I've never been one to spend a whole lot of time agonizing about the state of the research profession or the kinds of people we should have in it. But a few weeks back when I posted something on eye candy in Web surveys it attracted a comment from Chris Ryan that raised the more general issue of the usability of Web surveys, whether plain or fancy. The obvious implication of the comment (at least to me) is that researchers are busy designing these graphical presentations (plain and fancy) of survey questions and arguing about design when in most cases we really don't know a whole lot about usability. We are, in fact, mostly amateurs.
This reminded me of a conference talk I heard Pete Cape from SSI give earlier in the year in which he started by asking everyone in the room to stand up. Then he asked everyone who had wanted to be in MR since they were a kid to sit down. Nobody sat down. Next he asked about high school and then college and then grad school and when he finished most of the room was still standing. His point was that most of us did not aspire to careers in research and few of us were actually trained in school to do it, we just have sort of fallen into it. We are, in fact, mostly amateurs.
I freely admit that the "amateur" tag works on me as well. I have a Ph.D. in History, which is not exactly the ideal training ground for market researchers. But at least I had the good fortune to spend over a decade at a place (NORC) loaded with first class survey researchers and survey methodologists. I learned an enormous amount in that time and, as corny as it sounds, some of my best friends are survey methodologists. None of this made me a good survey methodologist, but at least I know good work when I see it and, frankly, the more I look around the industry the less really good survey work I see.
Then I read a short opinion piece in IJMR by Anthony Tasgal arguing that what MR needs is "more seers, fewer craftsman." Unlike me, he sees us an industry of skilled craftsmen (and craftswomen) churning out our work like the loyal and hardworking Boxer in Animal Farm. He makes the point that we are living in a time of dramatic change in marketing, communications, and consuming habits brought on principally by the Web and our industry must change with it. To effect that change, we need different kinds of people, fewer craftsmen and more creative types. Seers. To that end he tells us to send our "people out to art galleries, take them to the cinema, give them non-marketing books to read, and allow them to turn their wandering into wonder."
In the same talk I mentioned above Pete Cape said, "We have allowed our industry to be taken over by venture capitalists and technology geeks." Given that perspective, more seers would be a real improvement. But let's be careful. It seems to me that the MR industry has always rested on our ability to assemble information, evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions that help our clients make good business decisions. Mostly that has meant doing surveys. I am willing to accept the fact that our future might be fewer surveys, or at least less emphasis on surveys as the centerpiece of research. It's harder for me to believe that the empirical part of what we do, the ability to evaluate evidence in a systematic way, and the need for disciplined thought about a client's problem will go the way of the dodo. We probably need more craftsmen, not fewer. But the craft surely is changing.