• Stevie Hanna

Exploration in Research- “I’m Kind of a Big Deal”: How Better Moderation Starts with Self-Reflection

I have a love-hate relationship with research. It is a source of eternal fascination and frustration that simultaneously excites me about new ways to understand and engage the world and makes me want to tear my hair out. I grew up in and around Ann Arbor, so joining Great Lakes GrowthWorks is really a homecoming for me.

The intervening years have had their share of travel and adventure. My work in Japan made me both a target of and tool for the promotion of Japan abroad. As youthful wanderlust dissipated and was replaced by a deep investment in East Asia, I earned my M.A. in Korea Studies with a focus on comparative analysis of Japanese and Korean national narratives and campaigns to rebrand the nation through pop culture. Sometimes it was a special challenge to get people to look past the sparkly costumes and dance routines and recognize the serious political and social implications. To ground my research, it was crucial to always explain how I was drawn to the topic and how I engaged it as an outsider. After almost two years in Korea, I’ve moved back to Michigan and started a new path, but even when everything changes, research is a lifestyle I carry with me into my next evolution. Transitioning from academic research to market research is an energizing shift in perspective. A lot of the fundamentals carry over.

Because research is a subject I’m passionate about, I’ll be regularly tackling topics from the difficulty of researching images to tapping into informal third party data in my series Exploration in Research. As I approach these ideas from somewhat a fringe perspective in this series, I welcome all insights and conversation.

Asking the right questions… the right way…. with the right timing is at the core of good research. It’s also a lot trickier and less obvious than it originally seems. Of course, this also means asking the right people, and a great deal of time and energy is devoted to determining who those people may be. These issues of methodology are pretty standard across a variety of fields and disciplines. Yet anthropology reminds us that it can be just as important to reflect on who is asking the questions. We, the researchers, are also components of the research.

We like to joke that anthropologists always go the furthest in their background. “How did you get into this work?” is a pretty risky ice breaker – our stories start at the very beginning. It can make a world of difference though. My advisor always strongly encouraged me to lead with an explanation of who I am and how I came to pursue that particular research. After all, Korean rappers borrowing from black hip hop culture in the U.S. is already incredibly complicated and a white girl from Michigan is not the obvious person to untangle those issues.

It is common practice in anthropological writing, particularly compared to other disciplines, for the researcher to position themselves in relation to the subject studied, recognizing that even as an outsider we are never fully removed from our own context or separate from the context of our research. Perhaps this is a reflection of field work that is often deeply immersive and relies on observer participation. Simply our presence and the act of observation provoke a response from those we observe, which must be accounted for in later analysis. We train ourselves to blend as naturally as possible, but not all things can be learned or altered. We have to work with who we are, so it’s best to start by being honest about who we are.

Education can only prepare one so much and may even give a false sense of security or authority. Being a detached observer is not the secret to better insights or analysis. It may even be an impediment. Rather, understanding how your own position and personal experiences influence both your perspective and the way people respond to you makes new insights possible.

So while preparing for focus groups, it struck me how one-sided the emphasis on respondent selection was. Each is carefully screened for a variety of points – gender, age, income, ethnicity, education, etc- in order to establish their relative positions. Guidelines for determining the optimal balance of traits are abundant and widely available. The moderator, by comparison, is essentially faceless. When the moderator’s role is described, it is in terms of preparation and skill in creating a comfortable environment and directing discussion. This implies that a moderator’s personal identity hardly matters because what is important is acquired through education and experience. A good moderator adapts to the respondents and creates empathy.

Yet we know that the unconscious elements of a moderator’s interaction with respondents crucially influence results. Not only is it impossible to erase all sources of personal bias, but the way that people respond can differ depending on the moderator’s age, gender, ethnicity, accent, and physical appearance. If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t be able to bare all about how I binge on pizza and junk food to an attractive young man or, god forbid, someone really in shape who looks like they run marathons and enjoy it.

Surprisingly, this issue doesn’t appear to receive much attention. Yes, some articles on focus group moderation do (briefly) mention that the personal traits of the moderator need to be considered if the issues researched are sensitive, like medical conditions, or cross cultures. In fact, multicultural marketing receives a ton of press as a vital focus in a globalizing world. But while familiarity with the culture in question is mentioned as an asset, there wasn’t much discussion of what market research companies or individual moderators can do to navigate the issue. Beyond studying the culture in preparation can only do so much. A company with a diverse team may have the advantage here, but there are so many cultures and subcultures that no organization could rely on diversity as a solution.

I’m not suggesting that moderators be custom designed to fit each focus group. In fact, pandering or insincerity would be counterproductive. But whether it’s a personal exercise, part of the sales pitch to the client, or a footnote in the report, self-awareness can powerfully contribute to better insights and analysis in market research. I’d love to hear more about your strategies for recognizing your own impact on focus groups and other market research.