Observational Research Nurtures a Growing Interest in Contexts

With a lot of discussion about new methods of observation among qualitative researchers – in-the-moment mobile research and the like – it is terrific to witness an increasing appreciation of broader contexts. This perspective embraces the idea thatcomplexity of context individual behavior and thought are not so easily and singularly confined to any one moment in time. One could argue that it is because of this new-found obsession with observation that many researchers have come to discover – as if for the first time – the essential role that context plays in our qualitative studies. In this way, observational research – a method often bypassed for focus groups and other qualitative methods in the past – has led the research community into what is becoming a growing and healthy dialogue concerning the contextual nature of being human. Here are just four contributors to the dialogue that have recently come my attention:

An interview with Christian Madsbjerg at ReD Associates appears in the September 2014 issue of Marketing News – “What it Means to be Human” by Elisabeth A. Sullivan. In it, Madsbjerg asserts that “people are different from the way that we research them,” emphasizing the point that “the respondent is not a person” but rather “an ecology of people, a culture of people” that includes friends, family, work life, and other facets of who they are. So, while he is a strong supporter of observing people’s lives, Madsbjerg is equally interested in the totality of the “phenomenon” – the various contextual components – under study. This might lead, for example, to a technique he calls “breaching” whereby research participants agree to do without their smartphones so that researchers can look at how smartphone users adapt their everyday lives sans smartphone, which allows researchers to learn more deeply about the “hidden familiarity” of the smartphone-use cultural phenomenon.

If you are an ESOMAR member, you are probably familiar with the association’s custom of granting a free download of a conference paper to members on their birthday. It was recently mine and I took the opportunity to download the 2012 paper, “Research in a World Without Questions” by Tom Ewing (BrainJuicer® now System1 Group) and Bob Pankauskas (Allstate Insurance, now at Brakethrough Research). As the title suggests, the authors stress the importance of research methods that focus on what people do rather than “what they say they do”; however, the title is a bit misleading in that they are not really advocating for “a world without questions” but instead a world without direct questions to research participants (e.g., opting instead for psychoanalytic or projective techniques). Like Madsbjerg, Ewing and Pankauskas are interested in investigating the “hidden triggers” that lurk behind the purchase decision-making process, including the “interventions that change the context of the decisions.” The authors go further to discuss how to investigate “near context” (e.g., in-the-moment environment) and “far context” (e.g., cultural and social influences) in ways that enable researchers to “get into your customer’s world” without direct questioning.

Dawnel Volzke recently wrote a thoughtful article discussing sensory ethnography referencing Sarah Pink’s book Doing Sensory Ethnography. Volzke uses her own work as a nurse to talk about the importance of techniques in the patient-nurse environment that go beyond observation and direct questions to amplify the patient’s contextual meaning. Taking from Pink, Volzke states that “capturing and presenting sensory information in the most truthful and complete manner will aid in understanding of individuals, situations, and cultures.” She touches on important concepts discussed throughout Research Design Review, particularly interviewer bias and the idea of reflexivity –

“I find that I am much more able to ‘do sensory ethnography’ when I slow down and take the time to properly assess people and situations. My bias and assumptions need to be set aside, and I must seek to truly sense the truth about the object that I am studying. My view must be both broad and detailed, and my account to others must embody the truest picture possible.”

And finally, a recent blog post from Jeffrey Henning – “From Market Researcher to Customer Experience Leader – reports on a case study presented at this month’s Corporate Research Conference in Chicago by Neal Kreitman of OneMain Financial. Henning talks about how Kreitman went beyond satisfaction research data to gain insightful knowledge of the “optimal customer experience” by immersing the organization in qualitative research, including focus groups and observation. Similar to Madsbjerg’s contextual “phenomenon,” Kreitman and his team used inversion techniques to truly understand the customer’s “journey” from the customer’s, not the company’s, point of view. In this way, OneMain was able to adopt a “customer-centric vision of what the [customer] experience actually was, rather than what the process was supposed to be.”

Context is everything, we know that. And it is encouraging to think that the otherwise too-simplistic in-the-moment observational craze is leading researchers to think more carefully about incorporating contextual meaning – humanity – into their research designs.

Image captured from: http://www.icr.ac.uk/news-features/latest-features/mel-greaves-science-writer-of-the-year-2013/unravelling-the-complexity-of-cancer


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