OPINION19 January 2017

How to make the most of our lives ‘on the road’

Opinion Travel UK

Travel is a fact of life for many researchers and Jigsaw Research’s Peter Totman discusses how that travel mind-set can affect the quality of the research. 

Whether you are a qualitative researcher working in an agency or on the client-side, you’ve probably learned (the hard, long) way that Focus Vision is a pale imitation of the ‘live’ fieldwork experience. There is no real substitute for actually being there.  Travel then is part of our lives. I feel a little ambivalent about this. Business travel often feels like a privilege, but at other times like a heavy burden (Saturday evening in BA lounge terminal 5 IS the loneliest place in the world).  

But as travel is a fact of life we might as well embrace it – and I believe the spirit in which we travel can make a difference to research effectiveness. When I talk about ‘how‘ we should travel I am not talking about BA Vs Virgin (although would love to have that conversation another time). I mean the attitude or approach we adopt to the travel, the mind-set, persona, mode …call it what you will.  In a sense it is less a case of how we travel than who should we be when we are travelling?  

There are recognisable cultural models of travel to tap into – three models come to mind that have different levels of relevance and resonance to international qualitative travel.

The backpacker model

I don’t, of course, mean backpackers per se but the sort of traveller who emphasises authenticity and an active and direct ‘experiencing’ of the culture. Originating in the counter culture of the 60’s and epitomised by Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, this model has gone mainstream and the current cultural manifestation is probably Airbnb.

As researchers there is much we can borrow from this model. We need to understand as much of the local culture as we can if we are to understand the context of what we hear in the back room. We also need a large dose of that backpacker mentality to counteract the pressure of the tyrannical fieldwork schedule.

Without conscious effort it is too easy to fall into autopilot, rushing directly from the destination airport to facility backroom. The backroom is truly (and in the worse possible sense) an international place entirely separate from the surrounding culture. Once ‘locked’ inside, it is only too easy to lose track of what country you are in. 

We owe it to the project, the client and ourselves to do things differently. So how can we apply some of the characteristics of the backpacker model to help us resist this default? Partly it’s simply a matter of keeping your eyes open and your head up and your mobile phone off. But there are other things we can do to absorb a little bit of the authentic culture in digestible ‘between group’ chunks. 

  • Read a book about the country on the plane. Going to Moscow? Pick up a copy of Natasha’s Dance. Novels work for me too as they situate the individual in the culture – it doesn’t have to be Dostoevsky, popular culture can be just as revealing
  • Tap into the knowledge of the interpreter –often overlooked, they can be an invaluable resource of cultural insight – and they really appreciate the courtesy of being brought into the conversation
  • Try and fit in one cultural experience per visit. Ask the local agency or interpreter to suggest something that somehow captures the place.

However, this model is not all good, there are things we should challenge within it. The Backpack ‘traveller’ mentality brings limitations as well as opportunities. If you think about the archetypal Kerouac hero, they often journey to find out about themselves not the places they visit. There is an underlying egocentricity, even solipsism discernible. Their quest for authenticity can be a little narrow minded in execution too.

They often reserve their willingness to understand and learn solely for markedly different cultures. It is easy to assume that the more Western a culture is the less you need to try and understand it. Or if the language is shared then you may even begin to act as if you are part of the culture (or, worse, the culture is part of you.

So rather than go to Tokyo and just revel in the ‘exhilarating alienness’, look for points of unity too. When in New Jersey actively seek differences – on a recent trip to New Jersey the novels of Richard Ford really helped me see the area in a new light.

the tourist model

This approach seeks immediate, contained and limited cultural experience, while ensuring some of the comforts of ‘home’.

The superficial view of the tourist, the ‘tick box, seeing the sites’ and then quickly moving on is clearly not something we want to emulate. However, there are elements of the model that we need to admit are important to us as human beings, not researchers.

We all need a sense of security that tourists value. Once in Mexico City I took great but guilty comfort in a morning visit to Starbucks. I needed to recharge my batteries – and the haven of familiarity in the bustle of such an alien metropolis did just that.

Keeping in contact with home, family and friends is also an important source of comfort on longer trips. In addition, once within the café I became aware of the presence of an armed guard…in Starbucks! The twist on the familiar was a powerful way of experiencing the difference.

The tourist model also involves a willingness to listen… think of all those tour groups with their focus on every word their guide utters. The model acknowledges the expertise of others – and reminds us that we are there to listen as well as interrogate. We need to listen ‘in the backroom’, to our partner agency and the translators ‘cultural interpretation’. There is a humility within the tourist mindset.

the business traveller

I would characterise, perhaps caricature this model as task-focused, taking ‘the office’ with them and bent on reward-point accrual. Ring any bells?

I have to work hard to avoid travelling in this way. The only thing worse than an airport lounge …is not being able to access the airport lounge. The narrow determination of the business traveller is an object lesson in what to avoid. The risk is the scheduled focus overtakes everything else. This is not the way to engage in the broader culture. Or to travel. Or even to live. A model useful then in showing us what to avoid?

Not quite so fast. The business traveller values relationships and is often travelling primarily to create and develop these. We need to understand that our international research partners are vital relationships. The more we work together and get to know each other, the better the experience – and the quality. That means creating a relationship that continues even when there is no ‘live’ project. Instead we should focus on creating an enduring relationship, for example, sharing information and ideas between projects.

It is only too easy to allow the conversation on the other side of the mirror to become completely separated from the broader culture. Reflecting on how we travel and ‘who we are’ when we travel can help us keep on the right track – and make sure we get more out of trip than just air miles. 

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