Taking part in the Big Thinkers debate at the annual Market Research Society conference last week I proposed Winnie the Pooh (known to his friends as Pooh Bear) as having a Big Influence on the way in which we conduct research. My fellow discussants and I each had 6 minutes to argue our case.
Now this may appear to have been a strange choice for a Big Thinker. Some say, and indeed he says of himself, that Winnie the Pooh is a bear of Very Little Brain. But I argued that he is deeply philosophical, and has indeed had a profound effect on the way that research has been conducted over the last 50 years or so. The two works of fiction to which I referred in my argument were Winnie the Pooh, and House at Pooh Corner, published in 1926 and 1928 respectively, some 80 years ago. Let me explain the epistemology that lied behind my argument. Epistemology deals with the theory of knowledge, especially the critical study of its validity, methods and scope, and we know that there are two fundamental epistemologies – that of positivism – ie quantitative research – and constructivism – ie qualitative research, and it is the latter on which I focused.
Now if I had had more time I could have put forward a variety of arguments that show just how in touch Winnie the Pooh is with contemporary issues – there are many, many analogies, for example pooh sticks and the demise of the global banking system, or the obesity crisis, and I’m thinking here of course of eating too much honey and getting stuck at Rabbit’s for a week.
Much of the contemporary thinking about the way in which we carry out and interpret qualitative research, I argued, falls into post-modern thinking and philosophy, and they apply to both research methodology, and analysis. I used the example of Pooh visiting Rabbit: ‘He was humming this hum to himself, and walking gaily along, wondering what everybody else was doing, and what it felt like, being somebody else.’ (Winnie the Pooh, p28). Like a good qualitative researcher, Pooh Bear puts himself in the place of the other, in order to understand. He is non-judgemental, makes no assumptions, accepts others’ foibles, and perseveres in his endeavour to understand.
I suggested that this could also apply to Ethnography, something we heard a lot about at the conference. Ethnography derived from Anthropology (the study of people in their native cultures), and it made its way into Sociology in the 1930’s/1940’s under the Chicago School, and in the UK in 1964 the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded to observe subcultures. The essence of ethnography is that routine and normal aspects of everyday life are regarded as worthy of consideration as research data – the mundane and ordinary are as equally valid as the big events that occur. Special emphasis is given in ethnography to the way the people being studied see their world – quite distinct from the researcher’s analysis of what is being observed. When Pooh and Piglet visit Rabbit, and he asks them why they have come, they reply “We’ve come to wish you a Very Happy Thursday”. Rabbit (whose life was made up of Important Things) questions what is so special about Thursdays, and is rather unimpressed when they explain. Later Pooh and Piglet discuss how clever Rabbit is, and after a silence, Pooh says. “I suppose …that that’s why he never understands anything.” (The House at Pooh Corner, p216).
Ethnography offers us insight through thick description. It accepts what is, not what may be, and it allows for interpretation through the eyes of the participants. A skilled ethnographer has the ability to understand, learn from, and appreciate whatever happens in everyday life. A key to well executed research, is not to over complicate, and to appreciate the here and now, and Winnie the Pooh, I argued, is a superb example of just that.
Unfortunately Pooh Bear was beaten by Charles Dickens (we had to suggest fictional or historical figures). Oh well, perhaps the judges were just too clever, and therefore did not understand. But I was given immense help by my fellow researcher, Martyn Richards (he is also a trained actor) who read quotes to the audience from both books superbly. Thank you Martyn, I owe you some Honey.