Critical Distance in Consumer Insights Studies

Critical Distance in Consumer Insights Studies

Industry experts, Researchers, & Professors


By Octavio Murekian

Why you shouldn’t always go local: Maintaining critical distance in consumer insights studies.

In one of my last pieces, I wrote about a study done by a large market research company on body image. In the study I noted how the results where absolutely skewed by cultural factors which where not picked up by the researchers. The outcome was that the results and conclusions that where drawn by this study where almost meaningless when looking at it from a consumer insights perspective. It is however important to note that the solution to this is not clear cut or easy. One might think that this solution would be to then employ local experts, however this solution might suffer from a problem well-known and recognized  by ethnographers, the issue of critical distance.

Going native, is a term given to researchers when studying a culture to forgo their critical distance and become unable to objectively analyse the setting that they are in (LeCompte & Goetz 1982). This loss of objectivity comes from the researcher being so immersed in their local culture that they can only see issues through that culture’s perspective to the detriment of any insights they may gain from their research. The solution proposed to this issue for researchers is to regain critical distance again, this is done through a periodic withdrawal from the field of study, which in theory allows the researcher to return to a more critical state (Whyte 1955).  Other researchers are more pessimistic about this and they argue that the particular piece of research should terminate at the point when the researcher notices they have gone native (Everhart 1977).

This leads me to the issue with local agencies, which exist immersed in their own culture to a point where their objectivity and critical distance are in doubt. Referring to my original piece on Mexico, where I looked at how machismo is understood by Latin cultures and its impact on how respondents would answer questions of body image. Talking this issue through with different parties, including several market research experts from LATAM, they failed to recognize this issue until I mentioned it specifically, subsequently agreeing it as a major factor for the study.

One of the reasons I was able to do this is of course my training and experience as a researcher, however it is not the only explanation. It is the fact that I have been away (living, studying and working) from LATAM, that allows me to dispassionately dissect these cultural constructs. This has allowed me to gain sufficient critical distance from the population that I study whilst allowing me to still retain my native expertise in it.

This is therefore the main issue with local agencies, the fact that they usually do not consider critical distance when approaching studies of consumer insights. It is therefore important for clients, when requesting pieces of analysis in a market to try and understand how this issue is being addressed by the agency in question. The agency should not be so far removed that the culture is alien to them, leading to the lack of cultural expertise and sensitivity shown in the study on global body image. There should also not be a blindness to these powerful constructs that comes from never objectively and dispassionately analysing the culture one lives in.

At Toucan Insights we are passionate about our research ensuring we collaborate with local and international experts to ensure that this critical balance is maintained. We believe this brings out the most accurate and powerful insights, allowing companies to understand their consumers, better serving their needs and attracting them to their offering.

Octavio Murekian is Toucan Insights’ Director of Research and a PhD Candidate in Consumer Behaviour from the University of London.