Dear Researchers: If You Want to Make a Difference, Stop Betting on Cultural Homogenization

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

If you want your clients or the company you work for to truly embrace diversity, then you need to think about re-examining commonly used approaches to research. After all, research is what drives the creation of solutions and value in the marketplace. If research doesn’t take the rich complexity of culture into account, then it will inadvertently find itself gravitating towards insights and outcomes that are geared toward the majority.

You see, corporations have historically bet on cultural homogenization, and still today continue to use such approaches in research which are designed to dismiss and minimize the experiences of those who don’t belong to the majority.

Cultural Homogenization has its roots in Cultural Imperialism. That is, the need to subsume minority cultures or adapt them to become more like dominant western European cultures. While the meanings around homogenization today, thankfully, aren’t what they used to be a hundred years ago, it still rears its head in common modern practices. The use of structural frames based on race, gender, age/generation are all examples of exactly that. For example, a study of Millennials automatically implies that all people born between an arbitrarily defined time frame will eventually end up behaving the same way — i.e. like the cultural majority (White/Caucasian). The same is true of a study of Hispanics. Here again, the implicit assumption is that the consumer, as defined by race and cultural heritage, will behave in a manner that is similar, but different from the dominant group.

I’ve never seen a study of white consumers as one homogenized group. But I have seen numerous such studies of Black, Hispanic, or Asian populations. The problem with this type of structural thinking is that it removes the possibility that an individual is capable of acting beyond the parameters or constraints of their socioeconomic or racial location. Thereby contributing to ongoing stereotypes and limiting an organization’s ability to truly create value in the marketplace that goes outside of traditional narratives and outcomes.

Culture is almost never, especially in the modern world, made up of people of one race, gender, or socio-economic class. It might for example interest you to note that there are more male skincare influencers than there are women. Yet, men are mostly excluded from any studies of beauty and skincare.

As a cultural anthropologist, the part of my job that has made me happiest over the years is the ability and opportunity to educate audiences about the diverse makeup of consumers when you examine them through the lens of beliefs, rather than through the lens of gender, age, income, race, etc. This is a conversation that has always been important to me and to our organization. It’s not any more important now given the ongoing fight for civil rights, but at least now more people are listening.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be studying racialized populations. We absolutely should be. But it’s important to study the diverse belief systems that make up the population, rather than to assume homogeneity in beliefs, as is unfortunately often done.

As human beings, our beliefs drive everything we do. Yes, while our beliefs are shaped by our experiences and our backgrounds, it is really context that determines what groups of consumers align on shared beliefs. To simply study Millennials or African Americans as a monolithic group is to assume that all those who belong to a predetermined cohort are motivated by the same desires. In reality, a black man and a white woman may share the same belief systems in one context (e.g. buying sustainable clothing), but completely differ in beliefs in another (e.g. availability of opportunities).

People’s beliefs differ by context.

Belief systems help us understand how people approach different contexts and situations in their lives. If we don’t internalize this within our respective organizations, then we’ll continue to operate in auto-pilot mode and carry on driving monolithic thinking and the creation of solutions that inadvertently dismiss diversity.

What do you want to research today?