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W5 DIVERSITY SERIES: IDENTITY IN QUALITATIVE RESEARCH

Recently, I’ve had diversity on my mind (to be honest, I usually have diversity on my mind). In my former life as a sociology professor, I wrote and taught often about how a multicultural society can successfully integrate and reduce entrenched racial, gender, and class inequalities. In my current life as a market researcher, I look for ways to incorporate these lessons to help companies succeed. To that end, I am writing a series of posts on diversity as it relates to marketing and market research.

For this first post, I want to address diversity within the context of a qualitative in-depth interview, focus group, or ethnography. Whether the research objectives relate to social identity or not, practitioners of both academic and market research navigate the social identities – race, gender, class, sexuality, age, etc. – of moderator and participant.  According to standpoint theory, each individual’s perspective on the world is informed by her experiences in a social structure that is segmented by demographic or social identities.  When moderator and participant are the same gender or race, they will share a particular standpoint, while in turn differing in other facets of their identities, such as sexuality or age.

Sharing a standpoint has obvious advantages as moderator and participant may more quickly develop rapport and communicate within a common cultural framework.  However, interviewing across social standpoints presents its own benefits to research as the interview becomes an opportunity to break down opinions and experiences that are often left unexplored.

For instance, here at W5 I am one of our Spanish-speaking qualitative moderators.  I am not ethnically Latina and I have an accent that betrays Spanish as my second language, so I do not share the same social standpoint as the Spanish-speaking, Latina/o participants I interview.  However, this can be a benefit to research as I can take an outsider’s position to the subject at hand – such as the use of variety meats in traditional cooking – asking participants to explain to me the cultural traditions that inform their relationship to the product category in a way they would not do if I shared in these traditions.

At W5 our perspective on identity and ethnography is to always be mindful of the social standpoint of our participants, knowing how our identities may intersect and how they may separate us.  For some projects, it is useful to match key moderator and participant standpoints, such as when my colleague Kelsie Martinez moderated focus groups with millennial women like herself.  For others, dissimilar standpoints between moderator and participant will yield useful insights, as in my work with Spanish-speaking, Latino/a participants.  To be sure, even as two individuals share a standpoint according to one social identity, such as gender, they will differ according to another, such as race or age. The key for moderators is to acknowledge both their own and their participants’ standpoints throughout the interview process.

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