Curatorship of knowledge, the new role of the researcher

por animuxthinking

Este texto foi originalmente publicado na revista de ESOMAR, Research World. Foi escrito por Clotilde Perez e Rodrigo Toni.

“Groping with uncertainties is as unproductive
as blind obedience to rules”
Arheim, 1979

The world of today is constituted over a profusion of changes without precedent in human history. Changes have always occurred, but not with today’s intensity, diversity, speed and media attention. The use of the concept of “post-modernity” arose, perhaps, from the need to identify a clear temporal aftermath.

The values present in post-modern society, such as flexibility, intuition, affectivity and diversity, offer a true counterpoint to traditional modern values, where reason, hierarchy, truth, solidity and predictability reigned and determined behavior, attitudes and beliefs in all of life’s affairs. The world of today is no longer secure. We no longer have absolute, unquestionable truths, but rather a new model of impermanence that ravages us psychically and materially, permeating our relations and our very identity.

Canevacci (2008), an Italian anthropologist, coined the concept of the multividual to define contemporary man, someone no longer the “indi” of indivisible, but “multi”, complex, evanescent, transitory. There is no single identity any more but identities in the plural – mobile and fluctuating identities.

Among the consequences of these transformations are the raised levels of disapproval and exactingness on the part of consumers, fueled by expanded access to information, technological advances, and the constant growth of special offers in all areas of our relations. In the midst of this highly competitive scenario organizations are expected to demonstrate high ethical and moral values and attitudes, coherence between talk and the practices actually implemented, as well as maximum transparency and the valorization of people. In recent years we have seen a growing social movement aimed at ensuring more ethical business behavior and greater commitment to the long term. It is very probable that a good part of these manifestations is legitimately anchored in the quest for a more conscious relation with consumption.

In current times the act of buying takes on strong significance in that it becomes the principal mechanism of empowerment of the actor-consumer, which to an increasing extent opens up possibilities for civic manifestation and even provides evidence of social solidarity, as occurs with purchases involved in a relevant social cause, such as preservation of the environment, health protection, or even local community development in terms of sustainability.

Research has always been circumscribed by the universe of resolution. All the decisions we take in life possess a certain degree of uncertainty, both in relation to the information on which they are based as well as to their consequences. In this context, the role of market research has always been that of reducing uncertainty, thus aiding judgment, decision-making and solution.

Market research, immersed as it is in the social and productive context, is not immune to the movements that are transforming contemporary society. As an integral part of this universe, research influences and is influenced. But, in addition, the research environment faces its own “afflictions” and structural changes of major impact that are at the same time immensely challenging. Here again, ambiguity comes into play. Let us examine this more closely:

1) The major buyers of research sell their products and services on a global scale, which implies that their problems far transcend national frontiers, bursting through pace and, very often, time. This fact brings with it the need to join technical competence to a profound understanding of cultural diversity, in addition to the capacity to capture and express feelings and sensations.

2) In the past, research was used essentially by consumer goods industries. Today, companies selling services, information and technology have become important clients, but they bring with them new standards of quality, delivery and evaluation.

3) The role of advertising and of the various communication modes and tools, like design, packaging, in-store publicity materials, merchandising, etc., is far more concerned with boosting brands than with promoting products.

4) It has never been so quick and easy to access marketing data throughout the corporate environment as well as by digital means. Google, Wikipedia … provide ample access but, concomitantly, excess.

5) Research companies have relatively recently begun to introduce management concepts into their administration. This professionalizing process has led to the introduction of procedures, controls, manuals and certifications which aim to offer international clients comparable services anywhere in the world, as well as to guarantee quality, provide some predictability, ensure fewer errors and, therefore, better profit margins. This obliges research companies to adapt to an industrial logic: standardized processes, a repetition of mass production procedures and molds. In principle, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this; on the contrary, the activity gains quality, predictability, the benefits of scale, and profitability.

Nevertheless, this industrialization of the research process may lead to a loss of creativity and analytical sensibility. The person willing to conduct a research where he or she merely reproduces a predetermined model is possibly different to the person who creates the model itself. The former will not be someone given to creative raptures but a competent technical executant.

This is a paradox that the major research companies will have to face. In tandem with the imperative to strive for standardization and efficiency, the new consumer – the multividual – and a multi-faceted, post-modern society, demand creative, flexible, outside-the-box solutions.

The curator of knowledge

The role of the contemporary researcher is that of a curator of knowledge. Curatorship implies the acts of “curing” and “looking after”, that is, the curator is one who is charged with guardianship, with the duty to watch over with zeal, to protect, to support, to preserve. It presupposes responsibility and defense.
Knowledge is a comprehensive process by means of which any object (material or abstract) is singled out by the thought process, using dissimilar and varied investigative resources such as intuition, contemplation, classification, measurement, analogy, experimentation, empirical observation, etc., historic variables that are dependent, in each instance, on the philosophic and scientific reflective paradigms which gave rise to them. Knowledge is also a relational process, an interaction between subject and object.

Thus we see that the understanding of the researcher as the “curator of knowledge” calls for a fresh posture when confronting new phenomena; an open, experimental, always “green” attitude; receptiveness to the new, the different, to post-modern strangeness.

Faced with the ample access and consequent excess we live with today, the researcher, in response to the pragmatism that the profession entails, fulfills the role of selector of knowledge, aiding in the secure revelation of the preferences that best meet the desires and needs of his clients.

To be a competent analyst and interpreter of the post-modern society and of the multividuals, he researcher should acquire a generalist training, which does not mean superficial but, rather, consistent and wide in scope. He should integrate the rigors of logical reasoning with the sensibility of the humanities and the arts. He must be open to the new and the diffuse, to the strange and the foreign, always striving to maintain a “green” attitude, to remain in permanent development. He should do his utmost to stay immersed in the quotidian reality and sensibilities of the publics he intends to study, minimizing the barriers that tend to be raised by the artificiality of laboratory simulations and “what if” conjecture: he must, in short, be totally immersed in the sensitivity of life. He should make certain that responses are not linear but, instead, increasingly hard to apprehend, demanding complex, multiple and inter-related methodologies and theories.