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Beyond parent, adult and child

Quallies tend to take transactional analysis for granted, but maybe it's time for a rethink

In qualitative research, Transactional Analysis (TA) is known as a tool for interpretation. Ego States (Adult, Parent and Child1) and transactions (the unit of communication) are useful for reading dynamics between consumer and products/brands or for understanding dynamics when moderating groups.

To view TA in this way is to pigeonhole it as a rather ‘static’ approach. It’s used as a ‘one-way’ process, as if it were merely a tool for understanding contexts. I’d like to argue the case for shifting to a more active use of TA, using it to improve relationships with clients and respondents. TA provides a specific theory for organisations — which is not yet generally well known. This dictates that any type of consultancy and intervention is influenced by three tiers of variables. The boundary of each level is well defined, and communication between levels is affected by the extent to which they are kept open or closed.

The first is the ‘Macro-social’ level: this is the cultural and social environment where a consultant lives and works. Consumers, or respondents, belong to this level

The second is the ‘Macro-organisation’ level: this encompasses the identity, culture and leadership specific to each organisation. Research agencies and companies belong here.

The third is the ‘Micro-social’ level: it concerns dynamics within an organisation’s units. When a consultant begins to work with a company, he or she leaves their ‘Macro-organisation’ level to enter another. This temporary client/researcher partnership creates a ‘new organism’, a new ‘macro- organisation’, which has to define its own rules /values to co-operate and work.

The peculiarity of QL research is that this new organism doesn’t work only on internal issues. It opens its boundaries to move towards the macro-social and meet consumers. The presence of respondents is the third variable, which makes QL Research different from any other type of consultancy.

Researchers are comfortable in this situation. They are trained to discover consumers’ worlds and be part of a ‘new organism’ with their clients. In TA terms, their Adult ego state is well engaged, their Child is curious, and their Parent approves.

Clients have to venture outside their familiar boundaries and face their own consumers. Their Child feels in danger, and their Parent can react by criticising results and weakening Adult Ego State realistic perception. Clients may, as a result, leave the ‘new organism’, and keep their ‘micro-social’ boundary sealed to any message from both consumers and researchers.

Respondents are well aware that a market researcher always has a client company in the background. This client never materialises, though, and seems an ‘unspoken presence’. The respondents’ Child feels cheated, knowing any comment will be important for the client company ‘ghost’. Their Parent feels offended by a lack of respect and begins to dominate the Adult logical approach. Respondents may look forthcoming, but end up communicating from their Adapted Child, either compliant or rebellious. They close their boundaries and make it difficult for researchers to establish real contact with them.

TA philosophy aims to establish a mutually respectful relationship, so as to build a functional partnership. This is why TA is a ‘contractual analysis’: each intervention is based on an explicit, bilateral agreement between the parties about what they expect to happen.

Using TA, a QL researcher can clarify his role and aim at more effective relationships through the contract- making process, working to keep boundaries open. With respondents, moderators can form a contract by openly proclaiming their ‘temporary’ partnership with a client. They could describe their role as a consultant in a ‘neutral’ position, interested in knowing respondents’ opinions so as to better answer their client’s questions but without being involved in the company’s strategies. This stance allows them to establish trusting relationships where respondents can feel emotionally at ease, and answer much more freely. The one-way mirror is still present but the researcher openly mediates the contact with clients — sounding powerful and protecting.

With clients, any consultant can use a contract to establish relationships based on mutual understanding, and stimulate an open discussion on concerns and expectations. In QL research, the contract making process helps take the project beyond the declared objectives. It allows the consultant to establish a broader picture of what the moderator can probe in the group and the type of information expected by the client. This approach allows client and researcher to actually define the ‘new organism’ and creates an open communication within and outside it.

Taking the chance to use TA more actively is a way to define a successful intervention and create a more fruitful liaison between supplier and buyer.


Susanna Cesarini
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006