Why qual researchers are hipsters

I visited a new cocktail bar in Brixton recently, The Shrub and Shutter.

Hipster culture is notoriously difficult to define. But you know it when you see it.

Sitting bang opposite a huge, imposing council estate, and between a row of working-class betting shops and barbers, the Shrub and Shutter is a hipster beachhead. To find another half decent coffee you have to walk a full 5 minutes to the safehaven of Brixton Village.

The first cocktail I ordered came with its own model aeroplane. The kind I used to play with as a kid in the 90s. But rather than feeling nostalgic, I felt a little complicit. Does being here make me a hipster?

So what is a hipster?

To my mind, a hipster is someone who gets their kicks out of being in close proximity to ‘authentic’ people, objects and environments. Authenticity is measured by how instinctive, irony-free and necessary something feels.

Thus proximity to ‘edgy’, hand-to-mouth communities (such as the Brixton council estate) somehow lends depth to the largely superficial choices that characterise middle-class urban life (should I pick the aeroplane cocktail or the one flavoured with shortbread?)

But that’s all it is. Proximity. The reason hipster culture has been the subject of such ire is that it can feel very shallow and voyeuristic. The Shrub and Shutter has a bouncer on the door; one can only assume to keep the ‘locals’ out.

It seems for a hipster being close is enough – you don’t have to truly become part of the environment to benefit from its authenticity.

Going native

Which brings me to qualitative research. To me, the traditional methodologies of the interview, focus group and even ethnographic observation smack of hipsterism.

Our role as researcher differentiates us as the only truly smart person in the room. Our job is to reveal the authentic ‘truth’ of our subjects – to spot the inconsistencies between what they say and what they do, to extract meaning and package it up for our clients.

The dualism of researcher (the mind) on the one hand and subject (the body) on the other is hardwired into all qual. Like a hipster, our objective is to get close to our corporeal subjects, whilst always maintaining an aloof, cerebral distance. Like a hipster, we therefore only really skim the surface. We may understand our subject at a particular level, but we don’t feel it.

The fear of ‘going native’ characterises both the hipster and qual researchers world. It’s great to be in the environment, but as soon as you become part of it then you lose your privileged position.

But in my experience, it is the moments when I have gone ‘native’ with a subject that I’ve truly understood it for the first time. It is when I have embodied the whole experience-  made use of my hands, my heart as well as my rational mind that I have truly ‘got it’. It is when I’ve started to become the subject that I have spoken with true authority.

So how do we overcome the ‘going native’ dilemma? That will be explored in my next post.