

he says.

Driving is an unexpected tool for thinking.

In staccato, interrupted, inchoate daily life, a long drive can provide an island of continuity, flow and control.  The “cocooning effect” he mentions rings true – though I probably don’t exactly emerge as a butterfly at the end of it.

Cocoon: transformative miracles of nature; pretty disgusting to look at. Much like the inside of my car.
Cocoons: transformative miracles of nature; pretty disgusting to look at. Much like the inside of my car.

There is also a less life-affirming side to life behind the wheel, which was in evidence in a particularly grim six hours I spent last month on a stretch of the M6 en route to fieldwork in Wolverhampton: I never made it to my workshop on ‘big data’, emerging from the traffic jam only at 10pm, some four hours after the workshop session had been due to start. We were lucky the good folk of the Black Country agreed so readily to come back a few days later. Much luckier than the poor driver who joined the choir invisible on the M6 earlier that day, the source of the gridlock. But even then, once the evening was lost, the panic subsided; and released from M6 imprisonment, I experienced a fecund few hours of thinking as I slipped back along the M40 home.

I used driving-as-therapy quite deliberately just before the arrival of my daughter back in 2012. My wife and I agreed I could be spared for a day, a few weeks before time, and anticipating the intense months ahead I drove to the Brecon Beacons – briefly walked up half a beacon – and drove home again. It was beautiful. I just let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go; I followed whatever roads seemed interesting. I returned home refreshed and ready for the domestic whirlwind. Even listening to Man City snatching the title from United with the last kick of the season, as my Toyota Prius rolled out of the Welsh hills, failed to spoil the healing glow of that late Spring day.

A Pyrrhic victory ... O Aguero, where is thy sting? A drive to Wales in a second-hand Toyota eclipsed your vainglory.
A Pyrrhic victory … O Aguero, where is thy sting? A drive to Wales in a second-hand Toyota eclipsed your vainglory.

The School of Life, by the way, which made the film, is worth checking out. Started by philosopher and writer Alain de Botton among others, it’s a great resource for thoughts, books and courses if (like me) you’re interested in how life can be more satisfyingly lived, but religion isn’t your thing:


Knocked non-conscious: Joanna Chrzanowska’s AQR webinar

This is a webinar Joanna Chrzanowska of Genesis Consulting did for the AQR ( last month. It piqued my interest for at least two reasons. Firstly, it’s an illuminating trot through the roots of qualitative research and its relationship with ideas of the sub-conscious, unconscious and non-conscious. Secondly, it maps out Joanna’s take on where qual now sits on this, in the light of the break-through of the ideas of behavioural economics into mainstream business thinking.

She starts with the Freudian split of superego / ego / id, quoting Bannister’s wonderful description of this:

A maiden aunt and a sex-crazed monkey locked in mortal combat in a cellar, refereed by a rather nervous bank clerk.

Thinking Fast And Slow. Thanks to The Green Book Blog for this
Thinking Fast And Slow.
Thanks to The Green Book Blog for this

We have moved on since Freud’s ideas, even if they do still provide a useful metaphor. Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 now dominate discussion of how unconscious – or perhaps better to say non-conscious – factors play out in human behaviour. But in Chrzanowska’s view, behavioural economics, while giving intellectual weight to qual’s long-standing arguments against ‘rational decision-maker’ approaches, has actually “failed to light up the qual universe”. She asks why.

Kenrick and Griskevicius. Got to love a Lithuanian name, they often have the ring of a Roman provincial prefect about them. Kenrick though: less interesting
Kenrick and Griskevicius. Got to love a Lithuanian name, they often have the ring of a Roman provincial prefect about them.

She finds the answer, in part, in the book The Rational Animal by Kenrick and Griskevicius. If Kahneman et al punctured human self-importance by showing how error-prone and riven with innate biases we all are, it can be argued it left the job only partly done. Human behaviour was left looking just a bit too random for comfort. Personally I’m pretty comfortable with behaviour being a bit random, but I get the point – aren’t there deeper reasons why we make the mistakes we do, which may be the next step on from behavioural economics? It describes the processes of non-rationality, but perhaps is less focussed on why these processes lead us in the directions they do. The Rational Animal is an attempt to explain these in evolutionary terms:

Kendrick and Griskevicius posit seven “sub-selves” as an underpinning explanation for behaviours. These are a bit like core evolutionary human needs. The seven sub-selves they list are:

  • affiliation
  • self-protection
  • disease avoidance
  • status-seeking
  • kin care
  • mate acquisition
  • mate retention

Actions that at first look irrational or even stupid make sense, the authors contend, when seen as being done non-consciously in pursuit of one of these essentials of human thriving. We have a sub-self for each one, that concerns itself with that issue alone. A lot of of our moral dilemmas are really clashes between these sub-selves.

I know, I know, it's really serious
Paean to the unconscious: I know, I know, it’s really serious

Sub-selves are only one part of the non-conscious landscape, as Joanna points out. It also includes habits, emotions, cultural beliefs, heuristics (short-cuts), social cognition, implicit attitudes, stereotypes and automatic processing. And just as these factors in explaining human behaviour are buried deep below the surface, the qualitative researcher’s wrestling with them is usually just as hidden from our clients. Many remain blissfully unaware it is even going on; no wonder they sometimes ask why full analysis is really needed. It’s because there’s quite a lot to dig out and weigh up.

By the way, Joanna’s experience and wisdom on all matters qualitative has been an invaluable asset for the UK qual industry for many years. Pretty much any British qual researcher you meet will have done one of her courses at some time. She was one of the teachers on the AQR Foundation Course when I went on it back in 1998; and she’s trained me since on subjects as disparate as projective techniques and the use of online platforms, always accessibly and inspiringly. I’ve bigged it up before, but her Qualitative Mind site is a fantastic resource on qual, for practitioners and clients alike:

Queer as false memory syndrome

Windy Miller - too much cider again. At least he didn't pass out this time.
Windy Miller – too much cider again. At least he didn’t pass out this time.

As I get older – which I gather many other people are also doing – I become ever more interested in popular and, even more so, unpopular folk traditions. Tomorrow is a belter of a day in the folk weirdness calendar: May Day. It’s like a clarion call for every nut job in the land to emerge, dress up like a character from Camberwick Green and drink themselves into even more incoherence than when they got up. But I do love it.

The Bard himself: under a pseudonym, Shapps wrote all of Shakespeare's plays and pipped Jeffrey Archer to 100m gold at the London Olympics. And found time for pint and a game of bingo. A colossus.
The Bard himself: Shapps wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays apart from King Lear, which was of course by Jeffrey Archer; and who can forget how he pipped Norman St. John Stevas to the 100m gold at the London Olympics? And still found time for a pint and a game of bingo with some hard-working families. He is also a former Mayor of Trumpton.

Today, 30th April, is big enough in its own right. It heralds both Walpurgisnacht in Germany – apparently,  party time for airborne witches – and here in the UK, May Eve, the night upon which Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set. Yes, today. Summer in April is something only The Bard or possibly Grant Shapps would try to get away with (what is it about Conservative Party chairmen and Walter Mitty-esque relationships with reality? I think the clue may be in the question).

England – and it’s this part of the UK that I write from – has quite a set of insane folk traditions lined up for 1st May. Here’s a quick run-down of some of my favourites:

  • Weighing the mayor (High Wycombe, Bucks)
  • Corby pole fair – people are put in stocks and only released after paying a ransom (Corby, Northants)
  • Pretend dancing bears – a boy puts a sack over his head and pretends to be a dancing bear, complete with pole (Blackburn, Lancs)
  • Ducking Day – shoving people’s heads into buckets of water if they don’t have a branch of whitethorn or elm on their clothes when approached (Devon and Cornwall)
  • Mass punch-ups (for example at Wrekin Wakes, Shropshire)
  • Horse decorations (especially in the north west)
  • Jack-in-the-Green – a wicker-adorned character put on by chimney sweeps, as a way of collecting money to see them through the lean summer months (London)
  • May Goslings – a kind of second April Fool’s Day (Cumbria, Lancs and elsewhere)
If you want to know about the Coconut Dancers of Backup in Lancashire, you need a copy
If you want to know about the Coconut Dancers of Bacup in Lancashire, you need a copy

The source for all this knowledge I seem to have, but don’t really, is a hefty tome by leading English folklorist Steve Roud called The English Year. It’s a big old £30 book, but worth every penny. Here’s Nicolas Lezard’s review in the Guardian from a few years ago – he loves it too:

Jolly amusing stuff. But there’s deeper meaning in it too. The folk traditions Roud describes are little chinks of light into two things: some of the older history of how life was lived in towns and villages centuries ago; and how people in more recent times have felt about their past, often yearning for a simpler, pre-modern idyll that almost certainly never existed.

As regards the latter, I’m referring to Eric Hobsbawm’s apercu that much ‘tradition’ is not as old as it appears. His famous book The Invention of Tradition is probably a wise companion piece to anyone reading The English Year.

Gaelic football: a very Victorian invention. Though hurling is genuinely a very old sport.
Gaelic football: a very Victorian invention. Though hurling is genuinely a very old sport.

A huge amount of what we imagine to come from the deep past is in fact a product of the rather camp imaginings of some Victorian antiquarian or other. They were grasping, it seems, to keep onto a simpler and more colourful past that, in the age of industrialisation, seemed to be slipping away. Scottish clan tartans and Gaelic football (the latter dates only to the 1880s) are but two striking examples.

Thomas Hardy, writing in the late Victorian era, often featured in his novels a transition from a romanticised pre-industrial, pre-railway Wessex to something more modern, corrupt and urban – the Wessex Hardy lived in when he was writing. Books like The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or even Jude The Obscure are melancholy paeans to a lost past; a past that was becoming more exotic to readers with every passing year. Hardy was perhaps more devoted to preserving some kind of truths about the past than most. Many of his Victorian contemporaries heavily remixed the past they were seeking to honour. Ultimately, a tradition is something that lives in the present. It is natural to cobble together your best guess at the past – and even improve it where it’s not really what you’re looking for – through half-remembered bits and pieces. You can fill in the rest. It’s that act of creativity which is perhaps the most interesting thing about folk “traditions”.

Original is best - back to basics
Original is best – back to basics

All this creatively inaccurate remembering is just as relevant today, as many of us who work in the world of brand communications will recognise. We live in a time where the retro and the contemporary are almost indistinguishable. The recent recession brought a deluge of nostalgia branding – those Hovis ads came back, we got lots of 1940s typography on our hession carrier bags and so on. It’s still going on. Even Football Focus now shows the club badges on the screen in the background in monochrome. At times of difficulty, we like to be reminded of simpler times, when things just worked and quality was quality. We become averse to the mess and waste we associate with today. It was ever thus.

When it comes to invented tradition in the world of branding though, you can’t beat the sheer gumption of the ads of Werther’s Originals in the 1990s. This product simply didn’t exist in the UK when I was a child in the 70s and 80s; but appeared in the 90s with a fully formed back-story. The ads featuring an old man enjoying them with his grandson. He is thrown into a nostalgic reverie, as if he’s recalling having enjoyed them as a child watching Buster Keaton matinees at the picture house. Unless he spent his childhood in Westphalia in Germany, where Werther’s does have a history, this is pretty unlikely. Werther’s Originals were every bit as 90s as Brett Anderson singing Animal Nitrate at the Brits, looking like a girl.

But since when did we let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Blame and its illusions: an RSA Short by Brené Brown

Quite funny this:

This is from a talk at the RSA, in which the American sociologist and writer explains the toxicity of blame. Not only is blaming people not usually really about some right-minded demand for accountability, it tends towards the opposite. Seen for what it is:

Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.

Her point is that our focus on finding someone responsible is really a way of avoiding the messy truth of events. We blame individuals because it gives us the illusion of things being more controllable than they really are – a fantasy most of us are hopelessly lost in most of the time. We need someone else to have ’caused’ our problem, because that’s a neat, wrapped-up thought that appears to do the job of providing an “answer” – which is really what we want.

Dr Brown’s website is worth a gander: “Maybe stories are just data with a soul,”  she says. I prefer to think of it the other way around. Maybe data are stories in search of a soul.

Sometimes there is an inverse proportionality between album sales and quality. Exhibit No1: the execrable "Soul Provider" by master long-hair-at-the-back exponent Bolton. See how I took the cold, raw data of album sales there and injected some soul into it?
Sometimes there is a direct, proportional relationship between album sales and the need to throw up over the recording artist. Exhibit No1: “Soul Provider” by master long-hair-at-the-back exponent Bolton. See how I took the cold, raw data of album sales there and injected some soul (and bits of my breakfast) into it?

Which is where qual comes in. Like barber-worrying soft crooner Michael Bolton, we are perhaps “soul providers”.

Actually, I hope nothing like Michael Bolton, as having analysed his work, I’ve found every last note of it to be total pants.

I seem to have lapsed into blame again. It is, as Chicago once put it, a hard habit to break.

Enough crap white soul for one day. I’ll give the final word to Mark E. Smith, in an onstage rant during The Fall’s “A Part of America Therein” tour in 1981. This line turns the tables on the blame-merchants with acid simplicity:

I am not here to cheer you up.

A line I never tire of repeating, if only in my head.

Another great election tool (and it’s not a politician)

The Grauniad has a nice interactive tool on the website now, allowing you to check the polls constituency by constituency (click on the link above).

I also like the UK map on there a lot, which is morphed to reflect where most people live. It’s a great antidote to those more strictly territorial maps which make the country look like it’s about 80 per cent Conservative. In this one, the urban Labour seats are given their fair due and you get a much better idea of what colour different regions of the country are. Democracy is about people after all.

Last year, the mutts of Billy Idol and Cristiano Ronaldo fought it out for best in show
Last year, the mutts of Billy Idol and Cristiano Ronaldo fought it out for best in show

I heard one commentator describe this election as “an ugly dog competition”, which is why perhaps the leaders are finding it so hard to make any headway against each other – it’s not such an inviting choice for many, I suspect. The irony is, there is a bigger ideological divide between the parties now than at any time for several decades; there is a very stark choice for what direction Britain’s future will take. This one really matters. But I suppose you need to have switched on to politics to some extent to even realise that much. It seems many haven’t.

But as my fellow Ulsterman Col. Tim Collins said on The World At One today, if some imagine they are sticking two fingers up to the established order by not voting, they are wrong. As he put it, if you want politicians to crap themselves, tell them you’re certain to vote – and actually do it.

In the same World At One panel discussion, comedy god Armando Iannucci pointed out that a candidate rushed for time will visit an old people’s home over a university, because he/she knows proportionately many more will vote there. This carries through into policy choices too, with sometimes inequitable results. Should financially-struggling younger voters really have taken quite as much of the economic pain as they have in recent years, versus better off pensioners? If more young people voted, perhaps generational inequality might have been more challenged. Politicians are supposed to govern fairly, but they are also expected to listen to voters. That’s voters – people who actually cast a vote. (Incidentally, an interesting article from Iannucci on the need for more truth-telling in politics here:

Oh and if by some weird chance you’re reading this in the UK and aren’t registered vote, you need to register today!! Probably worth mentioning, just in case.

Don’t get in touch with me on 8th May, I’ll just warn any potential clients now. I will have had no sleep.

Not sure who to vote for on 7th May? Try this

This comes recommended by my former employer @benatipsosmori, I see from twitter.

And do make sure you vote, please. It’s not a Love-o-rution, or whatever – it’s a General Election. If you’re a grown-up, you can vote in it.

Coppola’s “The Conversation”: the human side of the professional listener

I’ve long thought that every qualitative researcher – or anyone who has spent long hours listening back to imperfect voice recordings and working out what they mean – should watch this film. The trailer is much cheesier than the film by the way. The Conversation is really a much more subtle, tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller than this clip suggests. It’s one of the great 20th Century films.

Surprising that it’s half-forgotten these days: written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in his prime (released in 1974), it won the the Palme d’Or at Cannes and only missed out on the best picture Oscar to another Coppola film, The Godfather Part 2. Perhaps its release around the time of Watergate, which was coincidental, led US audiences to associate it with that sorry episode in American history; perhaps it has been pigeon-holed as a period piece; or maybe it’s just too scratchy and discomfiting. But make no mistake, The Conversation is a brilliant piece of art.

conversationIt’s about a professional surveillance man, a sound-recording expert, played by Gene Hackman. He’s been tasked to bug a couple and record their conversations. He records them in a noisy public space, Union Square in San Francisco, then has the task of deciphering their words. The sentence he plays back over and over and over is “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” But Hackman has to tinker a lot with the recording to make this out; and the emphasis in the sentence seems to change depending on how he cleans and amplifies the sound.

Hackman becomes concerned the couple are in mortal danger from his employers and, against his professional training, starts to get personally involved in their case. But what he finds isn’t what he expected; meanwhile, his employers start bugging him

At one level, this is a film about surveillance, the invasion of privacy and post-McCarthy-era paranoia. But at another level it really strikes a chord with my work. Because it’s also about the internal moral tensions involved in being a professional listener.

Audio technology has moved on since 1974 ... here, the new Olympus digirecorder being put through its paces
Audio technology has moved on since 1974 … here, the new Olympus digirecorder being put through its paces by genetically engineered twins

Like Hackman, we are out there to elicit personal and sometimes emotionally revealing words from people (albeit that we do it consensually with willing research participants). We sit there with our best Carl Rogers faces on, nodding and encouraging, looking slightly blank, being good listeners. Then we make sense of the outpourings, package it all up for our clients – and walk away. But what lingers for me after my research projects isn’t, in truth, the client’s end decision to go with a bigger font and updated logo on their 500g pack – it’s the vivid glances into people’s real lives I’ve been privy to during the fieldwork.

The Conversation also depicts the process of semantic analysis, focussing intensely on the possible meanings of a few key words. It’s the best example in cinema of taking a phrase and repeating it over and over, until the meaning seems to change. It changes not just because of Hackman’s technical skill with the recording equipment, but because his interpretation shifts in the light of other information he’s discovering, about this couple and his employers. Context is all. Maybe you didn’t hear what you thought you heard. One to think about the next time you’re behind the mirror at a research facility.

I always find a Courtney Pine number a great consolation when I've torn my apartment to bits looking for bugging devices
I always find a Courtney Pine number a great consolation when I’ve ruined my house in the search for insight

Now, it is of course rare in qual research for one utterance by one participant to be quite so pivotal as the telling sentence in The Conversation. We’re not dealing in murder plots, unless some of our leading multiple grocers are using point-of-sale material to poison us all on behalf of Putin’s FSB. But there’s a lot in Hackman’s guilt-ridden listener for us I think. Hackman’s pulling apart of his own apartment at the end of The Conversation is a stark metaphor for the self-deconstruction we all do when we really question ourselves deeply. It’s the process qual researchers need to go through in the course of developing ourselves professionally. Analysing other people’s motivations, behaviours and emotions requires you to take yourself apart too – even if it’s not quite as bleak as the Hackman apartment scene for most of us.

Even Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation still had his saxophone. There’s always something interesting left when you strip away the layers. It might even play a tune.

“To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus …” Loss aversion and the human cost of economic cycles

Those with a passing familiarity with behavioural economics will have heard of “loss aversion”: as described by Tversky and Kahneman, it’s the idea that losses have twice as powerful an effect psychologically as gains. No surprise then to come across an article, Out Of The Loop, while leafing through the ESRC’s “Britain in 2015” magazine, with the sub-header:

People do not psychologically benefit from economic expansions nearly as much they suffer from recessions.

The short video above, from Jan-Emmanuel de Neve of LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, shows how what David Cameron once called GWB (general wellbeing) gets left behind by GDP (gross domestic product – a measure of the overall economic fortunes of the nation). Cameron did say back in 2006 that GWB was the more important measure, but something tells me he may be tempted to forget that in the run up to the election. The economy is growing at last (three years later than advertised) but people’s wellbeing will take even longer to recover. There are many reasons for that, but partly it’s about the good old loss aversion effect.

Lagging behind. Lance Armstrong stopped at nothing to nobble his opponents.
Lagging behind. The guy in the black shirt really has no chance of winning the Giro d’Italia – fundamentally wrong approach to cycling there. I’m sure his wellbeing score’s going to suffer.

A period of hardship has a much bigger impact psychologically upon the people affected than is allowed for by traditional ‘rational actor’ economic theory. The lazy assumption used to be that if a country grew its GDP over the long term, that was effectively the same as growing the wellbeing of its people. Feelings of wellbeing do generally rise when GDP rises, that much is true; but there is an important caveat to how the two interrelate. It’s about how we experience – and subsequently regard – periods of loss.

As de Neve explains, measures of wellbeing show it taking a relatively big, lingering hit from even small recessions. Wellbeing sinks further than the economy does in the bad times. Psychologically we are knocked for six. And when the economy picks up and starts to grow, we are slow to follow.

Not much to show for 6 years in the gym
Not much to show for 6 years in the gym

Unlike pounds and pence, we have feelings, memories and experiences. These move to a different rhythm than the economic cycle. By the time the next recession hits, “wellbeing” may have only managed to claw its way back up to square one again.

So the link between GDP and wellbeing is not about the overall trend – it’s about the frequency of the dips, those reminders of our frailty and vulnerability. We are haunted by memories of how bad things have been and how bad they could be again. Why are we like this? Well, it makes sense.

Having to cope with negative events engages you. You face up to truths and make changes. You want to make sure you’ll be better prepared next time. Not to do so is to leave yourself vulnerable. So you see to the defences first; only when you are safe can you start to relax. In football terms, we tend to be much more like George Graham than Mario Zagallo: the beautiful game has to wait until the defence is sorted out.

Macbeth yesterday
Macbeth yesterday

Macbeth achieved his ambitions, only to find it impossible to enjoy what he thought he wanted (“To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus …”). OK, so we haven’t all murdered our way to the Scottish throne – at least I don’t think I have.

Iain Dowie: wordsmith
Iain Dowie: wordsmith

But I wonder if there isn’t something we can do to let our wellbeing recover more quickly from the setbacks of economic slumps. Shakespeare didn’t have a word for it, but Iain Dowie, the former manager of Crystal Palace, did: bouncebackability.

A book I’m reading, Professor Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design, offers a way. Dolan defines happiness as “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time” (my italics). Wellbeing, says Dolan, isn’t about how we think, it’s about what we do. Perhaps our recovery can be speeded up if we have a sense of wellbeing less exposed to the buffeting of economic winds and based more upon the people and activities that have meaning for us. After all, money – and GDP for that matter – is only ever a means to another end.

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