Mark Earls

“Oh to be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing.” Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

Now is a very exciting time to be in marketing and market research. It seems we are in the middle of a reset, a reboot, a reinvention of methods and models like none before. Increasing numbers of practitioners are participating in a dizzy dance of innovation and reworking.

But this reinvention of market research is not merely the product of what the shiny new technologies enable us to do (mobile is an example well known to Research World readers). Rather, it is happening because many of the ideas and working assumptions our community has relied on for generations to animate our research methods – and the intellectual frameworks used to interpret the data we collect – are being challenged by a singularly rapid explosion of insight from the behavioural and cognitive sciences and a popular interest in what these academic disciplines are telling us about ourselves.

It’s a little like the early years of modern medicine. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was still possible to find practices endorsed in medical textbooks that we have long since rejected – blood-letting being one very dramatic example.

Clearly, blood-letting is no longer widely practised – most of us would run a mile from any doctor who recommended it – but its decline seems to have been driven less by a thorough analysis of its efficacy as treatment (it’s often difficult to do this patient by patient, case by case – modern medical science still struggles with it) than by broader changes in the understanding of how human physiology works. Challenges to the ideas and assumptions in medicine have been brought about by huge amounts of work done elsewhere in the medical forest.

Blood-letting made sense within the confines of the Galenic model which had dominated European medicine for nearly two millennia. Its theoretical justification was grounded in the widely accepted notion that human bodies and minds are rooted in four different substances (the “humours”). In medieval medicine, for example, much illness was seen as a result of imbalance between these substances, and that’s why you needed to “leech” or drain the blood of your patient. However, against the background of modern medicine, blood-letting just seems odd and even barbaric.

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