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Fingers on buttons, now

This year’s MRS Conference went interactive, but did the medium distract from the content, asks Ailean Mills?

I walked in to the MRS’s Conference in March and made immediate contact with the main player — the remote interactive handset, placed on my seat, that would allow me to yes/no/don’t know to a range of questions from the panel and also to text at will. And I mean — at will.

I hadn’t known quite what to expect from this year’s event but had been told that a fresh format and a London venue had been designed to appeal to younger researchers. That sounded good and worthwhile. I had already shelved any disappointment about the prospective absence of methodology and case studies — maybe it’s the insatiable curiosity of the qual researcher that makes us love prying in to other people’s businesses!

The morning session was a plenum ‘Big Planning Debate — is research failing in the bedroom?’. Rupert Howell, Kirsty Fuller/ Peter Dann/ Malcolm White and Richard Huntington provided a focused and well-informed conversation on the usual issues of the increasing separation between planning and research, the nature of superior consumer insight, accountability and the right to consultancy. But if they were focused, the audience certainly was not!

While the panel spoke a large rolling screen competed for attention, showing the audience’s text messages. How could such a well-behaved group produce such random and outrageous material? Individual mayhem was clearly lying under a cool and collective calm; a mention of Waitrose produced rumination about the quality of its olives, Rupert’s sartorial style was commented on, and some delegates clearly thought they were at the wrong talk. The only common denominators were that almost all screen messages were misspelled and had received no editing or censorship whatsoever!

The afternoon’s session on ‘corporate and social responsibility’, with no trace of irony, seemed to touch upon the nub of the matter. Gordon Steele chaired two talks on ‘When CSR is in your DNA’ from the Co-op, and ‘Let’s get ethical: Dealing with socially desirable responding online’. This second paper, authored by Ian Brace and Clive Nancarrow, touched upon the issue of impression management, how people feel they should portray themselves, and the need to feel good about yourself and/or look good to someone else.

At this stage, I could not avoid noticing that our audience, too, had divided into two separate behaviours — some had dispensed disgustedly with their ‘interactive units’ while others had collected up the discarded instruments and were feverishly pressing numbers and letters on up to five at the time.

Crispin Beale of the Royal Mail rather ruefully closed the event remarking that debate had happened only fleetingly. I think (and hope) that we might see the re-mergence of content over process next year — and a little less ‘uploading’.

 

Ailean Mills
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