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Greater understanding through research

Why do humans continue to categorize and judge people by race — or gender, sexual orientation or religion? And as communicators, how do we contribute to greater understanding and a more equitable society? One tool: Research. 

In the first part of the 19th century, one of America’s most prominent scientists was a doctor named Samuel Morton. Using a collection of skulls gathered from around the world, Morton “proved” his thesis that white people were intellectually superior based on cranium size, and other races followed in decreasing order. His findings were widely used, among other things, as justification for slavery. Morton now has the dubious distinction of being known as the father of scientific racism. 

Nonetheless, it took another 150 years to officially debunk Morton’s dangerous claims and prove that the whole concept of race has — as DNA-sequencing pioneer Craig Venter said — “no genetic or scientific basis.” 

There is a biological basis for the sort of us/them dynamic that has been present since the dawn of man. But defining the “them” by race, gender, religion or ethnicity is purely social, says social psychologist Eric Knowles. Change, he says, requires exposure to other people and their experiences. This is where research comes in. 

While no panacea, done right, research has the power to educate and enlighten, even as it guides us on everything from product features to medical treatments. Here are three principles for embracing research effectively:

1. Adopt a research mindset

Through a broad lens, research can be defined as actively seeking out different perspectives and information to challenge our assumptions and draw more accurate conclusions. As communicators, we have the responsibility to listen to, understand, and be guided by our audiences, whether or not we agree with them. In this mindset, “knowing” becomes a barrier to “learning.” A research mindset, then, is a learning mindset. 

2. For true understanding, start with qualitative research

Qualitative research is the best way to gain true insight, because it affords people the opportunity to share their stories. By its very nature, qualitative is more exploratory than quantitative, since the latter is more about confirming a hypothesis, and measuring and rating. Qualitative provides more context and opens up new avenues of thinking. “Qualitative research is like a window into others’ experiences, cultures, values, expectations,” says David Goldstein, communications researcher, analyst, and lecturer. “It offers a sense of what others’ lives are like, even when they’re nothing like ours.”

3. Research responsibly

As Morton’s “findings” show, research is not bias-proof. Which questions get asked — and how, who does the asking, and how findings are interpreted are essential to gaining real knowledge. Research has to be approached with great humility. Our social biases, however unintended, cause communicators and marketers to draw wrong conclusions all the time about our audience’s attitudes and opinions. Good research processes not only prevent these biases but by doing so reveal insights we may never have otherwise gained. 

As you set up, conduct and analyze your research, continually remind yourself that your assumptions and opinions do not matter, and that you do not understand your audience. Having diverse representation on your team can also ensure no single point-of-view will overly influence any part of the process. 

Around the world and across the U.S., “otherness” seems to be flourishing. But by embracing quality research principles, we as communicators can help our organizations, communities and ourselves to better understand those whose experiences differ from — and mirror — our own. Greater knowledge and understanding can lead us to see others as individuals than separate, anonymous groups. As we do, we make progress toward social equity. 

Ann Barlow is a Partner and President at Peppercomm. She is particularly focused on employee engagement, diversity and inclusion and reputation management. She is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.

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Ann Barlow is a partner and president of Peppercomm, an integrated communications agency with offices in San Francisco, New York and London.