It’s been a month since the MRS Conference. Like previous years it was a good mix of networking and inspiration of different hues. Caroline Hayter‘s session on how storytelling techniques can help us deliver projects is the one which made the most vivid impression on me.
The whole session was anchored by the question: to what extent should the subjective vs. the objective play a role in research?
It’s a fascinating one to ponder.
The reason researchers are commonly perceived as mild-mannered compared to our marketing brethren is often put down to our supposed objectivity. It’s all too easy to sit on the fence and just play “messenger”. I’d argue however that to do your job properly you need to jump off the fence and inculcate change, using all the tools you have at your disposal.
Novelist Neil Griffiths kicked off the session with a whistlestop tour of character development. In his view “the paradox of human life is that we are both similar and different from each other.” Researchers in presenting a coherent narrative are aiming for similarity – difference in this sense “spoils the story.” This ignores the fact that difference is revealing – “we like to find our peculiarity in others”. Be it Emma Bovary or Harry Potter it is this empathetic connection that makes fiction compelling. The lesson? Don’t be afraid of the idiosyncratic when you are doing case studies and pen portraits.
Ella Fryer-Smith, an ethnographer from Ipsos was next up. Her view is that difference can be useful way of approaching your research subject. For example, not sharing a common language means you approach collecting data in a more open and questioning way – pushing you beyond habitual assumptions. Convening a diverse research team who are both similar and different from the audience under investigation is often fruitful because of the different angles investigated. Academics call this the emic and the etic (the local and the outsider). The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Anthony Martin took a professional photojournalist on a fieldwork trip and shared the results. We’re all aware of the power of the image in research, but they took this to a different level. Their tip was to use a professional; not only will they capture better images but they’ll not get under your feet.
Darren Hanley & Amanda Anderton from Hope + Anchor closed the session describing how they have brought structured reality filming techniques from TOWIE to research. Following accompanied shopping sessions they add stage at end where respondents are asked to “perform” key moments observed in the interview in situ with a professional camera crew. What surprised them was that asking people to “do a TOWIE” was intuitive and fun for respondents – it meant they revealed more second time around, volunteering more and relating it more to their true decision making. The clip they played was priceless – a couple spending £1500(!) on a pushchair – the husband admitting what was driving the choice wasn’t really its features (as he’d said before) but its status.
An inspiring hour full of creativity and enthusiasm. My takeout? We are trying to inspire change as researchers. Stories sell, so get storytelling.