John Griffiths has some good thoughts on the future structure of market research - it’s inspired me to try a similarly ambitious post expanding on something I mentioned yesterday: the idea that the framing approaches in research next decade will be two semi-opposed schools of thought - the “humanists” and the “determinists”.
What do I mean by this? The humanists, broadly speaking, think that letting participants interact creates more powerful insights, better ideas and tools, and more accurate results than measuring and aggregating individual response. Their philosophy is one of ceding control to participants - listening more than asking - and their favourite books might include The Tipping Point, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and Here Comes Everybody. Tools favoured on the humanist side might include crowdsourcing, co-creativity, online communities, ethnography.
The determinist school of thought, on the other hand, doubts - or at least plays down - the relevance of individual autonomy in favour of stressing either subconscious or mass behaviour. Their philosophy is to understand and act on the patterns of behaviour that participants would have no possible means of reporting and understanding. their reading list might include Buyology and Philip Ball’s Critical Mass. Tools favoured on the determinist side might include neuroscience, social network analysis, behavioural modelling and applied semiotics.
These sides as I’ve defined them are only semi opposed. What they agree on is that a limit of usefulness for the individual data point has been reached. Self-reported data on an individual level is worthless, or close to it: it rarely reflects behaviour, and anyhow we don’t act or react as individuals, we interact within networks.
But what they disagree on is the implications of this for “the participant”. The humanists preach participant engagement - outsourcing more and more of the research activity to the participants themselves. The determinists - though they might not say as much openly - are more about participant extinction. Understand how the network, the mass, the herd, the species and its cognitive processes works and you replace research.
It’s a choice, in fact, between what participants create and what creates participants.
This disagreement won’t prevent both approaches becoming essential tools. Future market researchers - they might or might not be called that - will be specialists in an area or a sub-area, but they’ll need a working knowledge of all the other stuff, and how to fuse the implications and insights they get out of it. You might draw a parallel between this and the uneasy, co-operative but adversarial relationship qualitative and quantitative research have had in the pre-network age. Certainly the basic skills of qual and quant - and especially the rigour of their best practitioners - will continue to be of immense use. But the principles they’ve operated on are crumbling.