The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Why qual needs to get carnal

There is constant pressure on qualitative research to drive tangible results, but even when it does there is no guarantee that the client audience will absorb and act on the findings at more than one level of the organisation. So let's hear it for a new way of building understanding: head, heart, hands.

Take a quick trawl through the websites of the AQR membership and you will see ideas around commercial impact cropping up very regularly. Agencies are promising to match their insights with increasing levels of commercial savvy on the recommendations front. By bringing the outside world more into organisations, and then being smart about identifying opportunities, they hope to drive more positive change.

Framing things in this way sets up a nice challenge for the industry. It says that if we improve on what we do now we will inevitably add more value. However, while sharper insights and recommendations are obviously a good thing, I’m not sure they represent the complete answer to the task of helping organisations translate insights into successful action.

Questionable adoption

When you travel beyond the research function to the places where the action happens, you find that even the best-crafted insights and the sharpest recommendations rarely gain the traction they need to drive real change. The challenge is not that the business functions beyond insight are not interested in the opportunities that research is identifying. It is often simply the case that the marketers, agency people, R&D folks and senior leaders who make up the broader organisational audience for qualitative research do not fully absorb the insights being shared. They may well nod in agreement when the insights are presented, but whether they adopt them to the degree required to act on them is often questionable.

So why don’t great insights and incisive recommendations add up to action? There is a bigger question here about how people and organisations understand things. Of all the industries, qualitative research should know that how we absorb and internalise things is driven as much by unconscious thought processes as by rational ones. Even as qualitative research tells stronger stories, stretching beyond PowerPoint to bring consumer worlds to life in ever more engaging ways, the fundamental approach to reporting remains analytical. We still aim to convince the ‘head’ in order to land our recommendations.

The reality is that learning and understanding happen as much through doing and having physical experiences as they do through rational thinking. So for us the key impact question that requires exploration is less about sharper insights and commercially savvy recommendations and more about how insight can infiltrate decision makers’ thinking. We believe that qualitative insight needs to be more holistic in its approach to building understanding by engaging hands and hearts as well as heads.

This ‘head-heart-hands’ challenge has become something of a quest at Stripe Partners. Recently we’ve found inspiration in the work of Loic Wacquant, the Berkeley University Sociology professor. Wacquant has been pioneering a fresh approach that he calls ‘carnal sociology’. At the core of his practice is the idea that people are “first and foremost embodied, carnal beings who relate to the world in a passionate way”.

This idea of ‘embodiment’ is the critical element we are focusing on as we experiment with more head-heart-hand focused insight approaches. Wacquant’s thesis is that by ‘embodying’ a phenomenon or activity we gain a far deeper ‘felt’ understanding of it versus more traditional discursive or observational research approaches. His belief is that we only truly understand things when we enact them physically as well as mentally.

Current qualitative approaches are rarely designed to enable the decision makers and doers in organisations to embody insights about their consumers. Even when cross-disciplinary client teams do go on ‘consumer safaris’ they are encouraged to operate in observer, ‘head’ mode only — watching as someone else does the research versus really getting involved.

Embracing embodiment of insights as a powerful route to deeper understanding of activities and phenomena requires us to fundamentally shift our role as researchers. We need to move from being observers, reporters and analysts to something much more akin to a guide. Our focus has to shift to working in a more holistic way to connect the right mix of clients to the right, shared ‘head, heart and hands’ experiences with the right consumers. Success in this context is measured in terms of our ability to enable client teams to embody insights and understanding themselves rather than in our ability to identify and serve them up ‘pre-packaged’, as rational insights and recommendations.

So what does this mean in practice? Over the last 12 months Stripe Partners has been experimenting with embodied insight approaches with our client partners. We have been learning by doing with our clients in a new ‘head, heart, hands’ format we call studios. So far we have run seven studios across three countries.

In each case we have taken as many decision makers with us as we can. In practice this has meant that we have ended up living with our clients for the duration of each studio. We’ve rented houses and set up camp (literally in one case) with heads of insight, marketing directors, brand teams and agency partners. Together we’ve experienced things with target consumers in highly interactive ways.

When we were charged with helping a team identify insights into the world of the outdoors, we all went camping and fishing together with a group of campers. When we were asked to help a team identify insights into video gaming, we joined groups of gamers in LAN parties and marathon social gaming sessions. In every case the approach engaged hands and hearts as well as heads, and together we identified and embodied insights that have already driven more action per project than we have seen in our careers to date.

Pick your project

The embodied studio approach is not necessarily the right approach for every challenge.

It doesn’t work for 'messier', upstream challenges, e.g. which consumers should we be targeting and what should our brand personality be, because the questions being asked are more abstract and are less likely to lend themselves to the more interactive approaches that head, heart, hands entails.

The approach works best in situations where there are multiple stakeholders working across disciplines to solve a relatively well-defined challenge. So, for example, identifying fresh ways to evolve an existing product or service or identifying insights to drive a new communication campaign. It's good for bringing teams together around shared insights. It enables teams to get further faster because they come out of studios with a much stronger, collective sense of what matters, and what doesn't, to consumers.

If the brief is right and the client team is sufficiently open minded, seeking out embodied insights with your head, heart and hands is the most effective route to action we have ever worked with.

 

Tom Rowley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015