Making Sense and Selves: Exploding the Style of Reasoning in Market Research

How do we understand the world around us? What counts as true or false? How does the creation and adoption of ideas or styles shape our sense of self?

If you’re in the business of innovation where identifying and empathizing with consumer needs, behaviors and attitudes drives how you design new products, services or experiences, these are just some of the big questions you should be addressing. Among the people you can turn to for help is Ian Hacking.

A philosopher of science whose writing examines the ways that thinking about ‘being’ has been informed by history and culture, Hacking’s notion of Styles of Reasoning is a sophisticated explanation of how seemingly logical and proven conceptions of truth, reason and objectivity are, quite simply, manufactured. Although his philosophy is primarily concerned with the creation of scientific truths in mathematics, theoretical modeling, taxonomy and genetic development, it offers some interesting food for thought when applied to the ways in which consumer research positions itself as a practice that makes sense of the world.

Hacking challenges us to consider how objectivity has been manufactured. For him, two essential features of styles of reasoning shape how we constitute truth and experience the world. First, our styles of reasoning determine the criteria of evaluation by which they are judged. And second, our styles of reasoning create the subject matter they claim to study. What Hacking means is that not only do we invent the rules to decide what counts as ‘true’ and what counts as ‘false’ but we use these rules to determine what we actually study in the first place. What we conceive of as logic and truth are not actually timeless certainties, but are created by and within a system of sense-making of our own design.

History bears this out. In mid-17th century Western Europe, the bills of mortality for the Plague of London and the record-keeping system developed for suicides in Paris led to a new way of thinking, a new kind of knowledge and a new way of organizing the world: data collection, probability and the relative frequency of events. Reality and truth were henceforth defined through statistical reasoning.

Thanks to keeping records on all those dead Europeans, stats are now one of the key ways we identify, measure and think of ourselves and the world around us as ‘normal’. Since then, other patterns of occurrence – number of kids, income paths, sports car vs. family sedan, Coke or Pepsi – have become the go-to style of reasoning that market research uses to segment consumers, predict behaviors and make sense of the world and opportunities for growth and profit.

As a style of reasoning that creates its own conditions of truth, market research has created new ways of thinking about and being in the world. It segments us into human categories like Millennial, Gen X or Baby Boomer. By relying on the conventions of such constructions as ways of thinking about our selves and our generational tendencies, market research attempts to parse the complexity of humanity into more manageable bits that occlude the deeper lives and behaviors of actual people. It asks us to report on those lives and behaviors in ways that self-authenticate its style of reasoning. By relying on surveys and focus groups to identify attitudes, preferences or needs, market research forcibly restricts the depth of conversation that can occur around such topics. And it closes the loop on new ways of thinking about consumers through validation. By returning to the 17th century best practice of statistical modeling, market research uses the big data of quantitative testing to create its categories and craft its consumers.

Recognizing how the thinking and doing of market research is steeped in a very particular style of reasoning – one born from a plague that has since evolved to symbiotically co-exist with the ledger-like way businesses construct reality – does not necessarily discredit it as a practice. But it might help us imagine better ways of conceiving the subjects of our research.

If Hacking is correct in arguing that styles of reasoning limit what we constitute as truth, then it makes sense to argue that the mandate of today’s innovators should be to dismantle our demographics, spurn our segments, purge our personas and kill our categories. Only by challenging our styles of reasoning can we begin to create products, services and experiences that will authentically resonate with new ways of being in the world. ////

Dr Emma Aiken-Klar is a Resident Anthropologist at Idea Couture, a global strategic innovation and experience design firm. She is based in Toronto, Canada.


the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.