The wisdom of a crowd – not!

Sometimes you can have an experience which makes you realise that you live in a rarefied atmosphere, associating for the most part with people who are ‘just like you’. Then you have an experience that jolts this reality. It happened to me last week when I attended a focus group. I have run these groups but never actually participated. The session was run by a university research group, on behalf of a charity. An investigation into ‘what constitutes a living wage’. I decided to go because in the light of all the cuts I thought it might be interesting, I like meeting new people and I had a free evening. If I’d been working at full pelt I wouldn’t have bothered. They paid expenses of £35 which contributed towards the Chinese meal we had afterwards. All twelve of us – eight men and four women – were of a similar age. That’s where the similarities ended. Everyone – not me – described themselves as retired. They painted a miserable picture of retirement and most of the debate focused on the cost of everyday items, bus fares, prescriptions etc.

The focus of the session was on the specifics of what individuals need to live. The basic minimum standards to survive and contribute to society. We had to imagine ourselves as 32 year olds, a couple, living in a flat with basic amenities. A picture was painted. We weren’t told whether these two were working. Questions were asked and we were invited to offer an opinion.

‘What do they need in their lounge, bedroom etc?’

‘What should they spend on household essentials, holidays, gifts, haircuts…?’

‘Do they need internet, a mobile phone, a landline…?’

We were asked to speak individually, not talk over one another, keep to the subject. All of this proved impossible and the researcher struggled to maintain order. It reminded me of my school teaching days with an unruly class of third formers. Some people found it impossible to tailor their comments to the scenario and talked about their personal situations – at great length.

‘Well, my missus sends me round the shops looking for the cheapest items… ‘

‘We go to the Market… Now you can get cheap veg there… Mind you…’

Others would then join in, telling their own tales. The session provided an opportunity for people to get support for their views about the high cost of petrol, energy etc, where to go for the cheapest haircut, why Morrisons is better than Tesco etc etc.

When brought back to the scenario of the 30 somethings we were supposed to be focussing on one guy offered the opinion that…

‘Young people today live on a diet of soaps and McDonalds…’ which didn’t sound like any young person I know.

I sat there silently screaming, considered making my apologies but decided to stick it out. I could provide a different perspective. I had a duty to do this. I didn’t want the researchers to go away believing all 60 somethings thought the same. So I spent the rest of the session saying ‘I disagree…’. I had nothing to lose and thought it unlikely I would ever meet these folk again. No doubt I was branded a snob.

It did make me question the validity of much research. I also wondered what, other the age and location, were the criteria they had used to select us. Did we represent ‘average consumers’, ‘the retired’, the 60s, or ‘town people’? We were only representative of people who had been contacted and agreed to volunteer their time. It seemed to me that most of the questions should have been directed to experts who would use real data rather than idiosyncratic and uninformed (for the most part) opinions. Look out for these research findings in July when they will be published as ‘research’. I won’t be volunteering for any more focus groups.


1 thought on “The wisdom of a crowd – not!

  1. There will be uproar when the JRF publish their findings. The people at the focus group will probably moan to their chemists or bus drivers about how young people get a free ride, ‘it wasn’t like that in my day.’ They will disagree with the research that they helped record.

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