Author Emma Kirk, Qualitative Research Director at Boxclever Consulting.

With over 13 years industry experience both here in the UK and the US Emma is passionate about not only the businesses and brands she works with, but with the progress and people central to the market research industry and enjoys contributing to industry publications and conferences.

After a brief hiatus from the annual conference scene, the AQR (Association of Qualitative Research), recently stepped back into the spotlight, offering a day for attendees to immerse in the dominant tensions currently edging against the craft that underpins our industry. The title? A bold, empowering, and thought-provoking promise that “Humanity Fights Back”.

But against what you might ask. Qualitative research is a core pillar of our industry, but while it stands strong as a foundational practice, even us ‘quallies’ must admit that in recent years the focus and celebration of disciplines such as big data analytics, decision science and of course, artificial intelligence have led the charge as the industry zeitgeist. And with brands battling against the broader socio-economic climate and post-pandemic shifts in how we research, understandably qualitative research has arguably faced more challenges than these other domains in the clients’ desire for better, faster and cheaper research.

Alongside this, you, me, us as humans are also creating and contributing to changes in how we generate, use and exchange information; especially between those of us who collect and work with ‘data’ in any form, and those who share it with us. So outside of the classic conversations that pertain simply to methodology, there is clearly so much to explore and address right now around the role of qualitative research and just why, as humans working with humans, we arguably have a number of reasons to glove up and ‘fight back’.

Leaning into this, the AQR curated a compelling, challenging and inspiring day focused around three core areas that we as practitioners (and all of us as industry enthusiasts) must be mindful of moving forward if we are to continued leveraging the power of qualitative work to better support our clients. So, put on your gloves and get ready for a quick ‘jab cross’ of the areas covered.

AI: Reality, readiness and a reminder of our purpose

In a refreshing change from the other leading conferences this year, the focus on AI wasn’t around the speculation and projections of what it might mean for the future of insight. Alternatively, the AQR brought a much more tangible conversation to the table, sharing firstly insights from a collaboration by the BBC and Ipsos who didn’t naval gaze around ‘what AI means for us’, but reversed the lens and shared their work on what AI actually means for people out in the real world, right now. In exploring what engagement is really like, the level of average consumer understanding and the emotions around this prevailing beast for those not consumed day to day by how it might ‘take their jobs’, they offered a much-needed step change in the sometimes static conversation around AI from other channels this year.

But fear not, for those of us out there who are fixated on the latter question, a brilliant session by Firefish shared some tangible ‘research on research’ comparing the speed, cost and quality outcomes of a research project completed with various combinations of AI and human input to explore what value it truly adds and where. Spoiler alert, based on these results I’m not yet looking for a new career.

The final papers in this section inspired us to work with our new nemesis while celebrating the value that only human skill can add. Ninth Seat offered a compelling case around utilizing image based generative AI creatively during live sessions with consumers to unlock deeper emotions while Trinity McQueen reminded us of the not-to-be-forgotten power that our entire discipline is built on, language, and how this, beyond the spoken or written word itself is so laden with nuance and driven by context that AI simply can’t offer us what humans can. Humanity 1 - AI (OK, I’ll give you a 0.5).

Echo Chambers: A reflection on the role of the researcher

Moving away from the AI revolution, the next sessions offered an emotive, inspiring and reflective look at the value of more humanistic approaches to our research practice and just why these are so crucial to protect and promote within our discipline and wider industry as a whole.

There isn’t the time or space here to give these sessions the reflection they deserve, but arguably as the most poignant sessions of the day, they reminded us all of the importance of putting empathy, values and emotional connection at the forefront of what we do as researchers.

With sessions that focused on underrepresented or minority populations, and the complexities and cultural nuances that are paramount when researching these groups, to the unbelievable power of ‘peer research’ as a tool for engaging with vulnerable communities or handling sensitive topics, these speakers remind us that ultimately at the end of every single data point, quote or insight is a real person. It is not our job, but our duty to respect that in every stage of our work and where possible, to offer meaningful value and support for these communities in giving up their time to help us, and the brands we work with, to be better overall. If you didn’t leave these sessions moved and questioning your personal impact as researcher, you’re in the wrong job.

Self-censorship: Shifting focus from the ‘say-do’ to the ‘think-say’ gap

In a poignant but completely spontaneous set up for this session, a fellow speaker earlier in the day made a flippant comment along the lines of ‘you can’t say anything anymore’. My challenge to that? Is it that you can’t, or you don’t want to? And herein lies the final key challenge facing qualitative research currently as self-censorship is reportedly on the rise as people are increasingly choosing to withhold their opinion. Without opinions, we as an industry have nothing. We are nothing. The fight here is on.

For the final session of the day this topic was explored from all angles. Boxclever set the scene by exposing its complexities, the cultural factors driving the increase in this behaviour and encouraging us to shift our obsession with the ‘say -do’ gap to consider also the ‘think-say’ gap while acknowledging how delicate opinion is in today’s climate. In taking on the fight, Jigsaw presented some practical tips based on recent research for addressing self-censorship head on and giving an informed and inspired look at how and why qualitative research is best placed to do so. In bringing this to life, The Good Side in collaboration with Movember shared a phenomenal case study around just how they are fighting, and winning, the battle against self-censorship on a project focused on young men’s mental health.

The final round.

Whether you are a qualitative practitioner or not, the ‘Humanity fights back’ conference provided a platform for which all of us should be inspired by the importance of this type of work and the value it offers alongside disciplines like quant, data science and AI can offer. This isn’t about a fight for or against certain disciplines, but a reminder that all of us came into this field because we share a passion for people and it is the people within this industry who ultimately hold the power to do right by those we research.

If you want to learn more about the AQR or how qualitative research can best be used alongside data and analytics contact and check out AQR: Association for Qualitative Research, UK and worldwide


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