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Why?

Gladwell has a terrific review of Charles Tilly’s new book “Why”. I haven’t managed to track down a copy yet but Gladwell says that Tilly provides a taxonomy of reason-giving. We emply four kinds of explanations:

  1. conventions (social formulae)

  2. stories (common sense naratives)

  3. codes(legal formulae), and

  4. technical accounts (specialized stories)

Where we get into trouble is where we use one kind of reason in a context where another is necessary. In Gladwell’s review, and the subsequent comments, the conversation looks at this in the context of focus groups. They are well worth a read. Here are a couple of highlights:

I think, as I gather you do, that how we feel about a brand, and which products and services we choose, is usually explained by a fantastically complex set of factors: the brands our parents used, the brands we see people around us use, the image of the brand, our personal experience with it, a sale, a half-remembered ad from 10 years ago, and so on. This is probably best explained as a story – we may both buy Tide, but there’s a different narrative that brought each of us to pick it up.

But in market research, the answers people give sound more like conventions: “It’s a good value”, “my family likes it”, “it tastes good.” And it seems that because of the artificiality of the situation, the perils of introspection, etc, most market research actually encourages people to answer in conventions, and doesn’t encourage the telling of stories. Many of these stories are probably complex and deeply buried such that they are hard to consciously access anyway.
Jason Oke, senior planner, Leo Burnett, Toronto.

A good focus group will be full of stories and (if you recruited well) technical accounts. I think people rely on what Tilly calls conventions when they are unable to articulate their behaviors and motivations through stories. In my experience, if you hear an excess of conventions and a shortage of stories in a focus group, then the moderator is not asking the right questions!

Quantitative research such as scripted telephone interviews, on the other hand, are BUILT on conventions! Due to limitations of time and in the interest of having an objective metric for all surveys, it’s really all you can do.Adam – Racine, WI.

Blog measurement is essentially the art of understanding conversations. Today, much of that measurement is focused on content, not context. (Actually, it is really about blog monitoring, but that is a different story).

For instance, I can measure frequency of brand mentions easily using automated systems. What I can’t measure is the hyperlinked context for that conversation. There is a collarlary between this and the focus group. That which seeks to just measure content – like vs. disklike, and not the context – stories, will fail in the same way that blog measurement often does today.

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One Response

  1. By Kami Huyse on April 23rd, 2006 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for the heads-up, I will add this to my reading list.

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