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What can Werner Heisenberg teach us about observation and ethnographic research in Branding?

Written by: Gabriel Troiano


In 1927, the German Werner Heisenberg presented us with one of the most important concepts that gave rise to the study of quantum mechanics: the uncertainty principle. In addition to winning the Nobel Prize in Physics for his speculations, Heisenberg challenged us to go to the limits of human understanding, to really see what is behind many of the challenges and contradictions we face, both in our personal and professional lives.


But what then does the uncertainty principle say? According to the physicist, there is, in fact, an impossibility of simultaneously measuring the position and velocity of a particle with complete precision. And furthermore, the more we know about a given value of one particle, the less we know about the complexities of the other. It's an idea that messes with our brain, which is used to looking for quick and rational solutions to problems that are apparently easy to unravel. But Heisenberg's theory clearly dethrones any possibility of understanding and eagerness to reveal our dilemmas.


One of the discussions we had recently at TroianoBranding made me think even more about this mysterious and thought-provoking topic. When we study brand equity, something that has been discussed in depth by market professionals like Kevin Keller and David Aaker, we often want to understand the synergy between brands and their consumers, capturing the nature, intensity and strength of this relationship. But this demand is accentuated when we carry out an ethnographic work that prioritizes the involvement of a researcher with a group of people or communities. And nothing better for an ethnographer than a thorough observation. In short, ethnography is a deep dive, not a superficial radiography but an “endoscopy”.


In ethnographic observation for marketing and, essentially, sociological purposes, Heisenberg projects his same concerns to us: could it be that by studying an event, a particularity, one side of the equation, we end up hiding and rendering impossible the mere ability to see the other side of the equation? Is this concept as definitive and deterministic as it was and is for quantum mechanics?


Well, as I have never conducted a full ethnographic investigation, I don't know where to start answering this question, but I learned, almost by osmosis, working in Branding, the ins and outs of this research technique. Observation itself, something we can practice at any time, is the key piece of ethnography. Without it, we cannot even assemble the equation, the set. But I present another concern here: other research methods, whether quantitative or qualitative, do not even come close to the level of depth of a good ethnographic work.


Group discussions, interviews, questionnaires, and any other method can fall prey to Heisenberg's concept. We lose information, details in the face of our speculations when we decide to focus on a particular subject or idea. It's almost inevitable. Take interviews, for example. How much our questions to the interviewee are already fabricated to generate a certain kind of response, and how our own biases can alter the formulation of such inquiries. How we are guided by a path that we ourselves choose, but that ends up overshadowing the deepest feelings and desires of the people we study! And, I don't even need to talk about the consequences of this for a complete and genuine work of Branding to take place.


So, I've been a firm believer in the ethnographic process and the qualitative research that comes from it, which can produce the understanding needed for deep thinking, as James Forr, Head of Insights at Olson Zaltman, says. But the process also has its uncertainties, its Heisenbergs. As I write this, I come across another concept, coming from psychology: countertransference. Freud studied this in depth and argued that the therapist, like the ethnographer, can experience strong internal reactions when becoming attached to the patient's life and concerns. The therapist is moved by his patient's stories, emotions and experiences, and the same happens in ethnographic projects. The researcher's interaction with families, individuals and communities can undoubtedly affect him emotionally, which makes concluding the work and closing the final equation a very complicated step. The questions change, the answers and observations take on a more “human” character, at the same time that the ethnographer himself begins to see a simple study of the relationship between brands and people, a great challenge of how to not let prejudices take over the final goal.


If Heisenberg excuses me, in this next part of the article, I'm going to have to disagree with him. Ethnography seeks to understand, delve into the “tribal” life of many people. It seeks to analyze what we all hide from the world, what we only do indoors, but which, for an ethnographer, reveals itself in a transparent, translucent way. Through ethnography, we can “bypass” Heisenberg's laws a little, see what is behind relationships, children's consumption behaviors, family rituals, capturing, with greater precision, the two sides of a coin. Perhaps we will not be able to analyze the entire coin, but this level of depth certainly helps us to see its other faces that are not so distinct through the use of other methodologies.


I go back to the German physicist and his teachings. In many cases in Branding, when we try to understand consumer behavior (because Branding starts with understanding people!), we will have remnants of the uncertainty principle that teach us to improve our approach, our work. I remember the story of Béla Bartók, the Hungarian pianist and composer, who studied and lived with rural communities in countries like Slovakia to deeply analyze folk music, which later served as the basis for the foundation of what we know today as ethnomusicology. Bartók studied and listened to more than 3000 melodies and texts being performed live. How important this must have been to him and how much this, in fact, represents our desire to always try to understand a little more about the people and relationships around us.


Many other variables can affect our work as researchers, as Branding professionals. I learned a good example of this in one of the classes when I was studying sociology in college in the United States. The Hawthorne effect, as it is known, for example, can happen in many cases, and not just in ethnography – it is the notion that individuals behave differently when they know they are being observed. How not to escape this great impediment? Difficult. But if we set out to reach the limits of understanding, perhaps this way we can see Heisenberg’s particles. We will see their position and measure their speeds. There is no secret. The important thing is to observe, really observe, listen and feel.

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