Playing the Outsider Role as a Moderator

How do you feel about hiring an American qualitative research consultant to conduct interviews in the UK?

This question was recently posed in an online discussion forum from the QRCA (Qualitative Research Consultants Association). Responses ran the gamut from “use someone who knows the culture; otherwise they’ll miss (at least) the nuances and won’t get the insights” to “it can work in your favor because the respondents will try to help the foreigner by explaining

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things that seem obvious to them, so you’ll get more insights.” Good points on both sides.

The question resonated with me because it’s a version of a question I have been dealing with my entire career: can an “outsider” truly get insights interviewing people from a different culture/ethnic or racial group, gender, or even occupation?

In the 1980s, when I worked at Leo Burnett, we dealt with questions about whether a man could interview women – especially about personal matters like tampons – but even about more public topics like shopping and cooking for the family. We worried about whether a white person could be an effective interviewer of black people (but never the other way around). And whether a woman could interview men about cars, beer, and other ‘guy stuff.’

When I struck out on my own and had to sell myself to clients, an additional layer of

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insider-ness was often requested: do you have a lot of experience in ___________________? I’ve been asked about everything from aeronautics to multi-purpose copiers, to kidney dialysis to plumbing, law firms, and prostitution.

There are two issues to consider in deciding whether an interviewer “fits” the project from an insider/outsider perspective. The first is, will the respondents be comfortable talking to a person who is different than they are in some ways? And the second is, will the interviewer be able to ask and probe in ways that will elicit the insights the client needs for success?

My experience has been that in far more cases than not, people are comfortable talking to an “outsider.” Of course it depends on the topic. But even topics that are quite personal can be effectively mined by someone who’s not part of the group. They key is for the moderator to listen deeply, admit when she needs greater understanding or explanation, and to make it clear she has empathy and is

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making no judgments. A moderator can play up her ‘outsider’ status to get more insight.

And frankly, sometimes it’s even better for a moderator to be an outsider, because it can be easier to be a blank slate (as opposed to coming in and withholding her own experiences and perceptions). For example, I have no clue what it’s like to be a black woman in the make-up section of drug stores, trying to find make-up for my skin. So I am completely open and innocent – able to ask and listen from a position of innocence.

Which leads to the second question. Being an outsider only works if the interviewer is really good: a deep listener and a terrific prober; able to win respondents over to her side to want to help her; able to adapt to the dynamics of the room to fit in better. It also only works to the extent that the moderator is well-briefed on the topic, the issues, the needs of the client and takes the time to background and immerse herself in the subject.

Of course black women will know many things – intuitively – about black women’s experience with make-up aisles that I don’t. A dialysis patient will inherently know more about dialysis than I do.

My bottom line to clients is always this: you can teach me

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enough about the category, the brands, and the way things work for me to do the research. And I’m a quick learner. What can’t be taught quickly are the skills to be an exceptional, insightful interviewer. I’d always rather hire me and teach me about aeronautics (enough to talk to pilots, not to fly the plane!) than hire a great pilot – who may be a not-so-good interviewer of other pilots.


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