By Jack Miles

Many will argue that research is, in part, the science of prediction. However, very few predictions are 100% accurate. This one however might be….

How many qualitative researchers, focus group participants or back room clients know the distinct meaning of holding a focus group on the 23rd February vs. any other day of the year? My prediction is none.

The obvious question here is: why does holding a focus group on this date hold a distinct meaning vs. any other day of the year? The answer is that this date is the anniversary of the death of Robert Merton, the sociologist widely accredited for inventing the focus group. It would seem appropriate therefore, on the anniversary of Merton’s death to look back at some of his teachings that are still evident in the modern research world:

Methodological Neutrality

Merton, despite being the father of the focus group, famously remarked that his innovation would never be a replacement for the already established survey and that focus groups would never have the power to be representative. This lack of methodological bias could not be more important than in the current era of research where the traditional debate of quant vs. qual is now stretched to quant vs. qual vs. online vs. F2F vs. mobile vs. social listening. Keeping a Mertonian approach to methodology will ensure the right methods are chosen for the posed questions.

Science at Our Sole

Merton’s key academic focus for some time was the sociology of science and he saw a great overlap between the two disciplines. The integration of science into market research has also seen a recent surge in popularity due to the work of Byron Sharp. Merton used norms in his work to describe causal effects and Sharp uses laws in his, but despite approx. 70 years difference in their publications, their theoretical principals are remarkably similar.

Simple + Conceptual = Memorable

Some of today’s most well-known sayings such as ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and ‘role model’ were coined by Merton. They combined his known ability to simplify the most complex of findings and use terminology that had a far wider reach than the sum of its letters. In a world where research questions get bigger and broader and the information streams we use stretch in terms of volume and complexity, keeping our key outputs simple and pointed are key when trying to engrain them into the minds of the research user.

One of Merton’s most famous quotes was: “I wish I could claim a royalty every time someone used a focus group.” With the world research industry valued at $40bn, of which focus groups, contribute greatly, it’s hardly a surprise Merton wishes he patented the focus group.

And that takes us back to where we started – prediction. It is a tough game, and even those who have been awarded the National Medal of Science fall short sometimes. Merton may not have been able to predict how successful the focus group might have been, but we still have a lot to thank him for on the 13th anniversary of his passing.

Jack Miles, Northstar Research, @northstarlondon