FEATURE1 August 2011

Hear me out: Researchers must learn from The Wire

Luke Perry of Jigsaw Research argues that researchers need to spend some quality time with a box set of the US crime drama.


What’s the big idea?
The Wire, the brilliant US crime drama, can teach us all a great deal about life and the universe in general – but it has some particularly interesting insights for researchers.

You’re suggesting we watch TV when we could be poring over spreadsheets?
This wasn’t just any TV show. It’s an intricately woven story about police tackling a criminal drug cartel in Baltimore, the murder capital of the US.

What’s that got to do with us?
Well, this 21st century law and order conundrum produces two different approaches to solving the problem. The first is called ‘dope on the table’. Essentially it is about breaking down doors and busting heads to sweep up the lower-level street dealers and seize their drug stashes. This produces lots of arrests and a reasonable haul of narcotics. The drugs are then put on display for the local media to photograph both the seizure and the self-congratulatory smiles of senior Baltimore police basking in the credit of yet another so-called success. But the reality is that the results are superficial. No real progress is made in the war on drugs and normal service levels are soon resumed on the corners.

OK. And the other approach?
Use wire taps. This involves a deeper, ongoing investigation to build a holistic picture, a jigsaw in which all the pieces matter. This involves a careful observation of behaviour, meticulous data-gathering using the best technology on offer and analysis of this information to give insight into the workings of the criminal empire. The investigators begin to understand the patterns underlying the criminals’ actions and can anticipate their next move. This type of investigation requires more time, dedicated resources and above all more patience from senior police officers and the judiciary who sign off the use of the wire tap. Results are not instantaneous, but when they come their impact is more strategic, allowing the war on drugs to take a real step forward.

Fascinating. But you still haven’t mentioned research.
The point is, we face a similar choice between competing approaches in research.

The pressure to deliver immediate results and move the needle for the marketer can sometimes lead to snapshot research, delivering an incomplete, low-level picture. Tactical results are achieved, dope on the table-style, but they are short-term.

Another way is to go for something that is more longitudinal, more holistic, which puts behaviour first, observing and tracking it, and taking the time to really analyse what is happening, in order to draw bigger conclusions. Perhaps having greater patience and courage to carry out the deeper investigation may reel in our own and our clients’ ‘kingpin’, whatever that may turn out to be.

Of course, in The Wire the situation was never that straightforward, and many aspects of the investigation failed for two reasons: a lack of sponsorship and support from senior management, and the elusive nature of a higher order of criminal, who at the end of it all was still at large, ready to ally themselves with the next Baltimore drug lord.

So what have we learned?
That longitudinal research can provide deeper analysis and larger conclusions, but support from senior management remains decisive. And although we will make great progress in understanding human behaviour, there will still be something else we need to capture.

What box set do you recommend researchers watch when they’re done with The Wire?
The Wire.

What? Again?
Of course. You’ll miss at least 30% of what is said the first time watching due to the ‘authentic’ dialogue. But the main reason is that we should always revisit the data and immerse ourselves in its meaning at least twice over, avoiding snap judgements.

This article is based on a post from the Jigsaw Research blog