The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Mobile map of the mind

Qualitative researchers need to access individual realities within different cultures but how best to achieve that? Firefish's Martin Smith argues the case for mobile technology.

Working on a global scale across a plethora of different industries, we are keenly aware of different cultural trends that exist throughout the world. Indeed, one particular ‘divide’ — that of East and West or ‘collectivistic’ and ‘individualistic’ — is something that continually appears within our research, as I'm sure many international researchers would testify. So even if academic thought processes, such as those put forward by Hofstede1, are relatively new to the world of market research, and while they can help formalise the way we consider such matters, we have been witnessing their manifestation for years.

Beauty is more than skin-deep

Consider the following set of examples which will, no doubt, ring true to many of you. In Indonesia and China, we conducted research for a skincare client into how beauty was perceived by women. In Indonesia in particular, what we saw confirmed academic theory that individuals in ‘collectivistic’ societies often tend to define themselves by their relationships with those around them. Beauty, it seemed, was defined by women within the context of things like marriage (the representation of themselves towards their husbands) and with their ability to care for their children (the image of a good mother).

It is interesting to note, however, that in China we saw more of a shift towards independence among individuals, with the ability to be strong, stylish and confident equally prized alongside motherhood and marriage — proof, perhaps, that the collectivist/individualist dynamic is more profound in some areas of the world than in others and therefore needs to be viewed as a continuum — rather than two sides of a coin.

Gifting too, provides an interesting basis for comparison. In Western society we may be proud to present a gift that shows off a new, lesser known brand — such as a bottle from a niche cask of whiskey — but past research has shown that this may not always be the case in Asia. To us, such a gift represents thoughtfulness and a keen interest taken in the product, whereas in Asia the result can be disappointment owing to a lack of cultural currency or credence — the gift, in other words, has to have wider social resonance.

So, examples such as these emerge from within international qualitative market research on a regular basis, not least in areas such as creative development and brand communication. But how best to access these diverse global perspectives? In our increasingly competitive industry we constantly search for new methodologies that will help us achieve this, and one platform that has recently opened up extensive possibilities in this arena is mobile technology and, in particular, the smartphone.

It must be conceded that while smartphone penetration within the UK and other ‘affluent’ Western nations is relatively high — currently about 77% in the UK2 — it is less significant in other parts of the world, thus limiting sample scope. However, this is likely to change and future smartphone penetration growth may indeed exceed the rate shown by ‘dumb’/feature phone adoption in the early 2000s3, meaning that mobile connectable devices are going to be an increasingly powerful tool moving in the future. The research industry — encompassing social and political as well as market research — needs to be aware of this potential.

As part of an entry for the International Journal of Market Research I conducted an internal study, looking to demonstrate the potential of mobile technology and in particular our mobile app, to access the realities of young people around the world. The premise for this study was the disappointing statistic that a mere 44% of young people aged 18-24 voted in the last UK general election in 2010 — a figure that contrasts strongly with the 65 and over category, of which 86% took part. Youth participation levels in regional and mayoral elections are reported to be even lower, but there are clearly things in life that young people care about, as highlighted by other events that have appeared on our news screens across the UK.

Mobile's changing role

In 2010 and 2011, we saw young people within the UK express themselves through concerted action on a truly impressive, and in some cases worrying, scale. For example, the student occupation movement and, arguably, the riots, showed, if nothing more, that young people have a desire to vent feelings, whatever they may be. Furthermore, and rather appropriately for this study, mobile connectable devices have been shown to be at the heart of these events. An extremely interesting article by Yannis Theocharis (2012)4 showed that mobile technology was used to organise large numbers of people in an effective, flexible and even spontaneous manner. There is ample potential for research to take advantage of this trend and, in this example, find out what young people care about across the world and as a consequence, therefore, discover how to engage them within a political dialogue.

The benefits of using a mobile app for qualitative research are clear. Given its availability as a portable tool it enables us to access the thoughts and behaviours of people as they experience them. Researchers have no need to be present — and therefore influence respondents’ behaviour — and the obstacle of poor memory retrieval is largely surmounted through ‘in the moment’ reportage. It also puts researchers in touch with large numbers of people for a relatively small budget and in return produces rich, illustrative material including video footage, photos, text and audio. In short, it provides us with eyes and ears into our target’s world and in this case, allowed me to find out what young people around the world truly care about as they went about their daily lives.

Collectivism vs Individualism

Ten people between the ages of 18 and 24 were each recruited in China, India and the UK — a small sample, but large enough to demonstrate the methodology’s potential — and over the period of a week were asked to report back on the things that they cared about most in life. Instructions were kept deliberately loose and words such as ‘politics’ were omitted so as to avoid overtly influencing respondents’ answers. The response was highly illustrative of some of the cultural differences that are seen to exist between so called ‘collectivistic’ and ‘individualistic’ societies, and that have been widely discussed at an academic level.

In China we saw perhaps the most collectivism within responses. Students vented their feelings over matters that concerned their relationship with society as a whole, such as the importance of paying attention in class in order to develop individual potential for the benefit of all. In the words of one respondent: “all things start with the individual, and together we can make changes”, young people therefore having “a responsibility to contribute to society”. Similar sentiments were seen within other topics, such as an emphasis on behaving with civility towards others in public situations, including on the metro — the emphasis constantly focused on societal behaviour and the interdependent network of relationships within that society. But feelings were also expressed at a macro level in the way in which China projects itself towards the outside world with diplomatic power struggles with the US, as well as territorial disputes with Japan being a popular theme.

Young people in India showed a similar skew towards the collective. The importance of their international emergence as an economic power, the growth of industries to support that emergence and the need for improvements to the education system were all put forward as key topics. Concern for the individual was also shown, such as improving women’s rights and greater protection for child labourers, but even these feelings can perhaps be traced back to the interdependent nature of a collectivist society. Comments were often grounded within the way individuals relate to those around them.

As one respondent put it, societal changes are needed in a country “where the girl child is still believed to be a burden on the family” — something perhaps indicative of a desire to move away from the entrenched values of the past, or even to promote more individual empowerment and ambition.

Further research and a larger sample size would be needed to confirm these findings, but one thing that cannot be overlooked is the almost startling difference in attitude and behaviour displayed by UK respondents. Responses were almost overwhelmingly personal, focused on individual situations or problems. These ranged from an inability to afford extortionate rail ticket prices to grumblings about a local council’s lax attitude towards clearing rubbish from “my driveway”. One respondent even felt the need to report their annoyance at the widespread availability of cakes and pastries in train stations at a time when they were trying to follow a diet. The emphasis was almost always on the individual and little attention was paid to society as a whole.

Collectivistic and individualistic differences would therefore seem to be present in abundance across an East-West divide, but that argument must be fought elsewhere. What I wanted to address here is that mobile connectable technology has the potential to provide us with richer, more accurate insight than would otherwise be available through more traditional research methods. Indeed, clarifying the collectivistic-individualistic dynamic (or scale) represents just one aspect of what this methodology can achieve and the study described above serves merely as an example.

Convert all this into brand terms and what you get is this: governments or political parties attempting to engage and involve young people in a constructive dialogue can be seen as the brand, their policies or manifestos become the products that they sell and the constituents become the target audience or consumer. The things that people said they felt strongly about (the output from the app) give us our touch-points which can be probed and further analysed in order to conceive a strategy aimed at generating a more meaningful relationship with young people. The apogee of mobile technology’s role within qualitative research may be round the corner and there is no doubt that it will become increasingly useful as smartphone penetration levels escalate — but it can be capitalised upon now. Our quest to understand the context within which individuals see themselves has gained a powerful tool and brands can benefit as a result of this. Behaviours can be unlocked and perspectives uncovered in a way that has not been possible before and with a greater clarity than is often offered by more traditional methodologies. Mobile technology’s full potential needs to be championed and rolled out across not just our industry, but other research disciplines as well.

References

Evans, J. (9th June, 2012). In Five Years, Most Africans Will Have Smartphones, Tech Crunch. https://techcrunch.com/2012/06/09/feature-phones-are-not-the-future/

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: international differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Informa WCIS (Q3, 2012). https://mobiforge.com/

Theocharis, Y. (2012). Cuts, Tweets, Solidarity and Mobilisation: How the Internet Shaped the Student Occupations. Parliamentary Affairs, (65, 162—194).

 

Martin Smith
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013