This installment of Ask the Emotional Expert features Patricia Sunderland, Ph.D., anthropologist & founding partner of Practica Group, and co-author (with Rita Denny) of Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research (2007, Left Coast Press, Inc.).
Here’s what Patricia has to say about assessing consumer emotions via “anthropological ethnography.”
Conner: More and more we are learning that emotions drive humans’, and therefore consumers’, behavior. What are your thoughts about that?
Sunderland: There is no question that emotions are a crucial force in human social life in general and for consumption in particular. In fact, the notion that emotion could ever be abstracted from human thought and consumption — or that such a thing as human behavior exists in which emotion plays no role — is in large part a result of the historical bifurcation of thought and emotion in Western intellectual traditions. Thus also Western research traditions. In terms of understanding consumption, it is a history best left behind. Moreover, many of the best practices in consumer research take emotion, at least implicitly, into account.
Conner: What are some techniques you use in your work — anthropological ethnography — to assess emotionality in consumer behavior?
Sunderland: First of all, in our work we incorporate and build on some of the established practices in qualitative research that have taken emotions implicitly into account. For instance, we often use projective collages and other open-ended assignments as jumping off points for insight and conversation. Second, in our ethnographic work, in our commitment to attend to the naturally-occurring, in-context unfolding of human action, we provide the space for emotion, thought, and action to naturally emerge and intertwine, and for our attention to attune to that intertwined constellation. For us, embedded metaphors in language and nuances of word choice and ways of speaking are often among the clues we utilize for appreciating differences in emotional meanings and valence. Finally, we have found video and audio diaries an enormously useful means of extending ethnographic inquiry in time and space, and the small size of digital audio recorders, which seems to foster a kind of intimacy for participants, has been an unexpected boost in garnering emotional details. We have had great luck, for example, in asking participants to register tiny, tiny details of changes in moods as well as the minutiae of situations and circumstances that accompany those changes in moods with these recorders.
Conner: What advice would you give consumer researchers who are interested in assessing consumer emotion?
Sunderland: If there was one tip I would give, it would be to always keep the cultural and situational specificity of emotions in mind. As a cultural anthropologist, I am deeply committed to the recognition that emotions and the expression of emotions are variable rather than universal. The sources of inspiration in the cultural terrain of emotion are the nuances and the differences, not the similarities. Likewise, it is important to consider the context of the occurrence of emotions and the ways in which variations in emotional expression are dependent on context. Just think about parents and children and the ways a parent’s emotions toward and for a child can depend on the moment — what the child has done as well as what is happening both for the parent and child. And even if there are overarching feelings, the emotions experienced in that moment depend on that particular moment and instance (which, as humans, includes memories of past experiences). How experienced emotions are expressed is also context dependent. Where are the parent and child? At school, at home, in the car, in the store? And it is the same for brands and products. The context in which brands and products are encountered impacts the interaction with and emotional experience of those brands and products. I would say we have more to learn and offer our clients by keeping the nuances and specificities of emotions in the forefront than in their glossing over and backgrounding.
Conner: In the words of Christopher Walken in a Saturday Night Live skit I saw once, “Wowie, wow, wow!” This is fabulous information. Thank you!
Patricia Sunderland, located in New York, is a partner of Practica Group LLC (practicagroup.com). She can be contacted at email@example.com.