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‘All the world’s a stage, and all researchers and respondents merely players’

At its heart, qualitative research is about understanding people and their behaviour, largely by using probing questions and exploratory methods. But how effective can this research be when every participant might only be showing you one ‘face’, or simply giving you their best ‘research participant’ performance?

Have you ever thought that you aren’t seeing the ‘real’ side of someone, even if you’ve known that person for your whole life? That’s because, in every social interaction, you are only seeing a single side, a performance driven by context, relationships, cultural norms and the intentions of the ‘actors’ involved.

For researchers, this knowledge can play a critical role in how they conduct research. Understanding how people perform identity roles, amidst a host of personal, group and societal pressures, contextualises how participant behaviour can be affected by the research process (and researcher). It can also encourage researchers to reconsider how they construct the right ‘stage’ for various performances.

The world's a stage - Dub, mobile qual experts

You may remember one of Shakespeare’s more famous quotes: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 4)

For academics like Erving Goffman, author of the ground-breaking ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ (1959), this was more than a brilliant quote. It was the insight that led him to develop an innovative framework for studying human behaviour, known as the ‘dramaturgical’ approach. His work approaches social life (including research encounters) as an ongoing piece of theatre in which individuals perform roles and present themselves to an audience.

In his book, Goffman makes an important distinction between the front stage, where the performance takes place, and backstage, where actors can relax and prepare for their role away from the audience’s gaze. These terms provide a contextual relevance for each performance, with Goffman keen to point out that the ‘backstage’ of one role, might be the front stage of another. During any part of the research process, participants will be giving their best front stage performance; an act which they believe will be useful or contribute to the study. However, often it will the backstage, private roles, that the researcher will want to examine (or elicit) in order to identify how individuals behave in a ‘natural’ setting. For example, when exploring someone’s food habits, the answers they provide during an interview might not always totally align with the data you could collect from snooping through their cupboards!

For Goffman, identity is fluid; able to alter shape and purpose depending upon the requirements of the moment, and the skill of the individual. Now, if each person can present many sides, a researcher will naturally ask, which of these is ‘real’ and which should be discarded? However, these are the wrong questions. Rather than ask if one performance is more valid than another, we should instead treat each as a part of a wider production. A cube requires many sides in order for it to be a full shape. The bottom surface is no more ‘real’ or ‘fake’ than the top. Although the displayed behaviours are different, this doesn’t make them any less sincere, because the individual is striving to create the best (or most useful) image for that occasion.

So what are the implications for market researchers? Well, being aware of the many levels of a performance should prompt you to ask yourself important questions that will refine your research. Questions like:

  • How does my role as a researcher (i.e. the person setting the scene and often providing the main audience for the performance) impact on the behaviour participants believe they should play?
  • How does the study, its aims and context, affect the roles people play?
  • Are there other roles that people play, in their daily lives, which are relevant to the project?
  • What might be happening ‘backstage’? Is there any way I might be able to observe this area? (i.e. using methods that might elicit how people behave away from the public gaze?)
  • What ‘props’ are people using to help their performance? How can brands or products align better with the roles people want or need to play, and enhance their performances?
  • How does each method highlight certain behaviours, whilst hiding others?

Keeping these questions in mind will make you much more self-aware and more likely lead you to ‘triangulate’ your methods. You will begin to ask yourself, what combination of research methods might I use (and what different situations should I look at) to capture the various versions of reality performed by participants that are relevant to the brief? Following this line of thought will allow you to look at behaviours from different angles and in different contexts, and unearth answers which might have otherwise been unobtainable.

You might want to combine ‘unobtrusive’ approaches to capture behaviour that is unaffected by your presence in the situation (like ethnography or social media listening), with more reactive methods (like face-to-face interviews or focus groups). You may mix methods that allow ‘in-the-moment’ data collection with more reflexive methods (like online communities). You might use more longitudinal methods to capture how performances change over time and across situations. You could combine individual and group-based methods, in the full awareness that other participants in a group situation actually shape everyone’s contributions.     

Thinking through the lens of the dramaturgical approach when exploring social life will allow you to evaluate data more critically. It can highlight key areas to explore, suggest new questions and even reframe data that seems irrelevant. All through understanding that every role is part of an important and interconnected personal production.

We would be happy to explore with you the methodological implications of this approach and to guide you through the whole gamut of research options, both online and off. Interested?

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