Peter Levine has an interesting piece, which has come my way via Paul Evans this evening, on the value of trying to understand people’s opinions on the terms and in the registers they are naturally couched:
I am deep into coding focus groups, along with my colleagues at CIRCLE. We have convened working-class, urban youth in several American cities. We listen to audio recordings of their discussions with the software package called NVivo and, in addition to making open-ended notes, we attempt to categorize individuals’ statements into one of several hundred codes that we have constructed.
Often, what you hear is not a belief, a preference, or a principle. It is the sound of someone thinking about and around a topic that he or she may never have considered before. Asked whether voting makes a difference, for example, an individual may give a short monologue that drifts between yes and no and then back again, passing by way of such ideas as “no, but you should do it anyway,” and “yes, but only if other people do it, too.”
I like these two paragraphs very much. I like them because they describe what, here on this blog, I generally – most self-indulgently – do. I don’t edit, I don’t sub-edit, I don’t rewrite at all: I just uncover what I think even as whilst I sit down to write I have absolutely no idea where it will lead me.
So then. To a focus group I was involved in not so long ago.
I was, in the nicest possible way, recently subjected to Labour’s Refounding process. At the session I attended, held on behalf of the members of Chester’s CLP, many different registers were used and the dissonance, on occasions, was considerable. Especially when some people wanted to focus on absolute detail whilst others (like yours truly) preferred to use a much broader brush.
But what was most clearly missing from the whole affair was the use of digital technologies to capture not only the content itself as such but also – far more importantly – the way it was generated. In general, the structures of thought in question ranged from people huddled around tables and talking in small groups to soapbox discourses inexactly summing up the opinions thus given. How much richer would the experience have been if video cameras and Twitter-type technologies had been used to cover the event. The prescriptive nature (more here tonight) of the five or six pages of rather detailed questions wouldn’t then have mattered half so much if the apparently tangential communication it could have been designed to provoke that frustrating Friday in Chester – and which Levine so precisely describes in his post – had been captured in all its paradoxically relevant glory.
If methods of registering communication like the latter could be used, it really wouldn’t matter how practically any questions were framed. Opinion polls and focus groups would then be opportunities to pan for nuggets of information gold – instead of, as so often happens, being designed to obtain certain answers. This would, of course, clearly serve to change the balance of power between those hierarchies accustomed to defining the results (by reserving for themselves the right to ask the questions) and what we could generally argue are the rest of us, underprivileged mortals that we are.
I am reminded of a powerful book I read in my more tender years called “Sanity, Madness and the Family”. The methodology used in this project involved filming and taping the behavioural patterns of entire family groups where one of the members had been diagnosed schizophrenic. One of the most disturbing conclusions I remember being arrived at was that the individuals thus diagnosed had every right to feel paranoid, given the visual and temporal collusion taking place between their siblings and parents – a collusion only made evident by close and repeated examination after the event of the aforementioned films and tapes.
What lesson would I like us to take away from this then? From Voter ID scripts to complex surveys like the one I had to carry out for Labour List the other day, the answers we get may have more value when assessed in the round – and, linguistically speaking, on their own terms – than in relation to the original questions themselves. For if we are simply looking to get confirmation of realities we have already defined, then we are not being sufficiently ambitious enough: we are not looking to gain that winning edge.
Only if we are prepared to “pan for gold” where none is expected will we have half a chance of discovering those truly unexpected truths of considerable value – and maybe, just maybe, win a race we didn’t even realise we were aiming to enter or, indeed, designing to win.
Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? No sir. That’s not the whole of it by any means. Swear to capture the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – that should be our objective.