The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Finger on the pulse

Gill Thomas reckons we should learn from Brexit and get market research out of the political doghouse. And who are better placed to help than qualitative researchers?

When it comes to politics, market research does not have the best reputation. Whether it is the close association between focus groups and the now-villainous Tony Blair, or the inaccurate polling of the last few elections, market researchers just don’t seem to be able to get it right. Those of us not directly involved in political research tend to keep quiet about it. Politics is not our game. On the week of the referendum the Market Research Society issued a declaration about the implications for data protection law. That was it.

But aren’t we meant to have our finger on the pulse of the prevailing mood of the British public? Aren’t we, as an industry, the Mass Observation of our age? The day the result was announced and in the ensuing weeks I searched online for a sensible qualitative response. There was no shortage of weeping EU flags from my fellow researchers but not, it seemed, a great deal else. The demographics were clear but just to say that Leave voters were ‘chavs’ or ‘fogeys’ is not enough. They made up 52% of the population.

Unique perspective

I believe qualitative research is the best placed profession to understand why people vote the way they do and I’d like to see more active commentary from qualitative researchers about political events such as the EU referendum of 2016. Just because we tend to work on the minutiae of everyday life such as cat food or headache pills does not disqualify us from analysing the political economy from the perspective of our work with consumers.

Consumption is political. Not just because it is about the distribution of wealth and provides the signifiers of class distinction, but because the serious study of material culture is the best way to understand the diversity of human cultural life. Marmite is meaningful. Qualitative researchers know this.

One recent study shows the strong correlation between voting patterns and the preference for specific brands, even once factors such as age and income are accounted for. Leave voters favour HP sauce, Bisto, and ITV news while Remain voters have a greater affinity for the BBC, Airbnb and Easyjet. Some brands appeal equally to both camps such as the NSPCC, Money Saving Expert, M&S and TK Maxx1.

What I like about this study is that it brings to life the very real differences in the way British people live while also emphasising our shared cultural understanding of what these brands mean. This is the comfort of things.

Another important aspect of qualitative market research which lends itself to politics is the geographical and demographic coverage many qualitative projects necessitate. It’s our job not to miss people out. Plenty of jobs bring people into contact with those from all walks of life — doctors, for instance — but few do this in conjunction with the level of travel involved in the typical qualitative job. In addition, the type of travel is in itself quite diverse. The capital hopping of business travel can seem glamorous whereas deephanging out in the North generally does not. A qualitative job may well involve both, and that is a valuable perspective.

Many people found the referendum result disturbing. Former Tory MP Matthew Parris said that he didn’t feel he knew his own country any more. I found the most unsettling thing was not the result itself but the ensuing vilification of the white working class. The cliquey humour expressed by the educated elite in memes on social media was often funny, but it was somehow indicative of why events had unfolded as they did. I hope Americans are watching closely. Don’t ridicule Trump, because then you’ll get Trump.

Brexit was divisive, as it was designed to be. Qualitative researchers have a role to understand and explain these divisions through our understanding of British cultural life and appreciation of regional difference. Not only this, we also have a great deal of empathy. We are blessed with empathy not because we are ‘pretty straight sort of guys’, though of course we might be, but because our professional training fine tunes skills in this area and we place a high value on its practice in our everyday professional lives.

Politicising qual

So how can we politicise qual? There are multitudes of ways, big and small, in which this could be achieved. We have a technology round up in In Brief, why not a political round up too? Greater attention to detail about contrasting UK regions in qualitative writing from debriefs to blogs would be very relevant and welcome. Another idea would be for the AQR board to set up a ‘prediction committee’ to meet the shortly before major elections or referenda. Prediction is a dangerous game but a sensible discussion about what people’s hunches are from a group with a better than average grasp of what the UK’s prevailing social norms actually are could be really valuable.

These are just a few ideas. There could be many more to help the qualitative industry contribute to a more informed and grown up kind of politics. Politics isn’t going away any time soon. There may not be another Referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU but there will be a General Election, Mayoral Elections, even another Scottish Independence Referendum. It’s time to step up.


Gillian Thomas
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2016