There are few disciplines that seek properly to examine the nature and importance of subjective experience the way market research does, but that’s only half the story.
What is the philosophy underpinning market research? The difficulty, for those working outside market research, is that this desire to explore subjective experience is not well understood. And that is where we start running into problems.
Let’s face it, market researchers are a pragmatic bunch, not necessarily inclined towards too much philosophising. It is easy to forget, amid the intensity of our work, that all disciplines, including our own, are underpinned by influential philosophical assumptions. Just because they are ‘beneath the floorboards’[i] does not mean they stop shaping what we do. The belief embedded in the foundations of the market research industry is that our subjective experience (or conscious thought) shapes our behaviour, albeit that there exists a complex relationship between the two.
What is changing?
We are, however, increasingly seeing the emergence of alternative perspectives on the underlying causes of our behaviour, positing that it is in fact shaped by non-conscious mental processes, using information from our environment. There is a huge rise in interest in behavioural economics, which understands behaviours according to how ‘System 1’ (the automatic, unconscious processing of information from the environment) determines outcomes [ii].
Similarly, the work of Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Institute considers that much consumer activity comes from unconscious learned associations rather than attitudes we hold towards brands [iii]. Neither approach would cite subjective experience as being important in determining human behaviour.
So our assumptions are increasingly being questioned, prompting a closer look at the underlying conceptual framework of our profession and provoking the need for a debate. Potential subjects for discussion would include:
- What are the underlying tenets that much of the profession has rested on?
- Do we believe them to be robust?
- Can we justify our relationship with them robustly?
- What should we be keeping?
- What should we be updating?
To question or not to question…
The key question to answer is whether there is a role for asking questions any more if our behaviours are determined by our mental processes using environmental cues, rather than our acts being chosen by us? Because, of course, the principle behind asking questions is that what we say is a reflection of our inner lives, important to understand if this is shaping our behaviour. But if our behaviour is something that is determined by non-conscious environmental factors then it ceases to be of value.
‘So which is right and which is wrong?’ is what is usually asked. To answer this, we must understand that at the moment we are in a muddle, the start of which goes right back to Descartes, the 17th Century philosopher, who effectively set up a competition for primacy between the ‘mind’ (our inner lives) and ‘body’ (the material world). This stark contrast sets up separate disciplines each claiming primacy of explanation and failing to recognise their own limitations and boundaries. The answer surely is that both are right. And this is where qualitative research has a key role to play.
It’s all about integration
In a sense, market research is at the heart of this debate because its best practitioners have always sought not only to understand consumers’ subjective experiences but also how environmental influences shape their underlying behaviour. It is a constant balancing act — understanding what they say and equally what they don’t say. Most importantly, one perspective does not necessarily have primacy over the other.
A call to arms
That said, our discipline needs to develop a more coherent narrative for the importance of subjective experience in shaping our behaviour.
Alongside this, we need to emphasise the importance of an integrative approach with other perspectives on understanding consumer behaviour. A good example of such an approach comes from philosopher Mary Midgeley. She made the case for integration very eloquently when talking about maps in an atlas which may include climate, topography, political, etc.
“If we want to understand how this bewildering range of maps works, we do not need to pick on one of them as ‘fundamental’. We do not need to find a single…structure belonging to that one map and reduce all the other patterns to it.”
Our reasons for such integration need to go beyond a simplistic ‘both are important’ explanation. Asking which ‘map do we choose in which situation and why?’ is surely good practice but researchers must become better at explaining the choices.
By Colin Strong
 Midgeley, Mary (2002) Science and Poetry. Routledge
 Kahneman, Daniel (2012) Thinking fast and slow. Penguin
 Sharp, Byron (2010) How brands grow. Oxford University Press
This article first appeared in the Association for Qualitative Research newsletter