The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Infected by cleanliness?

I have three serious questions; don't we all? They will come later. But firstly, here are three example responses from consumers during our projects this year.

1. The woman who could not get her head round putting a completely and utterly sealed DIY product in her supermarket trolley along with her food shopping.

2. The woman incapable of judging any aspect of a retail experience other than through the prism of a minor hygiene incident at the start.

3. The woman who, on an accompanied museum visit, refused to interact with the touch screens because there were no alcohol wipes provided nearby.

The first of these I can just "get" but the last actually shocked me; the thirst for knowledge so easily waylaid. Once I would have considered these responses as oddities but now I suspect they are part of a growing trend, either in qualitative research or in real life or both.

I am noticing that more and more respondents, mainly but not exclusively female, work in health, hygiene and safety industries — dental receptionists, child-minders, hospital administrative staff, council protection officers.

I can fathom why, from the recruiters" point of view, they make ideal respondents. They are efficient, docile, reasonably articulate, not to mention personally clean and pleasant. By contrast, I have yet to come across a chicken-plucker or an exotic dancer in my groups.

What a person does for a living, I strongly believe, colours and influences their responses to life in general. They are reacting in their professional mode and thinking of others, often less fortunate than themselves, first and thus not giving the researcher the valuable immediate, visceral, "for me" responses to supposedly enjoyable or indulgent stimuli. Or maybe such responses are now subdued or just not there?

The wider point here that is that us qualitative researchers may be encountering a latter-day "Buckhurst Hill effect" — so-called after the AURA finding in the dim and distant past which revealed to its members and the broader marketing community that a wholly unlikely and unrepresentative proportion of UK groups were conducted in this London suburb. Nowadays is it the clean-living altruists who are over-represented?

My three serious questions follow. If this mentality is disproportionately represented in UK qualitative research, is it infecting (ironically) our findings and having a disproportionate effect on commercial beliefs and practices? Secondly, is this frame of mind helping to change the national psyche — and accentuating gender differences — and not just through its percolation into research? And finally, is this stance the unseen culprit, the impersonal yet guiding force, behind the "political correctness gone mad" that no-one seems to be responsible for at a personal level.


Roger Titford
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011