The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

The Citizen Shift

"Consumers just buy stuff, Citizens participate." And Jon Alexander, in AQR's latest webinar, says researchers and clients need to take account of this change.

This webinar gave me a lot to think about: social history; consumerism across generations; my own buying behaviour and what changes I need to make in the way I work with clients, all in the space of 40 minutes or so.

Jon Alexander talked about the collapse of the consumer story, from early century ‘subjects’, to post war consumerism to the evolution of the citizen, who wants and expects to be more involved in the world and the choices and contributions they can make.

How we label people is important and can define how we view ourselves and others. How many of us are still calling our research attendees ‘respondents’ rather than ‘participants’?

Labels are fundamental in helping us make the mental shift in how we view and find our way in the world: a consumer/respondent is passive, less likely to become involved in changing society; a participant/citizen is participatory, more powerful and more likely to be engaged in making changes in society.

The challenge for our industry is how we respond to this ‘citizen shift’ and how we engage and work with our clients. For example, Jon asked what is the purpose of a brand? Is it just to sell products or can a brand affect behaviour? Should brands be designing opportunities to create something together? How the rise of the citizen will change the way we interact with brands is a fascinating topic and one that impacts greatly on how we as individuals also ‘shift’ our own current way of working as qualitative researchers.

This morning on my usual dog walk I asked my fellow walker why she bought the brand of beans that she did. She went through the usual remit of taste, family history of buying this brand, etc., etc., but then she said: “That’s all changing now anyway, because I want to consider the environment in my choices, and I’m not buying my usual olive oil anymore because they use plastic bottles….” And I thought — oh, a citizen not a consumer is emerging here!

 

Carol McCloskey
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2019