Sunday, February 15, 2015

Semiotic Buddha: Quest for Enlightenment

Semiotics is an emerging buzz-word in the marketing research circles in India. I am fascinated by this mysterious colourful box (not a black box) of semiotics. While attending a semiotics workshop at IIML, Noida last week I was delighted to see that Indian researchers are open to embracing the semiotic mind-set. It was also heartening to see that Indian brand managers are also seeking semiotics as a strategic input in brand-building. However, not many of seem to have a clear idea about this discipline. Chris Arning beautifully compared semiotics with meditation. We all know that meditation (semiotics) is useful and fascinating, some of us practice it, but none of us fully understand how it works. This metaphor made me realize that I am a mere disciple on an eternal quest for semiotic enlightenment, with a goal to become a Semiotic Buddha – the one who understands the ultimate Semiotics. ;)

My first rendezvous with semiotics was during my master’s program in communications at MICA. The course at MICA was my first step towards understanding semiotics. The workshop this week was the second step. Now, my goal is 998 steps away. Being a first year PhD student, I feel that this is the best time for me to start walking on this path of academic exploration. In a series of blog posts on semiotics, I would be periodically sharing a beginner’s perspective on what I read over the next couple of years. I hope that this endeavour would help other beginners like me on their journey as well.

I begin this blog series by sharing my understanding of how semiotics differs from traditional qualitative research. These thoughts are based on the discussions we had at the workshop, supplemented by some preliminary reading on cognitive psychology.

How is Semiotics different from traditional Qualitative Research?

The subject matter of semiotics is ‘interpretation of meaning’ – to decipher how consumers create meaning in their minds when they witness any stimulus. Any individual, who uses his mind to interpret something, would be using certain habitual or routinized modes of thinking. These habitual modes of thinking are created through a learning process (conditioning) that the individual goes through in his entire life. There are many things in his environment that influence the way his mind is wired to think (develop schemas/ semantic networks in his mind).

Semiotics looks at the elements from the individual’s cultural environment deemed to have shaped the semantic structure of his mind. For example, being an Indian, I would have grown up watching a certain kind of movies and TV shows and I must be absorbing cultural content that is currently being shared around me. All these cultural ‘texts’ would be depicting the idea of ‘success’ in a certain way. These depictions or codes of success would have subconsciously entered into my mind and would have modified the wiring of my schema of ‘success’.

Suppose a researcher needs to understand the schema of success – what does ‘success’ mean to the consumer? A traditional qualitative researcher would conduct a focus group discussion or an in-depth interview with the consumer and elicit his verbal responses to the idea of success. Although this method has the potential to give rich content, the hard truth is that consumers would not be aware of their own subconscious schemas and it would be difficult for them to articulate the same. Furthermore, deliberative elicitation would lead to rationalization of thoughts and we would not be able to uncover the raw subconscious structure. Chris Arning used another beautiful metaphor of the surface of the ocean vs. the wave current underneath the surface. Traditional qualitative research would capture whatever appears on the surface, but may not be able to dive into the depths sufficiently.

But if the consumer is not able to tell me what is in his mind, who will?

We do not have a machine that can let a researcher travel into the subconscious mind of the consumer and to take photographs of the semantic networks in his mind ;). But semiotics shows us the way forward. The basic premise of cultural semiotics is that individuals consume cultural content and absorb the semiotic flow of these texts into their memory. These individuals then mimic the semantic structure reflected in these cultural texts. Hence, if we analyse the cultural content that surrounds the individual and decode the semantic structures within these texts, we can construct a replica of the semantic structure that exists within the consumer’s mind. This is the reverse engineering technique followed by a semiotician.

Traditional qualitative research is inside-out, whereas semiotics is outside-in. Hence, semiotics does not involve interviewing of consumers. The population/ sample to be studied consist of cultural texts like ads, movies, music, materials, packaging, blogs, etc. The sampling of content follows the general sampling principles of traditional research – aiming for a balance of parsimony and representativeness. These texts are deconstructed and analysed using semiotic analysis tools and theories. Semiotics uses a rich bag of techniques and theories for analysis. The colourful, enigmatic box of semiotic theories and techniques is what remains to be explored. I would be exploring these theories and techniques one by one and would share my thoughts on them in my future blog posts. I invite critical feedback on my posts from researchers (practitioners and academic) and students. Let’s all discuss, debate and learn together :)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Critically Yours

As researchers, and more so as human beings, each one of us has a tendency to be critical about many things we perceive around us. It is a vital skill to possess. Without the ability to critically 'read' the content shared by the outside world, mankind would not have been able to develop and evolve culturally.

What does it mean to be critical? Is it only about finding faults and bashing the creator of any content? No. Being critical means being wakeful while reading (or watching, hearing) any content. One should not blindly accept any content at face-value without analyzing and convincing oneself about its credibility. Being critical also means being mindful and conscious of our own thoughts - the content being created inside our own mind.

When we look at any content in the form of a text, a film, an ad, a speech or any form of communication or behavior, our mind starts the critiquing process. However, most of us use our personal biases and jump to conclusions. One needs to take into consideration all the authors of the content that is being critiqued - who created the content, shared the content, distorted the content, interpreted the content.

The interpreter (the viewer) is as much the co-author of the content as the creator because the viewer tends to project his self image on the content and create personal meaning. The 'culture' or the history of the larger social group that the viewer and the creator are a part of also plays a role in the creation of meaning because it shapes shared reference points of interpretation.

Although each one of us have our own idiosyncratic method of critiquing the content we consume, I would like to give a glimpse of the typology of Literary Critics from the domain of Consumer Culture Theory propounded by Barbara Stern (1989):

  1. New Critics – focus on ‘what is said’ than ‘what it means’
  2. Archetypal Critics – organize textual elements into packages of collective psychological, cultural thought patterns (archetypes)
  3. Psychoanalytical Critics – analyze the psychological relationship between the reader and the text – how the reader creates personal meaning
  4. Structural Critics – uncover multiple possible meanings of a text from a semiotic perspective
  5. Deconstructionist Critics – understand meanings from binary opposites – defining based on what something is not.
  6. Socio-cultural critics – explore foundations of ideologies like classism, racism, sexism, etc. that shape literature.

The above modes of literary criticism provide huge scope for analyzing the content from multiple vantage points. An uninformed critic may use any personalized technique that is skewed towards only one of the above techniques. Not only researchers, but the awareness of these methods would help people from all walks of life to become mindful critics.


Stern, Barbara B. (1989), “Literary Criticism and Consumer Research: Overview and Illustrative Analysis,” Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (December), 322–34.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What is "Ideal" Cinema?

In the midst of the heated debates stirred by PK, one needs to look back and think about what is the purpose of cinema and what is "ideal" cinema? As film-makers, should we strive towards portraying reality or consider cinema as a piece of idiosyncratic  art 'authored' by the filmmaker? As viewers, do we project ourselves on the movie and 'create' personal meaning and interpretations from it? Or are these interpretations seeded by the film-maker? Are all possible interpretations of a movie under the control of a filmmaker?

This article reviews some of the ideas and theories present in the literature on media and film studies.

Is “Real” the “Ideal”?

Film critic Andre Bazin makes a distinction between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality”. He feels that any manipulation of the image or the dramatic sets and lighting stands in the way of releasing film’s true potential for realism. Reality has no place in this hallucinatory world of illusion; its beauty is in its dreamy detachment from the grounded, solid world outside the screen. 

 “Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.” He appreciates neo-realism as “a kind of humanism” first and a “style of filmmaking” second. He seems much taken by the idea of shooting an entire film about a man to whom nothing happens for ninety minutes.

But it is equally as impossible to make a film without making some sort of statement and imposing some type of perspective on the viewer. It cannot help but express in some way the views and feelings of its creator. The very act of making a film is already tampering with reality by capturing it in an artificial form. The purest form of Bazin’s vision of the ultimate realistic film, with no visible montage, no plot, no artificial or suggestive elements, and no signals sent to the audience to aid in its interpretation, is perhaps contradictory to the very purpose of this art form’s existence.
In the 1850s, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) condemned realism as a "war on imagination." 

For Bazin, this realism was enhanced through certain stylistic techniques and choices, including its tendency toward on-location shooting, which helped confirm the existence of a world beyond the screen. Deep focus and minimal editing promoted an ambiguity of vision that more closely resembled the spectator's perception of reality. Throughout the ages, Bazin argues, mankind has dreamed of being able to see the surface of the world faithfully copied in art. Bazin ascribes this wish to what he calls the "mummy complex" - an innate human need to halt the ceaseless flow of time by embalming it in an image. 

For critics such as Jean-Louis Comolli, realism was simply a bourgeois ordering of the world that served to maintain capitalist ideology, while for British feminist scholar Laura Mulvey realism, as all film forms, is structured by the unconscious of patriarchal society. Mulvey insists that film should not be understood as a record of reality, but rather as a reorganization of reality in a way that is fundamentally unjust to certain people, most particularly women and minorities because of its informing patriarchal ideology. 

Michael Iampolski, for instance, describes films as a series of "quotes" that interrupt the narrative and send the spectator back to other texts. Spectators understand what they are watching by patching together all these references, not by referring to a world off-screen. 

Auteur Theory and Authorship

Translated from the French, auteur simply means "author”.  Given that collaborative context, who might be considered as, or who might claim to be, the "author" of a film? If authorship is claimed, on what basis of evidence might the claim be made? Claims were made for the director to be considered the most likely member of the filmmaking team—in industrially organized commercial film production—to be the author of a film. However, this did not mean that every film director should be considered an auteur, or author, or the author of a particular film. Indeed, in many ways it could be said that the director as auteur should be considered the exception rather than the rule. 

Does a film need to have an author? Perhaps, to qualify as "art," a film needs an author, an artist. The question of authorship is important in every art form, whether for reasons of intellectual property rights and the art market or for reasons of status and identification. Painting and sculpture have usually offered reasonably clear examples of the individual artist as author, as have the novel and poetry. But other arts can pose considerable problems for straightforward identification of authorship. A playwright may be the undisputed author of a play text, but who authors a play text in performance? In the twentieth century, many theater directors claimed authorship on a par with playwrights (although television drama has usually preferred the writer as author). A composer may be the undisputed author of a musical score, but what about music in performance? 

CINEMA used a tool for propaganda in history

In countries like the Soviet Union, leaders recognized the power of film to influence social and political attitudes. Because of the inherent domination of visual images and the illiteracy of a good deal of the Russian peasantry, the silent cinema was an ideal tool for presenting ideas and information about the fall of the czar and the rise of the industrial and agricultural proletariat. Whereas Lenin had said that cinema was the most important art, Stalin wrote that "the cinema is the greatest medium of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands." Encouraged to produce epics that extolled the "leader of the Russian people.”

Leni Riefenstahl's landmark propaganda film, Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935), still provokes controversy. Commissioned by Chancellor Adolf Hitler Triumph of the Will was meant to be the official documentation of the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. Yet the film also promulgated fascism and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) as the bases for renewed German nationalism and patriotism. Hitler repeatedly stressed that one could not sway the masses with arguments, logic, or knowledge, only with feelings and beliefs. Indeed, all the signifying mechanisms of the cinema—camera angles, lighting, editing, set design, and music—were marshaled to appeal to a malleable mass audience. 

What does Cinema mean to the spectator? Identity? Pleasure? Escapism?

Borrowing from semiotics and psychoanalysis, Metz sets out to show that the cinematic image brings together a series of visual, musical, and verbal codes that the spectator then deciphers in an attempt to make meaning. Film and the photographic image do not provide any type of direct access to the real, according to Metz, but are rather one instance of a symbolic system. Resemblance, in this view, is based upon codes and conventions; the screen is not a window onto the world, but a mirror, reflecting back to spectators their own ideologies and sense of identity.

A major source of cinematic pleasure for the viewer is scopophilia - the pleasure in looking and in being looked at. Scopophilia can develop into a perversion, obsessive voyeurism, which involves gaining satisfaction from 'watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other'. Scopophilic pleasure is available in the cinema, since the viewers watch in an enclosed world, where images appear apparently regardless of who is watching. Thus the spectators seem to be looking in on a private world, and can project their desires on to the actors. 

Modern cinema could be said to resemble Plato's cave in the way in which the viewer is immersed in a fabricated reality. They suspend disbelief throughout the time they are inside the cinema they become part of their chosen film, and as a result become the prisoners of a contemporary cave. The walls of the cave can be equated to our inner eye-lids where we view dreams while sleeping. When the dream story is being “projected” in the cave, we believe it to be true, at least for the moments we are engrossed in it.

Note: This review was as a part of a course on Film Studies I took at MICA (2011)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Culture and Consumer Behaviour

Culture is the mental programming of people in a particular context. It consists of implicitly shared meanings among a group of people. McCracken (1986) defines two elements of culture as (a) Cultural categories: which are fundamental axes or lenses of meaning through which the individual divides and views the world. These categories can include distinctions of race, class, gender, etc; and (b) Cultural principles: which are the values and ideas that form the basis of the above categorization. 

Hofstede, Neuijen, Ohayv, & Sanders (1990) developed a model to classify the levels of manifestation of culture. Figure 1 depicts the model.

Figure 1. Manifestation of Culture

Symbols are explicit words, gestures, pictures, objects that carry a specific meaning within a culture. Heroes are real or fictitious characters who personify prized characteristics in the culture. Rituals are activities conducted periodically which are socially essential within a culture. All these elements are explicit and can be observed in cultural practices. The deepest level of culture lies in values. Value can be defined as the answer to the question, “What is it that you want to live for? How do you want to live?” Hence, values are the end goals and preferred mode of action that people want to pursue.
McCracken (1986) also elucidates that cultural meanings are located in and transfer between three places namely, the culturally constituted world, the consumer good, and the individual consumer. Hence, in order to build cultural resonance, brands need to decode culture from the target society and encode culture in their brands through their products and advertisements.

Surf Excel: Redefining Cultural Principles

Cultural principles define cultural categories into valences and hierarchies. They decide what is good and what is bad. The detergent category conventionally follows the principle of ‘dirt is bad’, with all brands positioned on cleanliness and whiteness. Surf Excel redefined this cultural principle in order to break the clutter in the market and positioned itself on ‘dirt is good’.

Figure2. Surf Excel - Shifting Cultural Category by changing Cultural Principles
In Asia, dirt is culturally associated with negative aspects of poverty, poor hygiene, hardship, disease and sometimes death. In a case study written by Unilever and their advertising agency, Lowe (Gosling & Jathanna, 2012), they explain that they reversed the logic of making dirt ‘good’ from bad among moms by showing them the life values kids learn through dirt. Asian mothers cherish life values of  'forgiveness', 'sacrifice', 'gratitude', 'courage', 'determination' and want their child to inculcate these traditional values. Surf Excel, through its advertisements, showcased that, through dirt, a child can learn these values and have high gains. This helped Surf Excel become a symbol for freedom (Sachitanand, 2012). This campaign helped the brand's sales in Asia grow tenfold and become the No.1 brand in most Asian countries, with market share reaching as high as 70% (Gosling & Jathanna, 2012).

Fair & Lovely: Tapping the Values of Fairness

Fair & Lovely is the largest selling skin whitening cream in the world. It was launched by Unilever first in the Indian market. It held a leadership market share of 50-70% of the skin whitening market in India in 2006, with its close rivals Fairever and FairGlow only having a combined share of 16% (Karnani, 2007). Fair & Lovely was able to build resonance with Indian consumers because it decoded the culture of fairness at a deeper level of values and encoded the same in its brand communication.

Based on the cultural analysis done by Verma (2011), we can plot the manifestation of the Culture of Fairness of Hofstede’s model as follows:

·         Hindi idioms 2 (‘kali kartutein’, ‘kala akshar..’ ‘Buri nazar wale..’ ‘kaali kaluti baigan looti’
·         Moon related songs (lullaby and film songs) ‘chand see mehbooba ho..’
·         Fairness eulogizing popular songs and folk songs

·         Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Fair protagonist in movies

·         Home treatments to protect fairness
·         Religious customs of worshipping ‘full moon’ (poornima, poonam) vs. amavasya,
·         Search for bride and bridegroom (matrimonial ads) Eg: "I am a 36-year-old man looking for an ideal Indian wife. She must be beautiful, fair skinned, well-mannered and respectful of my aging parents."

·         Feminine beauty, perfection, racial superiority, confident, attractive
·         Better marital and job prospects, status

Fair & Lovely tapped into the deep values associated with fair skin and showcased the same in their advertisements. They initially positioned the fairness cream as an instrument to reach the end goal of better marital prospects. As the society changed towards increasing career consciousness among women, they moved to the end value of better job prospects and focused on the role of the product in helping the women realize their dream of becoming independent.

Clottaire Rapaille – Unlocking the Culture Code for Product Design

The deepest manifestation of culture lies in values. However, consumers may not be consciously aware of their own value systems that drive their behaviour and decisions. Most of the deepest held values are at sub-conscious level. Clottaire Rapaille is a psychologist who delves into the sub-conscious mind of consumers to uncover culture codes associated with product categories. In his book “The Culture Code” (Rapaille, 2006), he explains that the culture code can be decoded by analysing childhood imprints.

He presents an example of Wrangler Jeep, a player in the American SUV market. Jeep Wrangler was initially a big player, but later lost ground because of many new entrants in the SUV segment offering higher comfort and luxury. Chrysler, the manufacturer, was contemplating to redesign the Wrangler Jeep to make it more comfortable and luxurious. However, Rapaille’s research probed on the childhood imprints of “Jeep” among American consumers and found stories about free riding in open planes and symbols of the American West. He concluded that the Code for Jeep in America is HORSE. He recommended to design the product to symbolize a horse. A horse is not associated with comfort or luxury. It is associated with toughness and ruggedness. Hence, Jeep was designed with removal doors and an open top – to give the feeling of wind while riding, similar to riding a horse. They included tough leather like a saddle for the seats and made the headlights round in shape because horses have round eyes and not square ones.

The company also used a horse in its advertising and presented the Wrangler as a noble, nomadic hero that arrived serendipitously in perilous situations, resolved them thanklessly, and rode off quietly into the sunset. With the new product design, the sales of Jeep grew substantially along with establishment of Jeep fan clubs in America. These fan clubs also had t-shirts with the slogan “Real Jeeps have round headlights.” Recently, I-Phone cases with the Jeep theme are also being sold (See image). The brand has become a symbol for wildness and ruggedness and has strong resonance among its consumers.

Figure 4. I-phone case with Jeep theme

Figure 5. Recent T-shirt themes on Jeep

Gosling, B., & Jathanna, R. (2012). OMO/Surf Excel/Rinso/Breeze: Dirt is good - The value of dirt. Warc Prize for Asian Strategy.
Hofstede, G., Neuijen, B., Ohayv, D. D., & Sanders, G. (1990). Measuring Organizational Cultures: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study Across Twenty Cases. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35(2), 286. doi:10.2307/2393392
Karnani, A. G. (2007). Doing Well By Doing Good - Case Study: “Fair & Lovely” Whitening Cream (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 958087). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from
McCracken, G. (1986). Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods. Journal of Consumer Research, 13(1), 71–84.
Rapaille, C. (2006). The culture code : an ingenious way to understand why people around the world buy and live as they do / Clotaire Rapaille. New York : Broadway Books, c2006.
Sachitanand, R. (2012, August 8). How HUL succeeded in breaking through the clutter with “Surf Excel” campaign. The Economic Times.
Verma, H. V. (2011). Skin “Fairness”—Culturally Embedded Meaning and Branding Implications. Global Business Review, 12(2), 193–211. doi:10.1177/097215091101200202

Friday, July 4, 2014

Calculating 50 Shades of Grey

The Mathematics of Social Sciences

As I enter my journey at IIMB as a PhD candidate in marketing, I see myself as a social scientist. I see myself as an explorer and investigator of the human mind and behavior. I see myself applying principles of psychology, sociology and anthropology - the beautiful 'soft' sciences of mankind. But suddenly, my vehicle of learning takes a sharp detour into the 'hard' science of mathematics.

Over the last 3 weeks, I have been exposed to a lot of mathematics - a lot and of a different breed. I have been exposed to a lot of concepts whose existence I was oblivious to. After keeping me away from mathematical education after class 12, life decided to finally orchestrate a rendezvous with Linear Algebra. As terms like matrices, vectors, transpose, multivariate calculus, projections, etc. were being 'bombarded' at me, a volley of questions bounced in my mind...

"Why do I need to learn all this? How is this related to my future research work? How will this help me in understanding the human mind? Isn't statistics enough to compute quantitative data? Why do we need matrix algebra here???"

For the first 2 weeks, these questions kept rotating within my mind. But as I entered the third week, consciousness dawned into me. After spending 5 hours with Gilbert Strang (I met him virtually through his book!), epiphany struck its magic wand and I realized that Linear Algebra is one of the coolest things a social scientist can learn. From that moment, I started seeing myself as a potential 'Social Mathematician' as well.

As a social scientist, I would be involved in explaining the human mind and behavior. As we all know, today's world is not a very simple place. There is nothing purely black or white. There are various shades of grey. And as we all know, grey is nothing but a linear combination of black and white.

Let's take a simple generalization of the human mind being a combination of 2 elements namely - Good & Evil. All the people in this world would have different combinations of good and evil in their minds. We can draw parallels with numerous ancient oriental philosophical concepts like Yin & Yang (Combination of 2 opposing elements) and Om (Combination of 3 elements A,U,M).

So, we can start identifying linear combinations in almost everything around us, including the human mind.

Let's go back to our basic example of linear combination of 2 basic colours - Black and White.
Now, imagine that I am mixing these 2 paints on a palette to get a resultant colour Grey. It is possible for me to mix black and white paint in different proportions to arrive at various shades of grey.

When we are given a particular shade of grey, we can find out the specific proportion of black and white that was combined to get this specific shade of grey. Since grey is a linear combination of black and white, we can express them in the form of algebraic equations where w= white, b=black and g=grey

g= xw+yb

Here, x & y are the proportional weights of white & black respectively.
For different values of x & y, I will get different shades of grey.

We can express this particular linear combination in the form on a matrix where the rows equate to the dimension of 'whiteness' and 'blackness' and the columns signify the actual colours:

In a scenario where I am mixing only 2 elementary colors - black and white - that are mutually independent of each other - for every shade of grey I can identify the specific combination of black and white. But there may be situations where we may not be able to arrive at a specific combination.

Situation 1 - No possible combinations!

Imagine you come across a question as absurd as, "What combination of black and white will give you RED?"

No matter what combination of black and white you mix on your palette, you will never get red. Hence, such a situation has no solution.

Situation 2 - Infinite possible combinations!

Imagine you come across a question that says, "What combination of black, white and medium grey will give you dark grey?
Here, we are combining 3 colours to get a fourth colour. But the problem is that the initial 3 colours are not mutually independent of each other. The third colour medium grey is a linear combination of the first 2 colours. In such a situation, we end up getting infinite possible combinations! 
Let's see this with a numeric illustration:

We define medium grey as lg= w+b, and dark grey as dg= w+3b, we can express this as:

As it can be seen above, we can have multiple possible combinations of the 3 colours to arrive at the fourth colour. We can either mix only white and black and none of medium grey, or take a portion of medium grey and add some more black to it to make it dark grey. If we were to include the possibility of having negative values (i.e, if it was possible to remove some colours from a mixture), we would be able to get infinite solutions!

Now, let's calculate the grey areas of human mind

Till now we looked at colours and pigments which are physical objects. But the crux of the exploration of a social scientist is human mind and behavior. So, let's apply the concept of linear combination in a human phenomena.

Let's ask a fundamental question - "What makes me content with my life?"
As a social scientist, I would think of various elements that lead to contentment in life. These elements could be having a job that you love, having a positive family life and earning handsome money.
Linear algebra comes into picture here because the level of contentment in my life would be a linear combination of these 3 elements in some proportion!

For some people, earning good money may be more important than doing something you love. Such people end up doing a job that they hate doing just because it pays them well. For some people, family happiness may be much more important than job satisfaction. Such people may end up doing something they hate just in order to keep their family happy. Instead of just guessing what element could be important in a society, we can use the magical wand of Linear Algebra to precisely find those proportions!

For illustrative purposes, let's assume that we are trying to find these proportions among a homogeneous group of 28 year old, male, graduate, working professionals in Bangalore. In order to find the combinations, we need to measure the individual elements. We can measure the following 4 questions using a 100 point scale where 0=Not at all and 100= A lot:

Q1. How content are you with your life?
Q2. How much do you like the work that you are doing?
Q3. How much higher do you think is your salary as compared to what people get at your age & experience?
Q4. How positive/ pleasant is the overall mood of your family?

We administer these questions to 3 people and their responses are as follows:

Work Likeability
Paycheck Handsomeness
Family Positivity
Life Contentment

As it can be seen, the data that we receive will always be in a tabular or matrix form. Each column stands for a variable captured in a question. Since we are trying to find the importance of each variable on the final variable of Life contentment, we will carry out combination of columns as follows:

On solving this system by linear algebra methods, we arrive at the solution of x=0.3, y=0.2 and z=0.5.
This gives us the solution that family positivity is given more importance, followed by work likeability and paycheck.

With the help of linear algebra, we can find out what is the main driver of contentment. Similarly, this tool can be applied in calculating any other measurable linear combination in this world.

We know that the human brain is made up of grey cells and the human mind is also made up of shades of grey. Mathematics can be used to quantify the human mind and yes, we can calculate more than just 50 shades of grey!

Moral of the story: Embrace mathematics, even if you claim to be a qualitative researcher because beauty lies in integration - the linear combination of qualitative and quantitative research!

Linear Algebra helps us visualize beyond the physical 3 dimensional space through the column-vector concept. Once we are able to visualize multiple dimensions, we may get closer to solving Einstein's dilemma here:

Friday, June 20, 2014

Simple is Robust

Every researcher should treat this as a guiding light :)

Embedded image permalink

If the concept is extremely clear in your mind, you should be able to explain it even to a 6 year old child with ease. This clarity of thought and simplicity should reflect in our writing.
Our research paper should be so simple, yet robust, that the reader should feel the joy of discovery and excitement on turning every page. And it should feel effortless like reading a comic book - an academic, robust comic book.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Creating Meaningful Impact in Academia

As an academic researcher, one needs to develop a new theory which is "path breaking". One needs to do disruptive research  in a positively constructive manner.
How can one's contribution be seen to be 'meaningful'?
I was reading a semiotics paper and discovered a beautiful analogy used by Saussure in describing the relationships between words and their meaning.
Saussure talks about a "Chess" metaphor. In a game of chess, moving one piece on the board alters the relationship between all the other pieces on the board.
This metaphor can beautifully be applied to the role of meaningful research in any domain of knowledge. Our theory should be like a new move on the chess board of existing knowledge.  Our move should influence the interrelationships between all other pieces of knowledge in the domain. This influence can be brought by challenging the underlying assumptions in the body of knowledge because the assumptions form the common thread that connects all the pieces together.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Research is not an activity. It is a mindset.

I do not consider research to just be an activity or a process. I see it as ‘a way of life’. From the day we are born, we are inquisitive about everything around us. When we hear a loud noise outside, we run towards the window to see what is happening outside. When we see someone upset, we approach her to find out what is wrong. Life always throws mysteries at us that provoke our minds. We are not at peace until we find answers to solve those mysteries. One can draw a parallel to the ‘Laws of Karma’ from Indian spirituality that says that there are many incomplete equations in this world that need to be completed and written-off. Life will give us a chance to solve each of these equations from time to time. We need to be equipped with the spirit of research to solve those mysteries. With research as our way of life, we will be able to make informed decisions at every step and help reduce the level of chaos in today’s world. Well researched decisions are well balanced decisions.

Academic Research is a very interesting field. Throughout our academic life, from school to graduation, we have been reading books written by others. We have been studying theories founded by thinkers over the years. Research is the only way we can create something new and original to the existing knowledge base in this world. The human mind and intellect is capable to finding answers to the deepest unanswered or even unasked questions. If we keenly observe what’s happening around us every day, we will come across many such activities that have no explanation. It would be interesting to find the cause behind such things. Blindly accepting the conventional wisdom is not the right thing to do. According to Galbraith, conventional wisdom is simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting. We need to think out of our comfort zone to find the real answers.

The role of an academic researcher is a very exciting one. I believe that it encompasses numerous other roles that would give me a well-rounded personality. Firstly, it makes me feel like a detective who has been hired to solve a ‘market mystery’. It is my responsibility to collect evidences and deduce insights from the same. Secondly, it makes me feel like a doctor who needs to diagnose the ‘health issues’ with the world of management and provide them with ‘medicinal insights’ that would heal them. And thirdly, it makes me feel like an explorer who is diving into fathoms of the conscious and the unconscious minds of people to bring out pearls of insights to share with the rest of the world. These are three different worlds that come together to create the research world. But the common philosophy that runs through all these roles is of being ‘solution-oriented’.

I recently attended a panel interview where I was asked a question by a gentleman:
“Can you give me an example of a well-researched product that did not do well in India?”
It was a thought-provoking question. As I tried to analyse the question in my mind, I realised that it was actually an invalid question, an oxymoron to be more precise. We need to first define what ‘well-researched’ means. The fact that the product has not done well in the market proves that it was NOT well-researched in the first place! How would you rate research as good or bad? I firmly believe that the ‘mystery-solving’ ability of the research determines its quality. The general belief is that a ‘well-researched’ project is one with a complex research methodology conducted at a large scale with a plethora of jargon, statistics and reports. But the fact is that if the simplest method of research is able to find answers and solve the problem, it will score better than any mammoth project that just ‘beats around the bush’. Sometimes, the journey (methodology) becomes more overbearing than the destination (solution). We must remember that some of the world’s most revolutionary discoveries happened by the most fascinating methodology of nature called ‘serendipity’.

We know that intelligence quotient (IQ) is a hygiene factor for any individual to excel in a knowledge-based environment. But academic research requires a much deeper level of understanding of oneself and of others. Hence, emotional intelligence and empathy is very important to be able to clearly extract insights from the human mind. A researcher needs to possess high emotional quotient (EQ) and be able to step out of the problem to analyze it objectively. She needs to understand her own mind before she can start understanding the consumer’s mind because her own mind will create many biases in her analysis. And finally, she needs to be stung by the “asking bug”. Since childhood we have been encouraged to raise our hand and ask the most stupid questions. We won’t get any answers until we ask questions. Fear of making mistakes stops us from being creative. As Sir Ken Robinson said in his TED talk,
“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”
Courage to question the norms, to think of out-of-the-box ideas and to turn them into reality is what is needed to boost the research further into the future. We all have an urge, a need to move forward into the future. But before we move forward, we must learn to look backward and learn from our past. We must learn to be like kids again.

As David Ogilvy says, "The best ideas come as jokes. So, make your thinking as funny as possible."

The day ‘God’ retweeted me

I have always been fascinated by fairy tales. I vividly remember the beautiful story of Cinderella who was transformed into a beautiful princess by her Fairy God Mother, who made all her dreams come true. What could Cinderella have done, if there was no Fairy God Mother?  Every person needs a powerful and magical tool to turn unrealistic dreams into reality. These dreams could involve getting your ‘prince charming’, or, in a more contemporary world, getting an excellent career.
I would like to equate young students and professionals to Cinderella. They have potential and ‘charm’ but the traditional physical barriers of hierarchy seemed to have played the role of their evil step sisters for ages. The budding talents have always found it difficult to get a platform to be heard amidst the abundant talent of experienced experts. Traditionally, the youngsters have had to follow a long and tedious process involving years of baby steps towards climbing the ladder to finally reach the top and be heard. But now, they need not worry. Their Fairy God Mother has arrived.
I come from a generation that has spent its high school on Orkut, and college on Facebook. For me, social media is not ‘just a website’. She is my Fairy God Mother. She helped me discover my long lost childhood friends and my first job. Furthermore, she empowered me with the confidence of building a great future because of the magnificent opportunities she opened up for me in the market research industry. For the past six years I had been using social media just as a ‘past-time’ tool. I used it for personal interaction with friends, and never with strangers. Facebook was the only place where I was actively uploading photos, tagging and commenting with friends and acquaintances. I did not know that I was missing out on a huge chunk of conversations happening outside my small circle of friends online. I had vaguely heard of Twitter and thought that it was just like a ticker on MTV where people followed and gossiped about movie stars. Hence, I had preferred to stay out of Twitter.
In many spiritual scriptures, it is clearly mentioned that the path to reach God is through a “Guru” or a teacher. He acts as a mediator who guides you towards a path to understand and get acquainted with God. For me, ESOMAR played the role of a guru in the avatar of Ray Poynter J!
Last year I was given a life-changing opportunity to attend the ESOMAR APAC Conference in Malaysia where I witnessed the best presentation of my life. It was Ray Poynter’s presentation on the wonders of Twitter and how market researchers can communicate with each other using Twitter. I was amazed at the power of this tool! It was the first time I was introduced to the concept of hash tags like #ESOMAR, #MR, #MRX, et al. The best thing about this was that there were no barriers. One does not need to be in the “inner circle” to be able to tweet with a hash tag. Earlier, I was an ‘outsider’ to the MR community because I was a shy student who did not have any possible means of having a one-to-one conversation with the senior level managers, CEOs of global companies that present at ESOMAR. I feared that whether it would be considered a blasphemy for me to physically barge into a conversation among MR experts. After all, I was just a 21 year old student. And I knew that it would be almost impossible for me to physically attend another international ESOMAR conference until I became a senior researcher which would take at least 3 years time. But I sincerely wished to be a small part of the “inner circle” – to learn and interact with the who’s who of the MR fraternity. As soon as I made this wish, my Fairy God Mother appeared clad in a blue dress with wings (like a tweeting bird), and struck her magic wand. Voila! I had a twitter account @Tanvi_MR J
I started following (stalking is a better word) Ray Poynter and all others who tweeted with the hash tag #MR (which later became #MRX). Initially, I was a silent observer and follower. But gradually, I realized that my fear of blasphemy was impractical. There were many interesting conversations happening on Twitter and all the people were extremely friendly. Hence, I finally plunged into the conversation. My tweets were respected and reciprocated to by the community. This boosted my confidence further. It was only through tweets that I discovered webinars in the topics on market research. Webinars are a boon for students and young researchers who do not get an opportunity to attend conferences in person. I can proudly say that without Twitter, my education in market research would have been incomplete. I tweeted to MR experts and gained their suggestions for my thesis which has now become a masterpiece. Frankly, twitter helped me more that my professors for my thesis!
Another very useful hash tag that has inspired me is #NewMR. It was because of this hash tag that I found out about the New MR Virtual Festival where I got to participate in their poster design competition. I had a wacky idea in my head after playing Farmville on FaceBook. My Fairy God Mother asked me to make a poster on “Choiceville” and upload it on NewMR: (more information can be found here)
My Fairy God Mother struck her magic wand again. I received an overwhelming response on Twitter that made me win the competition. I owe a lot to you, Twitter.
The only thing that saddens me is that nobody in my immediate student peer group has started using Twitter professionally. They feel that it is very “limiting” because of the characters limit. They feel that having a Facebook account is enough because it is ultimately the same kind of interaction in all social media sites. But I would like to make it clear that Twitter has its own unique and powerful magical features that no other site can provide – the power to be heard and to enter the “inner circle”. I would like to request all young researchers and students out there to make use of twitter – but don’t spam! The Fairy God Mother awaits your arrival.