I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Sep 23, 2011

Throughout The Princess Bride, the evil Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) states that things are “INCONCEIVABLE!” Eventually, there’s this wonderful part (actually there are about a million wonderful parts to The Princess Bride but this is just one of them), when Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) says:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Contextualization Meme

(image via)

Though it’s meant to poke fun at Vizzini, this sentence speaks volumes, and is an important reminder to researchers. Recently, Danah Boyd and her colleague Alice Marwick wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining that the rhetoric surrounding cyber bullying is missing the mark. After hundreds of interviews with high school students, she noticed that when she questioned them about bullying, they defined that as a very “middle school” issue and not something that happened at their school. Yet this “didn’t mesh with” the team’s observations of clear bullying, so they started to really dig into the way teens talked about their lives.

Boyd and Marwick came to the conclusion that teens were using the term “drama” as a defense mechanism against bullying. They write:

“While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.””

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

Understanding the linguistic choices of their subjects on their subjects’ terms was incredibly important to the researchers’ ethnographic objectivity. Even simple definitions could not be taken at face value — they needed to dig deeper in order to gain a grasp not only of what the respondents were saying, but why they were saying it in that way.

The same principle should be applied to good market research. As an example, during a recent interview I conducted, a woman stated:

“Well for me personally, I respond more to a more girly approach. Retro figures, colors and more striking visual images.”

Now, for me the use of the phrase “retro figures” conjured the image of a very “Mad Men” silhouette — either that or a pin up. Because I couldn’t make any assumptions, I had to ask what she meant by retro in that context to see if she could better define the image she wanted to see. She responded:

“Well maybe retro isn’t the right word, but more of a fashion girl silhouette, glamour girl with scarf blowing in wind…”

The conversation went on, and I was able to get a very distinct image of the kind of personality this woman associated with the concept. I could have just left the definition to my own devices, but asking for clarification meant understanding the respondent on her own terms, which not only means better, more objective research, but also shows the respondent that I care about accuracy, detail, and him or her.

And research without a focus on the respondent? Inconceivable! (I had to)

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