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Ever increasing circles

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details.

Those words are from a seminal book on a seemingly niche subject — metaphor — and yet they have stuck with me as having profound application. Namely, all life experience is bound by how the human mind processes the world. We use the same brain whether we are dealing with high or low culture, the exceptional or mundane, physical or mental phenomena. And so as researchers, when we are tasked with exploring one field, we may see corollaries in others. Plainly spoken, inspiration is everywhere.

Why is this important?

I find this worthy of discussion because I fear there is a common limitation present in project work. This limitation is the habit (of which I am equally guilty) of focusing on the ‘data’ to hand — the evidence we have collected in the course of our investigations. This is where the answers we seek should be most readily available, as well as most readily formatted to respond to the question before us.

Outside of this dataset, however, we often do not look hard enough for inspiration — both obvious as well as more subtle — to enrich our view of the attitudes and behaviours that we have been charged with understanding. Yes, we do reach for easily comparable previous projects, and feed in recognisable trends. But our hunger usually stops there. If we encouraged ourselves to take advantage of our inbuilt human capacity to see one thing in terms of another, then deeper understanding and ‘ways in’ could result.

Why mention metaphor?

Metaphor is defined as the recasting of one thing in terms of another. And when it comes to grasping anything beyond the most simplistic of concepts, humans need to transfer terms and frames of meaning from a concrete domain to an abstract one. Simply put, without reference to the concrete, we cannot grasp the abstract [2].

You cannot point to ‘an idea’ the way you can to ‘a tree’ or ‘a chair’, and so we need a way of talking about it that is based on something tangible. For example, ideas are often like tasting food — easy to digest, tough to chew on, bitter pills, etc. Indeed, in the last edition of In Depth, William Landell Mills of TNS discussed the importance of metaphor for the future of qualitative research [3].

Beyond metaphor, there is an asserted biological significance sitting underneath this that has implications when looking for inspiration. In short, we first developed physiological systems and neural pathways to process sight, sound and taste, etc. When we developed further and became capable of abstract thought, we simply re-purposed the existing pathways to serve this new function — they became the ‘scaffolding’ for our new concepts [4].

So what are we saying?

The concept of scaffolding (even if it’s not literally what we would see if we cut open the brain) forms the foundation of my view that inspiration is everywhere. By recognising and encouraging ourselves to put the human at the centre, I see several positives resulting:

  • our understanding of the attitude/ behaviour we’re looking at benefiting from being set in a richer context;

  • designing bolder and more expressive ways of eliciting information from our sometimes narrow field of study;

  • and finally elevating our method of communicating our findings to a more captivating and immediately graspable frame.

On the first point, the richer context helps us reground the category in the real world, with the human at the centre instead of the product or service in question. For example, in looking for ways to encourage people to save more, instead of directly talking about saving, it is worth exploring how gyms (both those for fitness as well as for the mind) have successfully got people on board: different category, same concept of current sacrifice for later gain.

When it comes to the techniques we use in our methodologies, projectives, multi-modal and other such synesthetic approaches help us to reformulate how people are interpreting what we are discussing or showing to them. The connections they are making and the existing pathways they are grafting this comprehension on to are not merely parlour games to be played for fun-filled exploration or theatre for the back room: they are fundamental to how people are internalising and making sense of the topic. Here, the ‘scaffolding’ of our biological experience being the foundation of our more abstract lives again plays a role — and so the fact one brand “smells like petrol” whereas another is like a “freshly laundered suit” has vital consequences to pursue.

When we are looking to communicate our ‘insight’ in a clear and concise fashion, we shouldn’t feel afraid to listen to the seemingly random connections our brains bring to the surface. We do not always need to reinvent the wheel or create new frameworks — a ready-made vehicle to convey our findings might well already exist and we should feel empowered, not unoriginal, to use it. Our brain is probably prompting that random connection for a reason! My personal favourite was a newspaper segmentation being recast as a small town — the publication was the community centre, with segments living at various distances and in different standards of accommodation: a universally recognisable, concrete framework to convey complex information.

Where does this leave us?

As per the recent AQR conference theme of ‘Being Human’, I sometimes feel that in striving to be extremely professional and reinforce the validity of qualitative study, we may suppress some of our most natural instincts — using outside sources and seemingly random comparisons to make our point understood. We developed these for a reason and we should harness them.

Lastly, echoing the “we use the same old brain” comment, I believe we should be more content to realise the human experience is at the centre of our work as well as our world: and as such we should draw on the inspiration that is all around us.

References

1 ‘Metaphors we Live By’, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
2 ‘The Unfolding of Language’, Guy Deutscher
3 Big Metaphors
4 ‘I is an Other’, James Geary

 

Tony Laverty
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015