Friday, December 21, 2012

Presentation of self and the quest for neutrality in social research

Researchers who interact with and observe human participants are trained to maintain a high level of neutrality when conducting research. They take care to minimize how their own verbal and non-verbal behaviors influence what their participants do or say so they don't affect the data that are collected. 

Try as we might, doing so isn't always an easy task, namely because social research isn't completely controllable; it just isn't possible to eliminate every potential element of influence from the equation. Sometimes I think we expect ourselves - or are expected by others (including clients and those without intimate knowledge of social science research methods) - to always be able to turn off certain "undesirable" aspects of our personalities, whether we're out in the field or moderating a focus group, or being a researcher in any other social context. 

In a recent blog post, Ruth Stevenson raises the question of whether or not it's OK for a researcher to respond by crying if a participant recounts an emotionally moving personal experience. She acknowledges that it's expected and acceptable for participants to get emotional, but she has a different take on such a thing happening to the researcher.
"Once in my career I have thought I might cry during an interview with a respondent.  For like 20 minutes.  Which is a lot when there is just the two of you in the room and you are supposed to be asking the questions. Whilst it was a difficult topic it was by no means the most shocking thing anyone had told me, or the most harrowing tale I have heard.  Nor was the situation something that I had personally had any experience of.  The respondent didn’t cry, they were coping with unfortunate circumstances admirably and spoke about it in a very stoic and matter of fact way.  In fact they said speaking to me about it was therapeutic.

And yet I spent the majority of the interview trying to hold back the tears. There was just something about how it all came together that pushed my buttons and resulted in a very strong emotional response from me. And it genuinely took me by surprise.

So what do you do when that happens?

Empathise, yes.

Show gratitude that someone has shared their personal stories with you, yes.

Cry, no.

You suck it up, that’s what you do.  It is not your place to get emotional, it is your place to create a safe and supportive environment for the respondent and make sure they leave the session feeling appreciated.  If you cry, you will make the respondent feel bad.  You put yourself to the side until afterwards.
Empathy and gratitude, as the author notes, are crucial for good social research. Actually, to be a decent human being, you should probably possess these character traits to some extent, but especially if you are a researcher who works with people. You use these aspects of your humanity to show your participants that you value and appreciate them. In short, you are there to make them feel comfortable with you so that they are willing to open up and share.

Opinions on this topic will diverge depending on one's disciplinary origin (mine is anthropology), practicing philosophy, personal style and approach to research. Personally, I don't disagree that it's our job as researchers to strive for neutrality, prioritize the comfort of participants, and avoid things that make them uneasy. What I disagree with is the overarching idea that researchers must never, under any circumstances, respond emotionally to a participant's word or actions. I also disagree that doing so will always result in upsetting the participant, making them uncomfortable, or ruin the data.In some cases it could actually be beneficial to the participant, the research, or both.

Portraying sincerity and gratefulness while striving for neutrality is quite the balancing act. It's an art, really, that takes good training and lots of practice to master. With sufficient training and experience, we get pretty good at doing this. But no matter how good we become, we should expect that as human beings, we may occasionally react in ways that are less than ideal, especially when researching "tough stuff." Empathy and gratitude and all of the other important attributes of good researchers are a reflection of what it is to be human. Sometimes being human also involves unintentional emotional responses to certain stimuli.  As humans, the social and emotional rules that guide our behaviors don't just go away because we're in a research setting.

If a participant relayed a tragic event in such a way as to provoke me to cry, unless I could avoid it, I would feel OK with it as a natural human response. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do about how you feel. You also not be expected to never do something if that thing is a reflection of your personality (e.g. those who are more easily moved by sad or tragic stories) and is also an acceptable response in general. 

Researcher reflexivity is crucial to honest, thoughtful research. If this were to happen to me, I would do a number of things. I would decide whether or not to remain in the room or to step outside and collect myself (I would try not to abandon the session); afterward, I would make sure to address the participant and assess his or her comfort level; I would take a pulse on the general level of rapport between us; and if I determined everything were alright and that the participant wanted to continue (he or she would have the option to quit at any time), I would move forward. Later, I would reflect on how the occurrence might have had any influence on the participant, the conversation, my approach, the participant's responses, etc. 

I could even throw out that portion of the interview if I absolutely had to, but I wouldn't unless there were a clear indication that the data had been affected. Even then, I would consider the direction of this affect in my decision to keep the data or toss it (e.g., if my crying caused the person to switch topics, but their responses were still useful and relevant, I would probably keep it). Having to throw out data is obviously not ideal, but it's just something that happens sometimes.  

Another thing the author mentioned was that she felt like she wanted to cry for 20 minutes. I can imagine that feeling this way may have affected her state of being and potentially how she proceeded with the interview (i.e., her ability to stay focused on the participant, recognize opportunities to probe, etc.) Whether it did or not, it's a highly likely possibility. Since trying to hold back tears would make it difficult to have a clear and focused mind and stay on track, it makes more sense to me just to just go ahead and cry or excuse myself from the room. I also wonder if someone sharing something so shocking or moving would even expect the person with whom they shared it to remain calm and collected.

Now, unlike the author of the original post, I have never actually encountered this situation before. It is often the case that what people say they would do in a hypothetical situation differs from what they would actually do in that situation. So, I can't say for sure that I would react in any specific way, because it really depends on the context. Evaluating the situation on a case-by-case basis seems better than having a blanket rule of never, ever exhibiting an emotional response, because so many factors can come into play (location of interview, interviewer-participant dynamics, mood, life events, etc.)  

My point is that I don't think it's a bad thing if the researcher does what's only human by shedding a few tears, or laughing at something that's really funny, or doing any of the other things normal human beings do on occasion, albeit unexpectedly. If you personally wouldn't feel comfortable doing this, then one way to avoid such situations is to do as Ruth suggests in her post, which is to not engage in research topics to which, for whatever reason, you are sensitive. I would also add that it's always better if you can put aside any personal or emotional things that are going on in your life so you are as focused as you can be on the research. If avoiding emotional responses isn't always possible, than neither is ignoring your own life. Just make sure you reflect on how your own issues may potentially affect your research. Or, reschedule your research for after you are feeling better or more relaxed.

H. Russell Bernard's book Research Methods in Anthropology (AltaMira Press 2002) contains a section called "Presentation of Self" (page 219) in the chapter on unstructured and semi-structured interviewing that is relevant here:
"How should you present yourself in an interview? As a friend? As a professional? As someone who is sympathetic or as someone who is nonjudgmental? It depends on the nature of the project. ...cordial-but-nonjudgmental is the way to go.

That's sometimes tough to do. You're interviewing someone on a project about what people can do to help the environment and your respondent says: "All those eco-Nazis want is to make room for more owls. They don't give a damn about real people's jobs." That's when you find out whether you can probe without injecting your feelings into the interview. Professional interviewers...learn to maintain their equilibrium and move on.

Some situations are so painful, however, that it's impossible to maintain a neutral facade. Gene Shelley interviewed 72 people in Atlanta who were HIV-positive (Shelley et al. 1995). Here's a typical comment by one of Shelley's informants: "I have a lot of trouble watching all my friends die. Sometimes my whole body shuts down inside. I don't want to know people who are going to die. Some of my friends, there are three or four people a week in the obits. We all watch the obits."

How would you respond? Do you say: "Uh-huh. Tell me more about that"? Do you let silence take over and force the respondent to go on? Do you say something sympathetic? Shelley reports that she treated each interview as a unique situation and responded as her intuition told her to respond--sometimes more clinically, sometimes less, depending on her judgement of what the respondent needed her to say. Good advice."
Bernard doesn't specifically address crying, but his larger point points about intuition and treating each discussion as its own unique situation are useful for this discussion. He cites other examples in research where it made sense to simply "be oneself" rather than changing or holding back for the sake of the research, and to evaluate each individual research context to determine how to "self-present". I like this approach because you can never really tell how an interview is going to go or how it might be affected by the participant's mood or your own state of being or the weather. You may decide that holding back your opinions or emotions is the most appropriate response, or you might decide to laugh at a really funny joke, or even to defend yourself against some offensive action or derogatory comment made directly at you. 

There is always going to be some type of potential outside influence on the data collected in social research, so all we can do is do our best to "maintain equilibrium." Addressing your presence rather than ignoring it is the key. Being yourself, maintaining high standards, and making your participants comfortable are also important. Researchers spend a lot of time talking about respecting the rights and humanity of our participants and remaining non-judgmental toward them, no matter who they are or what they say or do. Why then can we not accept that researchers are human beings, too, and that even the most skilled ones might occasionally show it?

If you tend to be more sensitive to certain stimuli, you shouldn't be expected to change who you are or hold back your emotions, and you shouldn't be made to feel ashamed if you don't. In tandem with empathy, sensitivity can actually be a really useful trait to have when interacting with other people and observing their behaviors or environments, since you pick up on things that others do not. I think it's actually quite an undervalued characteristic. Crying in response to a participant's story could even make them feel more comfortable with you and see you as someone other than a stranger, researcher, or collector of information. As Ruth noted herself, the person she interviewed whose story almost made her cry actually considered it therapeutic to share it. Though such situations can potentially result in positive outcomes, you must also be ready for a potential setback or feeling of discomfort. Either way, we need to remember that not all interviews are going to go 100% to plan, even if they are highly structured. That's just the nature of human interaction.

Those of us who are exposed to the infinite life experiences of human participants must expect that occasionally we might just hear something so "harrowing" it shakes us at our core. Just as there is an immeasurable variety of people out there, the types and personalities of researchers also run the gamut. Some probably have an easier time than others with limiting their emotions, but others may be more easily moved. Still, those who are great at maintaining composure may find themselves reacting emotionally to an unexpected trigger brought up during a discussion. You never know. It's not a bad thing to strive for neutrality, and in fact it should be the goal, but it's unacceptable to expect everyone to be this way always.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dudley E. DeGroot, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, 1927-2012

Dudley E. DeGroot

Sorry to hear of the passing of one of my undergraduate professors of anthropology, Dudley DeGroot, via an Eckerd College alumni email blast.


Eckerd College mourns the death of Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Dudley DeGroot, who came to Eckerd in 1965, retired in 1988 and continued teaching long after. Dr. Degroot, 85, died Friday, December 7, 2012, and is survived by his wife, Jeannette, his sons Bruce, David '74, and Neil, and his grandson, Will.

"As a member of the faculty during the College's formative years and a continued supporter spanning more than four decades, Dudley DeGroot has played a significant role in creating the Eckerd College of today," said Dr. Donald R. Eastman, President of Eckerd College. "He will be remembered as an academician, sports fanatic and world traveler whose understanding and appreciation of the human experience was evident in his interactions with those he encountered, most especially, Eckerd's students."

A fixture at Eckerd College Men's Basketball games, Dr. DeGroot loved student-athletes, often attending basketball practices and always encouraging the team to work hard; among the coaches and players, he was considered part of the team. In 2000, he was inducted into the Eckerd Tritons' Hall of Fame, and in 2006, his family established the Dudley DeGroot Endowed Scholarship for Men's Basketball.

Dr. DeGroot's education was intertwined with his love and talent for sports. He attended Stanford University in 1946, where he played football, rugby and was a member of the swimming team. He then attended West Virginia University from 1947-49, where he played baseball and football when his father Dudley Sargent DeGroot was head football coach there. In 1948, he was chosen All East and played in the East/West game. In 1949, his football team won the Rose Bowl. He earned his master's degree at the University of New Mexico and his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University. Prior to pursuing this education, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and served both World War II and the Korean War. He continued to serve 42 years in the Navy in active, reserve and ready reserve duty, retiring as a Rear Admiral.

An avid traveler, Dr. DeGroot trekked around the globe to learn about the human experience in Suriname, South America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America. Firmly convinced that anthropology has much to offer the non-academic world, throughout his career he was actively involved in applying the understandings of anthropology in governmental affairs, programs and problem-solving in developing nations and social change programs in the United States.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations for the Dudley DeGroot Men's Basketball Endowed Scholarship Fund. Contributions can be made on-line at or via U.S. mail. For questions about donations, please contact Tom Schneider at

The Memorial Service for Dudley DeGroot will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., Saturday, December 15, 2012, in the Lounge at Westminster Suncoast at 1095 Pinellas Point Drive South in St. Petersburg, FL.

Monday, November 26, 2012

David Byrne on physical books and eBooks

The following is an excerpt from David Byrne's November 21st email blast in which he discusses the release of the electronic version of his new book, How Music Works. This particular snippet details his perceptions of the pros and cons of both physical books and electronic books, or eBooks.

Image via QueerFatFemme

"I like eBooks. I like physical books, too. It's sad to watch bookstores disappear as more and more folks buy their books online or read eBooks and rarely visit a bookstore. What will be lost and what have we gained in this process?

We've definitely gained convenience—as we did with MP3s. I can carry hundreds of eBooks on my device, as well as newspapers and some magazines. I like the elimination of clutter (or at least physical clutter—there is still plenty of virtual clutter in my life). I like that fewer trees are being sacrificed for paper, but I sense this might be (more than?) offset by the massive amounts of power needed to keep the server farms that hold all our info and support the digital universe going all around the globe.

I like that I can highlight sentences in an eBook and then they appear on a web page so my "note taking" is made very easy. I read a lot of nonfiction, so highlighting is part of the fun, and this little bit of technology makes it easier. Same with the built-in dictionaries—I am the product of a Baltimore public school, and though I have continued my education in many ways there are still words I come across that I don't know, so the built in dictionaries are a godsend.

Books, when well made and beautifully designed, are lovely to hold and behold. There is pleasure in reading a well designed book. A little bit of beauty is added to one's life—something that can't be measured in terms of pure information.

I also have a funny feeling that, like much of our world that is disappearing onto servers and clouds, eBooks will become ephemeral. I have a sneaking feeling that like lost languages and manuscripts, most digital information will be lost to random glitches and changing formats. Much of our world will become unretrievable—like the wooden houses, music, and knowledge of our ancient predecessors. I have a few physical books that are 100 years old. Will we be able to read our eBooks in 100 years? Really?

We're sort of making our whole culture and civilization ephemeral—or more ephemeral than ever—with our rush to digitize.

Lastly, as soon as eBooks can be hacked and distributed for free that industry will really be on its knees—just like the music biz."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Defining the ideal customer experience: an example of a collaborative, hands-on focus group activity for market research

When participating in a focus group, people really appreciate it when they don't have to sit at a table for two hours in one long, drawn-out back-and-forth conversation about a topic that may not be very interesting to begin with. Knowing this, I try to incorporate at least one or two non-standard, creative, hands-on activities into the mix. The best ones are those that get people thinking, conversing, using their imaginations, and interacting with one another to mimic the social reality characteristic of our everyday lives. One example of a collaborative, hands-on activity I have used in the past involves something participants don't usually expect - playing with blocks!

Innovation Games by Luke Hohmann, image via the IG website

This is actually an adaptation of an exercise from a book called Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play by Luke Hohmann. In it, the author describes an activity to understand customer priorities called "20/20 Vision”:

When you're getting fitted for glasses, your optometrist will often ask you to compare two potential lenses by alternately showing each of them. Although it may take some time, eventually you'll settle on the set of lenses that are best for your eyes. You can use a variant of this approach to help your customer see which priorities are best for them.
Start by writing one [product] feature each on large index cards. Shuffle the pile and put them face down. Take the first one from the top of the pile and put it on the wall. Take the next one and ask your customers if it is more or less important than the one on the wall. If it is more important, place it higher, if it is less important, put it lower. Repeat this process with all your feature cards, and you'll develop 20/20 vision for what your market really wants. 

I want to point out that I don't think this is the most reliable method for trying to figure out the exact order in which customers would prioritize a specific set of attributes or factors. Something like that would be best answered with a quantitative survey of individual customers, especially if business decisions will be made based on the results.

But the main idea behind it led me to think that it could be modified into something a bit more fine-tuned and methodologically appropriate for a project I was working on a few months ago. I wanted to understand how people defined certain aspects of the customer experience for a particular client's industry. I still tried to get a general idea of how our participants prioritized the factors, but only to see if the data matched up with some quantitative findings gleaned from previous survey research.  

The project: understanding the ideal customer experience

The attributes being researched consisted of elements of the customer experience that had already been deemed important by prior research. Since we already had our list of attributes, this was a fitting opportunity to further explore what each attribute actually meant in context, and if there were any differences in definition between participants. 

For reasons of confidentiality, I can't share the actual list of attributes from the project. So, I came up with my own example. Say you work in the healthcare provider industry and you have a list of five customer experience/customer service attributes you want to know more about. Here is the hypothetical list of attributes:
  • accessibility
  • affordability
  • caring
  • convenience
  • expert knowledge
You already know that your customers consider these five features to be the most important when it comes to healthcare service, but how do customers actually define them? Do the definitions change by product, service, interaction or context? Does “accessibility” mean one thing to Customer A and something completely different to Customer B? Is one more important in one context than another, and if so, why?

Modifications to the original exercise / creating the blocks

In order to better suit the research topic/questions and my preference for participatory methods, I made some modifications to the activity before incorporating it.

First, I thought it would be better to involve the participants more by having them do the actual "arranging" of the list of attributes, rather than having me stand up at the front of the room doing it for them with index cards. This would allow them to take ownership of every aspect of the process, except for actually choosing the attributes at hand (although I did allow them to discard or add blocks if desired).

I imagined it might also be fun to split up the group into two teams - not to compete against each other, but just to see what similarities and differences might result and to make logistics easier (three people per group rather than six). This way I would also have more people contributing to the post-activity debrief.

Finally, I thought, why do we have to use paper index cards (as describe in the Innovation Games instructions)? How two-dimensional. Why not use something more interesting and tactile that adds to the hands-on, collaborative feel? I couldn't think of anything that would work better for this very purpose than big sturdy blocks of some sort. I searched the city up and down for giant plastic children’s building blocks and plastic containers and everything in between, but none of these seemed to exist. 

So, I paid a visit to the local home improvement store and had an employee cut me some blocks from a couple 12-foot pieces of lumber into pieces about the size of a standard brick (I can't quite recall what type of lumber it was). Yes, they were heavy, but they looked nice and have a virtually infinite shelf life (since the attributes I glued to them can be easily removed or taped over). I was also lucky that my groups were taking place in locations to which I would be driving rather than flying, so I could just throw them in the back of the car instead of having to check them as extra baggage.

 Getting the blocks cut

After I had my blocks, I printed two sets of the list of ten customer service factors in a simple black font with colored backgrounds. I sanded the rough edges of the blocks, then glued on the print-outs, taping them down for extra protection.

 Blocks, glue and sanding sponge

 Two sets of blocks with customer experience factors, with additional blank blocks 

Conducting the activity

Fast-forward to about half-way through the first focus group. After spending a significant amount of time discussing some of the other topics in my guide, I finally got to the blocks activity, and here is how it went.

I explained that they would now be thinking about some customer experience factors related to the particular industry at hand using an activity involving blocks. I split the group up into two teams, one for each set. The blocks were arranged in a random order on tables in the back of the room, facing away so that our discussions prior to the activity would not be biased by the attributes written on the blocks.

I instructed them to go to the tables with the blocks and, as a team, to go through the factors and place them in order of importance, with the most important factor stacked at the top, the second most important factor under that, and so on.

I emphasized the importance of everyone's participation and of discussing their individual thoughts and feelings, and that they should try and come to a consensus if there were any disagreements. If they were unable to do so, they should put the block in question to the side. I also gave them the option of removing blocks they didn’t agree with, and provided them with extra blocks in case they came up with new attributes.   

 The customer experience factor blocks could be arranged in a number of ways.

As the teams worked, I observed their interactions, listened in on their conversations for important insights, and asked probing questions. If the conversation was stagnant, or if one person was making all of the decisions on where to put the blocks, I would try to facilitate some discussion. I made notes of any really interesting points of discussion or contention to remind myself to bring them up during the debriefing, or asked the participants themselves to do so themselves. I also took photos of the process and the blocks in their final order for inclusion into the final report (to showcase the participatory process of the activity).

After about ten minutes, I had the teams stack their blocks facing the main table, and had everyone return to their seats for a debriefing on the activity they just completed. Starting with the first team, I asked a series of questions that played off of the activity and allowed me to get more of a sense of their thoughts on the factors, including these:

  • What made you all decide that these were the top three most important factors?
  • What makes X important?
  • How did these three end up at the bottom of the stack?
  • What does this factor provide that the others don’t?
  • Were there any missing factors? Any that should be taken out or are interchangeable?
  • Etc. 


I see the blocks activity as an exercise in social interaction and a useful catalyst for revealing how people define the ideal customer experience. All of the talking, sharing of opinions, debating, and collaborating provided insights unattainable by more traditional market research approaches. In the end, it wasn’t about the order in which the blocks ended up, but the conversation that resulted from the exercise. Plus, it was way more fun than using paper index cards, let alone relying on the old standby of a two-way conversation.

The findings from the project provided a deeper, more insightful perspective to previous phases of research, and ultimately allowed my client to make more informed decisions around specific ways to meet customer expectations and tailor customer experiences to each of the attributes. The client also used the findings from this project and previous phases to design a customer experience survey to gauge how well they are faring against industry competitors.