The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Gospel according to Bill

Here's a little quiz. Wendy Gordon, Colleen Ryan, John Rose, Chris Payne, Roddy Glen, Peter Cooper, Prosper Riley-Smith, Anne Ward, Mo Ressler, Sue Phillips, Ernest Dichter, Mickey Mouse. What's the connection?

All ex or current AQRP committee members? Close. All have been tutors on AQRP courses? Nearly. All extremely rich? No doubt. The real connection is that they have all worked with the man who is credited with importing qualitative research to the UK some 40 years ago ­ Bill Schlackman.

To celebrate this anniversary, the AQRP invited Bill ­ now retired to a paradise island off the coast of Florida, hence the Mickey Mouse relationship ­ to speak post-AGM.

Being enough of an old fart to have heard of him, but (I flatter myself) young enough not to have crossed paths, I was curious to meet the man who has to take some responsibility for the fact that I now scratch a living in this noble trade.

Bill made no claim to be up to date with current thinking, so he gave us an entrancing stand up performance of anecdotes about the early history and principles of our profession. 'The Jackie Mason of qualitative research', as Chris Payne dubbed him.

Listening to Bill, I realised that ­ over the years ­ I must have absorbed a good deal of his thinking without fully appreciating its source. Hearing it from the original, rather than filtered through the interpretations and modifications of his many protégés, was both invigorating and inspiring.

He proposed the idea that people don't mean what they say or say what they mean. The idea that we should interview ourselves before we interview others. The idea that we need to challenge our own motivations for conducting an interview. The idea that we, as researchers, need to develop our own hypotheses first.

The idea that direct questioning is not enough, that we need projective techniques to uncover guarded and repressed motivations. The idea that the point of all this is to apply the insights in a practical way to the client's business. Above all, the idea that we are engaged in a creative process and that "the most important skill we can offer our clients is our creativity."

None of this is as revolutionary now as it was 40 years ago, but it is good to be reminded just the same. The underlying message was, nonetheless, challenging. The gospel according to Bill Schlackman is a liberating one: we should not be afraid of bringing ourselves into the work we do. Our role is not objectivity, but insight and creativity.

This creed can, of course, go badly pear shaped, as it did for the granddaddy of all qualitative research ­ Ernest Dichter. Schlackman learned at Dichter's knee and regarded him as brilliantly creative, but flawed. Unfortunately, Dichter was so impressed by his own ideas that he forgot to listen to the consumer at all.

Corporate America lost faith in motivational research partly as a result of being 'Dichterised', as they called it. Nestlé once said to Dichter: "We're not going to use your research any more .You tell us the same thing at the end as you tell us at the beginning, so why should we pay for what is in the middle?"

While this damaged the credibility of qualitative research in the US, Bill felt that, on this side of the pond, we have suffered from the opposite problem ­ not being creative enough. In his view, qualitative research in the 70s and 80s was weakened by an increasing reliance on direct questioning rather than projectives, and by the introduction of new tiers of research management which restricted access to senior people within client organisations, hence: "The higher the level at which you operate, the greater the opportunity to make a creative contribution."

Given the time that Bill has been out of the game, the fact that so much of what he said was relevant and fresh today is testimony to the strength of the fundamental thinking. However, things have moved on. Schlackman's vision is of a world of naïve respondents, a passive resource that needs to be given the tools to express themselves.

Forty years on, people are much more marketing and advertising literate. They are much more aware of a brand's clothing and the moves we make. They are also able to articulate sophisticated marketing concepts. As a result, we are able to converse at a more explicit and equal level than may have been the case a few decades ago. This makes some things easier, but it also makes it even harder to break through the accepted wisdom and over rationalisation which block creativity.

Any ideas Bill?

 

Alastair Burns
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 1999