The Inequality at the Heart of the Insight Industry
Inequality is bad for people — I think we can all agree on that.
Income and social differences create feelings of dominance and subordination, with psychological effects rippling through society.
If you want the evidence for this, or if you want to understand all the little consequences of inequality in society — I direct you to the London School of Economics Inequality Institute (and in particular to this LSE podcast)
Tackling inequality is, therefore, a responsibility of socially minded businesses.
As a research industry, we must lead by example. We need to tackle an exploitation that sits at the centre of our work — the participant/researcher power imbalance.
There are three things that have merged in my head and propelled me to write this piece.
First, I wanted to write around the rise of feminism in culture and business. That article could easily write itself — it could run along the lines of ‘how insight can help understand body image/gender roles/pay gap etc’.
But that would miss the point. Feminist critique is about more than selling products to women.
For me, feminism is an invitation to challenge structural inequality wherever you find it. It is a profound force for positive change. As such, we should cast its critical gaze on the overall structure of the insight industry and its complicity in inequality.
#2 Deep trust
The second thing that spurred this article was my previous two articles. In these, I explored the role of the interview in an insight sprint — with close attention to the power relationship between the interviewer and research participant.
A large part of my thinking here has been shaped by the feminist sociologist Ann Oakley who dissected the patriarchal interview process in a paper entitled ‘Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms’.
She criticises the idea of scientific detachment and distance. Instead, she proposes, we should look deeper into the idea that the interview is a gift from the participant, and that the relationship should be thought about in terms such as friendship.
Reading Oakley transformed my attitude to research. However — it is yet to truly change the research industry…
#3 The Research Industry
The third aspect is a confessional. My background is in survey research and I have a bitter taste in my mouth from the way it worked.
Let me quickly explain how this industry operates — a research agency builds a ‘panel’ of people who ‘opt-in’ to research. These ‘respondents’ are recruited through a variety of marketing techniques — with the agency offering both financial reward for the time spent answering surveys and a more intangible reward of ‘making a difference’.
Participants are paid a sum ranging from anything as low as 5p to more reasonable sums of 50p to answer a survey. The research agency who owns the panel then mark every response up by a significant percentage — I would guess an average of around 200%.
I think that this is an unethical exchange.
In addition, they sell services such as ‘survey scripting’ and ‘survey hosting’ as well as consultative services such as research design and reporting.
This isn’t just something you see in survey research. Qualitative research has a similar economic exploitation — with agencies charging significant mark-ups on customer interviews.
For example, let’s think about ‘expert interviews’ — a key part of research projects. Often these experts are academics who have studied a topic for decades. They get paid a small incentive by a research agency, and then their insight gets significantly marked up before being packaged and delivered to the client. What makes this worse is quite how little academics get paid as a career, and how hard they must work teaching students - the workers of tomorrow.
This whole structure treats human contribution to research as a commodity. As an industry we need to transform this in line with feminist insight — and make it people centred.
#4 Ethics is opportunity
My intention here is not to hinder insight, or to devalue the great work insight agencies deliver. Instead I want to fuel a disruption that is already underway.
As humans, we have a gut feeling about what a fair deal is. And there are behavioural economic studies that are starting to quantify what precisely this deal might be.
By challenging the status quo, we can head towards a world where business embeds more heteroglossia. This is a phrase I’m fond of, and it means ‘many voices’.
By paying closer attention to the value exchange, we can bring different voice into the heart of organisations. With more academics, students and artists involved in bot innovation and marketing, we can bring about the type of profound cultural change that everyone is looking for.
PS: There are a growing number of self-service portals, such as Prolific, that are cutting out the middle-men and giving researchers direct access to participants and setting a ‘minimum wage’.