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Material Matters

Things are never just things. Materiality matters for market research, argue Simon Blyth and Simon Roberts.

We all want to be 'creative', don't we? Have you ever reflected on how creative you are yourself, whether at home or at work? Do you aspire to be more creative as a qualitative researcher and if so, what does it mean?

Drawing on recent developments in social theory, we will argue the need to reinstate 'the missing masses' into qualitative market research. Raiding the library, we will appropriate a selection of concepts, debates and ideas which prompt a wide-ranging re-assessment for the practice and profession of qualitative market research.

An ability to know the consumer is the source of the qualitative researcher's expertise and authority. We do fieldwork with people and our data sources are largely spoken or textual. What's important for us is how people use, display or, for that matter, ignore things. Rarely, if ever, do we focus on the product, stuff or thing. In any event, things can't talk, be interviewed or take part in group discussions and thus avail themselves to the qualitative researcher. Right?

Not quite. Within sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and Science and Technology Studies (STS), this blind focus on the consumer or, more accurately, humans, is coming under intense scrutiny. What has in the past been considered beyond 'social explanation', namely material objects, things or stuff, is today forming the basis of journal articles, books and PhDs. Everything, these authors contend, is sociologically interesting. Material things like the motor car, computer, hotel key fob and car seat belts can be socially explained or described in ways that provide new insights into consumer worlds.

We aim to provide a brief overview of this literature. We have made a necessarily ruthless selection of ideas and concepts, to sketch out what they might mean for the practice of qualitative market research. Our aim is simple: to return the missing masses to qual research.

Discriminating against things

Life is quite unimaginable without things. Mundane objects often go unnoticed (thereby making them 'difficult' research subjects) but they also work to structure our daily lives. Yet while they have a dramatic impact on our lives, things appear as somewhat separate from the social world. This separation is further entrenched through the practices of qualitative research and can be illustrated as follows:

Brands, though material (your BMW sits on your drive), are thoroughly social (a BMW has a brand personality, values, etc). The distinction between material and social is not absolute. Common sense suggests that brands do not necessarily exist merely in the social world of consumers. The weighty tangibility of a Nikon camera and the design and finish of Apple's products implies that a brand experience can reside in the 'thing'. This is hardly contentious.

The market research industry's obsession with the consumer, or what we've come to call consumercentrism, is largely explained through its academic heritage in the social sciences, (psychology, sociology, philosophy and anthropology) rather than the material ones. Likewise, the qualitative market research industry, through its practice of focusing on people, continues to deepen the distinction between the material and the social:

  • People buy the 'stuff' that clients make. We are interested in their relationship with, attitudes to, experience of and opinions about this stuff

  • But the 'stuff' is the client's job and they know more about 'stuff' than us

  • Insights on 'stuff' can only come through talking to or observing people.

Or that's the official story. In everyday conversation we mix our metaphors, swap categories and merge common distinctions between humans and non-humans: we curse the temperamental computer or stubborn printer. In our research practices the same blurring is evident. Qualitative researchers regularly ask consumers to anthropomorphise objects, to instil and animate them with human qualities and characteristics (eg brand personality exercises). So, in talking about inanimate entities, such as brands or products, we ask consumers to 'socialise' them first.

This tendency to socialise things in order to make them comprehensible leads us to three conclusions. First, socialising things makes them comprehensible and knowable. Second, it is not hard to do. Thirdly, something might be gained from an approach to objects that goes beyond asking "do they function correctly?" Objects are not as objective (outside the realm of the social) as we might like to think.

Socialising things is step one in restoring the missing masses to qualitative research. But it still continues to construct people, consumers, as active agents, and objects as inanimate things to be acted upon. It's now time to end such blatant discrimination against things.

Key Ideas

Here are some key ideas and concepts.

Social lives and social things

As anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues (The Social Life of Things, 1986), things can provide a fascinating way in to understand social and cultural worlds.

"Even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context."

Researching 'things' is a back door to understanding people. In Harvey Molotch's book, anthropologist of consumption Danny Miller puts it thus: "objects are social relations made durable." From a straightforward research perspective it is worth remembering that simple, everyday objects within the home remind people of loved ones, memories, places and their values and identity. They tell wider stories about a culture and an individual's sense of place within it. If, as researchers, we attend a little more to the material environment of consumers, we may learn a lot more about their social and cultural contexts.

Configuring the user

If we think of objects (a car or computer, say) less as isolated objects that we do things to, and more as objects that have complex relations with other entities, with the ability to shape the way they are used, we can see how these things can 'configure the user' (Woolgar, 1991). The car is connected to road networks, supply chains of fuel, systems of control (licensing and tax) and at the same time the design of cars implies specific driver types (able bodied and agile). Cars, in turn, create certain driving modes and experiences. We would challenge, therefore, the extent to which the 'driving experience' is purely a social experience in the mind of the driver. Rather, it relies on a socio-technical network.

Socio-technical change

Anyone remember the headline: 'Bolivian Boffin Heralds Internet Breakthrough Set to Change the Future of Mankind'? Probably not this particular example, but it may sound strangely familiar. We want to put to work this caricature of how and where objects and technologies are developed and their impact upon people and society, to introduce new ways of thinking about the relationship between people and things.

The first thing to note in our fictitious headline is the distinction between technology or things and people, that technologies once developed are let loose on society and result in social change. Second, note the implication that technologies are the result of single-minded technological or scientific endeavour.

To take the first issue, the example of our Bolivian Boffin relates to well-rehearsed debates or, as some might put it, 'moral panics', associated with new technological innovations. For example, the internet heralds the demise of the high street. History and common sense tell us that such technological determinism, the view that "technology impinges on society from outside of society" (MacKenzie, Wajcman, 1985), is far too simplistic an explanation of social change. Technology and objects do have an impact, but so do economic, cultural and political conditions. We tend to think too much about the impact of technology on society and not enough about the impact of society on technology.

Designers consume. Consumers design

Now for the second observation from our Bolivian Boffin example: the development and innovation of 'things' is often represented as an isolated process (the 'boffin' in the laboratory). Such development is, however, more social than such accounts suggest and may result from a conversation at the canteen, information exchanged through professional bodies, or via reward structures and the social organisation of a business. In short, social processes are key to the very genesis of things to the extent that, as STS writers argue, it makes little sense to split the social from the technical or material. The development of most products or technologies is an iterative process, between designer and user; consumers shape technologies and technologies shape consumers in a 'context warping whirl'. The claim that the technological is never just technological but social (and vice versa) lies at the heart of the idea of path dependency.


Path dependency describes how past events continue to influence things. For example, consider the qwerty keyboard, the one you're likely to have sitting on your desk. It doesn't dominate due to its efficiency or ease of use. The arrangement of its keys was designed to minimise the frequency with which mechanical typewriters became jammed. Even though this imperative is now obsolete, the arrangement remains.

Chicken or egg?

If social relations impact on technology and objects and technologies also influence social relations, are we in danger of collapsing into a chicken or egg argument? Enter the STS writers such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and Madeleine Akrich. For them the mistake in such a formulation is in holding the technological or material world and the social world to be two separate entities. Instead, they argue that technology or objects and society are mutually constitutive; each shapes and is intertwined with the other to the extent that it makes little sense to separate them. To talk of social relations as if they are somehow independent of objects or technologies is a nonsense.

In short, there's no such thing as pure social relations but only socio-technical relations.

This is a major challenge for social theory because it has hitherto largely ignored things. Following the STS tradition, we think qualitative researchers should adopt such symmetry in the analytical treatment of human and non-human actors alike. Thus the starting point for analysis is not how humans use technology, or how technology shapes society, but the networks, flows and movements linking humans and non-humans. Latour recommends that as researchers we should "see only actors, some human, some non-human, some skilled, some unskilled, that exchange their properties".

What this view of social reality involves is that we surrender our view that people are capable of doing certain things but other entities are not. This challenges us to think not of the 'computer user', the individual who uses the servile machine, but instead to consider the 'computer-user', the more fluid combination of the individual who works to complete an activity and the computer that structures or shapes that activity and the way it is organised and conceived. This is challenging since it threatens a cherished view of humanity, that we are in control, omnipotent over the machines or objects we create, and suggests that things frame or configure our actions. Agency, in short, is not a capacity but 'a relational effect that is generated in different configurations of (human and non-human) materials' (Mulcahy, 1997). Such a view of agency suggests that we should look further afield than 'consumers' and turn our attention to the material world that surrounds them.

Some Implications

So what would a different view of the relationship between consumers and things look like? Sociologists of science and technology would frame it as follows:

Technology, things, products (often) make, not meet, consumer demand. Needs are actively constructed, in part, by these 'things'.

Take an entertainment example. The emergence of home cinema technologies, with new amplifiers and collections of sub-woofers and speakers, has been fed by, and has in turn encouraged, the parallel rise of the DVD. In the process the configuration of the sitting room (speakers behind the sofa), the gender relations of the space (more male technology), and the nature of cinema-going as well as staying-in have all been transformed. The technology has changed social practice and changes in social practice impact the spread and use of the technology and home entertainment.

Technologies, things, products (often) construct and configure their users (Woolgar, 1991).

Let's do the laundry. Washing machines demand things of their users: making specific purchases (detergent, conditioners), sorting clothes and selecting the right programme. The meaning of 'clean' is negotiated with the machine. It is neither a given nor a purely 'cultural' concept in the mind of the consumer. It is inscribed in the machine. You could argue that washing machines (and other apparatus such as pre-wash stain removal sprays and detergents), devices for making clothes whiter than white, exist to create stains, dirt and soiled-ness. They then deliver against this created need, by making our clothes 'clean'.

Similarly, the tumble dryer changes the user's relationship to the weather (wash day can be on a wet day). Products that go in the tumble dryer to create that line-dried feel and smell transform the relationship of washing (as an idea and a consumer practice) to the outdoors.

The Dyson vacuum cleaner performs a similar trick. Its Dual Cyclone technology is claimed to be powerful but it's the design which is the real innovation. It creates the idea of dirt lifted from your carpets that you can actually see and the design delivers against this brand promise.

Technological change co-evolves with social change.

The freezer and the microwave are involved in a complex relationship. The chest freezer moved out of the garage and became a fridge freezer when its companion, the microwave, took pride of place in the kitchen. The freezer, once a device to manage the seasons, became an instrument for the management of time (Shove and Southerton, 2000). As the seasons dissolved, 'convenience food' became a real possibility. Some might argue that obesity followed in the wake of such 'convenience'. Technologies, practices, attitudes and bodies are interrelated and co-dependent, their stories intertwined and evolving over time.

What is evident from this summary is that interpretive gains can be made when we stop opposing technology to people, things to humans and instead think about the ways in which they are intertwined: the social and the material are mutually determining; things and people shape one another 'in complex knots' (Michael, 2000). The STS literature helps us understand these complex relationships between things, people and culture.

But if there is an interpretive dividend to be reaped, what does this mean for the ways we do research? It suggests different ways of framing or opening up a client brief. For example, providing novel ways to define the competitive set of a product and stimulating the exploration of actual and possible relationships between a product (or service) and other products or services around it. It should encourage qualitative researchers to think again about the 'sovereign' consumer that shapes the world around them, and to appreciate an interconnected complex world of humans and non-humans.

A few suggestions for new ways of thinking about things

Think networks when thinking innovation

We can reframe our thinking about innovation as less about the identification and satisfaction of new latent consumer needs, and more about the re-arranging of existing objects, ideas and practices to create something new. How can you identify and re-configure or re-distribute the different properties spread throughout the socio-technical network?

Think hybridity or networks of things and people

Once we start thinking about, and researching, things and people as a continuum we can re-focus 'cause and effect' as relationship. In the early C19th, Josiah Wedgwood understood such relationships. His black jasperware tea sets were designed to "show off to better advantage the current feminine vogue for bleached white hands" (Molotch, 2003). He understood hybridity -- the merging of the material and the human.

Think what non-humans demand of humans

Whether intentionally or not, the design of a technology embeds particular expectations of purpose, context, practice and use. This is what is meant by 'scripting' in STS literature -- the way a technology constitutes or 'configures its user' (Woolgar, 1991). Scripts can be intentional (on the part of the designer) or not, they can be material or semiotic, and they can be relatively open (flexible) or closed (prescriptive). They can also be resisted.

Scripting is most obvious when objects are designed to configure the user in specific and practical ways. For example, Bruno Latour (Latour, 1992) analyses hotel key fobs which are bulky enough to be an encumbrance, thereby 'telling' guests to return them to the desk. An everyday example is the car that beeps to remind its driver to fasten their seatbelt. But such a script can be ignored or resisted. The taxi driver who puts the passenger seat belt into his own seat's buckle to stop the reminder beeps is resisting the script.

Start asking questions of things

What would an interview guide for an inanimate object like a microwave look like? What questions would you ask of a fridge to uncover its owner's culinary practices and preferences? "Is that the remains of re-heated coffee I can detect on your insides? The dirty fingers on the door suggest that the kids are using you quite often -- is that right?" The history of a microwave could be read as a history of ideas about freshness, convenience, taste, cosmopolitanism and cooking. Closer examination reveals much otherwise unrecognisable detail.

Such an approach demands new methodologies. For example, we would need to be able to account for how things change and evolve just as much as any 'user' evolves. Shove and Southerton (2000) have demonstrated how the domestic freezer has changed from a technology focused on preserving home produce and thereby 'beating the seasons' to that of a time machine -- to help meet the scheduling dilemmas of modern life. Such an approach would demand historical analysis and case studies across time and space but, in so doing, could potentially open up all manner of future opportunities for the 'same' technology.

Go beyond consumer 'behaviour' to 'practice'

Ideas of consumer behaviour have dominated market research -- as has the idea that consumers behave on the basis of some need. Such models have been challenged, for example by Valentine and Gordon's 'The 21st Century Consumer: A New Model of Thinking' (2000). It is, however, as the title suggests, a new way of thinking about the consumer. STS is much more radical in shifting attention to networks of humans and non-humans, and thereby abandoning any notion of the sovereign consumer. STS is in this way anti-consumer research.

Shove and Pantzer (2005) have been prominent in putting forward theories of practice and practice-based approaches for understanding innovation. Focusing on practice puts the 'doing' at centre stage rather than any particular person or thing. This subtle shift is important for it avoids the need to privilege any particular entity within the socio-technical network -- which is exactly the simplistic formulation that we're trying to get over. Kelley and Littman of the design consultancy IDEO argue in a similar way for attention to doing, in that they think of products 'in terms of verbs, not nouns: not cell phones but cell phoning' (Kelley, Littman, 2001).

Practices exist as sets of norms, conventions, ways of doing, know how and requisite material arrays (Schatzki, 2001). Importantly, they are constituted through performance -- for example the practice of football would not exist if people and the ball did not play it. If they played it to different rules, or with a different ball, the game and therefore the practice would change. There is a great deal that could be said on theories of practice. For the time being, however, we simply want to make the point that through focusing on practice, the doing, we can start to unpack the 'complex knots' (Michael, 2000) of humans and non-humans.

Things to know about Science and Technology Studies (STS)

  • STS is useful in describing the interaction and mutual shaping of culture and technology.

  • STS seeks to explore the middle ground between the social and the technological and argues that neither determines the other, rather they shape one another in 'complex knots' (Michael, 2000).

  • STS questions the assumption that only humans have agency -- the ability to act on things or people to make things happen. For example, the oversized hotel key fob implores, persuades or compels the guest to return it to reception not take it away in their pocket. Things can make people do things.

  • STS helps us to see the mundane and ordinary objects that research often overlooks, and can demonstrate how they constitute, in part, practice.

  • STS views the distinction between producers/designers and users/consumers as difficult to maintain. The material and social forces that shape or constrain designers and technologists are as important to appreciate as those that pattern what consumers might do.

  • Consumers are not passive, and do not merely adapt to the directives of the producer/designer. Rather they manipulate, domesticate, train and tame new technologies.

  • STS eschews ideas of consumer behaviour.

In this sense it is anti-consumer research, favouring practice orientated approaches.


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Simon Roberts
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006

This article was co-authored with Dr Simon Blyth who leads the Global Consumer Insight Team for Unilever's Oral Care category, with responsibility for tactical and strategic innovation research projects.