Objectivity is Not Neutrality — Words Market Researchers Should Live By

“Objectivity is Not Neutrality” — Words Market Researchers Should Live By

I really wish I could take credit for the phrase, “Objectivity is not neutrality.”  Unfortunately, that credit goes to Dr. Thomas L. Haskell, a Professor Emeritus of History at Rice University.  I read Dr. Haskell’s book when I was in graduate school.  When people talk about a life changing book, this truly was one.  His book, Objectivity is Not Neutrality, convinced me I should switch my career field from academia to market research.

Objectivity is Not Neutrality, The Book:

Dr. Haskell’s book is a historiography — that is, a book about how to do history.  In the book, Haskell tackles the problem that everyone — even historians have a personal bias.  This can creep into their work and result in a subjective portrayal of past events.  Whether intentional or unintentional, because of this subjectivity, “history”  risks becoming just another platform for advancing the author’s view of the present world.

Haskell argues that in order to do history properly, the historian needs to detach herself from her own biases and her own personal view of the event.  To truly be objective, an historian needs to weigh all evidence and fairly treat all interpretations of that evidence.  By presenting these multiple interpretations, the most compelling will succeed on its own merits.

Lastly, Haskell still gives the historian the right to a point-of-view based on careful consideration of evidence.  If all the facts clearly support one side of an argument over another, it’s OK to declare a winner.  It’s not necessary to be a milquetoast who writes history like a textbook.  The key is to be detached and fair, but not to the point of ignoring the right outcome of that fair analysis.

Even if you are not an history-buff, Objectivity is Not Neutrality, would be good reading for any market researcher.

Objectivity is Not Neutrality, The Market Researcher’s Mantra:

Much of what Dr. Haskell observes and suggests is valid for market researchers (and Category Managers, too).  As members of a business organization, market researchers can’t help but develop their own opinions on the business.  “This initiative is stupid.”  “We need to sell more of this product to Dollar General.”  “That copy isn’t very compelling.”  We’re human like everyone else.

However, the companies we work for expect market researchers to be different.  They expect us to be objective.  Like Dr. Haskell recommends, this means we have to be detached from our own feelings and the politics of the situation.  If we present data, we must present it fairly, with context, and a holistic perspective.  Unless you are directly assigned to support a sales team to sell product, your credibility as a market researcher is closely tied to your perceived objectivity.

The good news, as Dr. Haskell so eloquently puts it, is that objectivity isn’t neutrality.  A bottom-tertile concept IS a poor-performing concept.  Above average category leakage to a particular retail competitor IS a cause for concern.  Simply because market researchers are expected to be objective doesn’t mean they have to be dry, boring, and opinionless.  It means that our opinions MUST be based on a fair, detached analysis of facts.

Objectivity is Not Neutrality Requires We Make Business-Building Recommendations:

We’ve talked before about the importance of making clear, business-building recommendations.  Non-neutrality requires recommendations.  Non-neutrality means you must make an informed observation about the facts you present.  Too many researchers use objectivity as an excuse.  They present all the facts and leave their audience to interpret those facts for themselves.  That is not sufficient.

A good market researcher is objective in her presentation of the facts, but is also insightful about what to do with them.  If, after a fair and detached analysis of all pertinent data, the data points one way, make that recommendation.  Do not be afraid.

Conclusion:

Our business partners and clients hold market researchers to a high standard of objectivity.  This is good.  It also means our opinions count that much more.  There is no expert on the business who examines data, research, and evidence more thoroughly than the market researchers.  If that data conclusively points in one direction, it is the market researcher’s obligation to make that clear.  Making objective recommendations is still objective.  Objectively presenting data and hoping others interpret the right recommendation is just neutral.  Be objective, but don’t hide behind neutrality.

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