FEATURE23 November 2018

Methodology in context: understanding culture

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Insights professionals gathered at the MRS Methodology in Context conference yesterday ( 22 November) to discuss different approaches to understanding people’s behaviour. Here, we take a look at a mixed-method observational approach, a strategy for researching trendsetters and how one company approaches inclusive research. By Katie McQuater.

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Merging semiotics with digital media analysis

William Landell Mills, director at Amaranth Insight, and Preriit Souda of PSA Consultants partnered to bring together two very different methodologies – semiotics and social media analysis – to establish how Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May express semiotic meanings within the UK political domain and then look at how those meanings are resonating with the public.

“There’s a growing understanding that there is a fruitful union between the two methodologies,” said Landell Mills. “What you have with digital media analysis is the ability to very cheaply acquire huge datasets, but the question you have is ‘what does it mean?’, whereas semiotics is very good at understanding patterns of meaning.”

Firstly, Landell Mills used a semiotic square model to look at all of the different meanings within the UK’s political landscape and how Corbyn and May express these. The dominant codes for politicians were:

  • Managerial competence – relating to professionalism and decisiveness
  • Authentic decency – codes of ‘Britishness’, for instance, coming from a small village and being polite
  • Human progress – relating to the youth, activism and diversity
  • National preservation – codes economic nationalism, patriotism and traditionalism.

Souda then extracted data from millions of comments made online about the two politicians, drawn from data sources including social media, media sites, political forums and search behaviours. After mapping the unstructured political landscape – everything talked about in UK politics in past 12 months – they superimposed the semiotics narratives on the digital media to identify what narratives are resonating for Corbyn and May.

Assessing ‘leading edge’ consumers

CrowdDNA’s Matilda Andersson and Roberta Graham shared their approach to conducting research with ‘leading edge’ consumers – the trailblazers setting the agenda – to aid commercial innovation strategies.

Andersson addressed some of the fears and misconceptions around this type of research – that it’s not representative, it’s just ‘cool hunting’ with hipsters and doesn’t predict trends mainstream culture.

Those conducting this type of research must be aware that these are not typical consumers, added Graham. “These people are innovators and creators – use that in your project rather than treating them like mainstream consumers. Treat them as trusted advisors, as if the relationship feels reciprocal, and you will get a lot more from them.”

Of course, not all leading edge behaviours trickle down to the mainstream; Andersson cited the ‘tiny house’ movement, much prophesised in trends reports. “What’s interesting is what those drivers and aspirations tell us about the future of the mainstream – e.g. the desire for fluidity or for a more nomadic life.” This could apply to increased numbers of people renting and not remaining in one place for too long. “Sometimes it’s the brand’s role to help leading edge’s aspirations be more accessible to the mainstream.”

However, brands need to ensure the behaviours identified in ‘leading edgers’ are rooted in real human needs – if not, “you are likely to be doing innovation for the sake of innovation,” said Andersson.

CrowdDNA uses semiotics to analyse its findings within a wider context to allow more understanding from ‘weak signs’ and find out where they sit within current cultural movement, which ones are worth looking at and which should be left behind.

An inclusive approach

Marie-Claude Gervais, founder of Versiti, outlined how researchers need to think differently when making their work inclusive of a diverse set of respondents. Discussing a project with Macmillan Cancer Support to better understand the experience of those living with cancer in three groups: LGBT, minorities and those aged over 65.

“If you work around diversity and inclusion, you have to be prepared to have a whole new set of conversations with your clients. They may not see the business case for it,” said Gervais.

While qualitative research was clearly the right approach for this work, the researchers did not want to conduct focus groups as they were aware that doing so would add pressure to people with cancer, who may not feel well enough to attend, so the approach they took was an online community lasting two months.

Researchers conducting work with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups – a moniker Gervais suggests shifting to ‘seldom-heard’ to switch the onus from the participants to the researchers – should prepare for ‘oppositional readings’, she said. “These are people who have been excluded, so many will start from a position of distrust. Be prepared for dealing with some of the stick and work out counter arguments and sound justifications.”

Gervais also highlighted the importance of understanding historical and socio-economic contexts when working with diverse groups of people. For instance, LGBT groups may face heteronormative assumptions from well-meaning doctors, early diagnosis of cancer is less likely for people of ethnic minorities, and older people are less likely to ask questions of their doctor and just trust that he or she ‘knows best’. 

Also at the conference, a panel discussion explored the role of unconscious bias in business decision-making.