OPINION16 July 2018

Data from the front line – research in Indonesia

Asia Pacific Opinion Trends

Indonesia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but researchers must understand its religious heritage, complex geography and cultural divides before embarking on projects there. By Greg Clayton.


For many, the mental panorama of Indonesia fails to stretch further than Balinese beaches, Hindu temples and Javanese massages. And although some may recognise Indonesia’s more obscure features, such as its spectacular volcanoes and incredible biodiversity, few are aware that the archipelago is home to the largest Muslim population anywhere in the world.

In fact, 87.18% of the total population are Muslim; that equates to 227.3 million people, or more than the combined Muslim populations of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Indonesia’s economic potential is frankly mind blowing, and the central role that Islam plays in its identity should not be underestimated by Western researchers.

The strong presence of Islam means there are certain practicalities to consider when conducting research in Indonesia. Interviews, for example, must be scheduled around prayer time, product testing must always include halal testers, and research should be avoided during the month of Ramadan, when respondents are hungry, thirsty and most likely not in the mood for repetitive questioning. Likewise, researchers should be culturally sensitive when making home visits – dressing modestly, avoiding flashy or revealing garments and remembering to give the Muslim greeting – assalamualaikum.

But perhaps contrary to the perceptions of a predominantly Muslim country, and possibly highlighting Indonesia’s more moderate embrace of Islam, is the fact that gender considerations are relatively trivial. Much as in the West, we wouldn’t expect a male moderator to try to derive insight from women about female-specific topics, but beyond this gender segregation is not a concern – and unrecognisable from countries with more conservative interpretations of Islam.

And although the presence of Islam is widespread, it doesn’t mean that minority groups should be overlooked. In specific areas such as Palembang, the relatively small but wealthy Chinese population is heavily influential in business, even though it struggles to impact political life because of discrimination. Research by Kadence has even highlighted that Islamic Indonesians are often relaxed about the religion of their leaders – as long as they’re not Chinese. But given their relative wealth, Indonesian Chinese are an important commercial (and therefore research) target. However, care needs to be taken during fieldwork not to isolate Chinese amongst groups of native Indonesians, or vice versa, as their contributions will be hampered by their minority status and different cultural frameworks.

Along with different minority groups, the variety of languages spoken in Indonesia means local moderation is essential. While the majority of Indonesians speak Bahasa, there are a total of 726 languages spoken throughout the archipelago. And in a melting pot city like Jakarta, where Indonesians flock in search of ‘the Indonesian dream’, respondents regularly slip into their own local dialect – and so a linguistically gifted moderator is essential to pick up on the nuances.

Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is a metropolitan city, and many research agencies choose to base their offices there. But, brands should be aware of the problems involved with restricting research projects to Jakarta alone. Like any melting pot city, it has its own distinct identity and is certainly not representative of Indonesia as a whole.

However, when conducting research outside of the city, it’s important to remember that local research infrastructure, such as recruitment agencies, can be limited, so field supervisors often need to be flown in from Jakarta to assure quality when completing research away from the city.

Indonesia remains difficult to explore geographically, even in urban areas, where intense traffic means that it can take hours to travel just a few kilometres. And despite budget airlines making travel within the region increasingly accessible in recent years, the country’s vast area, complex topography and under-developed infrastructure means researchers must often take long car journeys even after arriving at local airports to get to the rural areas they need to reach. So, make sure your phone is charged and that your car has a localised WiFi spot – you may as well drag the productivity from those exhaust fumes.

A strong cultural understanding is necessary for research in any market, but researchers looking to explore Indonesia in particular should be aware of how the country’s religious heritage, complex geography and cultural divides impact research. Whilst the industry may still be in its infancy across Indonesia, the future could not be brighter – accelerating the economic development of the largest Muslim population in the world.

Greg Clayton is managing director of Kadence International