(The following is a transcript from a talk given by Dr. Marie-Claude Gervais, Research Director at Versiti, at an event hosted by The Foundation in December 2018. The event was designed to help people perceive our world in ways that are unconventional)
For the past twenty years, I have been working on issues to do with minority groups. My professional experience really started in academia - when I was a PhD student and then a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the LSE - and then it developed through what must about a hundred research projects for government departments, various brands and charities.
I have worked with minority groups in relation to wide-ranging topics: various brands and products, of course, but also housing, healthcare, the environment, the arts, education, crime and policing, etc.
The briefs have included strategic consultancy as well as research into:
- general ‘lifestyle’ and cultural understanding of diverse groups
- usage and attitudes
- consumer or user journeys
- branding and brand awareness, perceptions and extension
- marketing and communications
- service and product co-creation
- and human resources
I was also married for twenty years to a British Pakistani man with whom I have two very nice grumpy teenagers. So the personal and the professional intersect in my life.
What has this experience taught me? It’s a tough question.
It changes your understanding of the ‘self’
The most fundamental shift, for me, has been to change my understanding of the self. This is pretty abstract, I know!
What do I mean by the ‘self’? I mean what is regarded by a person - by ourselves and by those around us - as that person's essential being that distinguishes them from others. The ‘self’ is the subject of perception, thought and action and, importantly, the object of introspection.
If you live in an individualist culture, like the UK,Western Europe, the United States and Canada, for instance, you expect people to display consistent attitudes, thoughts and behaviours across situations, because these attitudes, thoughts and behaviours are interpreted as manifestations of their enduring personality. Of their underlying ‘self’. That self is expected to be consistent across situations, so that it becomes possible to predict how Maria or Bob will behave. Maria and Bob become reliable, predictable and therefore trustworthy because they are consistent.
But when you do research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds, it becomes slowly clear that not everyone shares the same basic assumptions about the ‘self’. People who come from more collectivist cultures, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or China, have a sense of self that is inextricably bound up with their social group. As the situation changes, the self adapts, because the needs and goals of their wider group take precedence over individual needs. The requirement of ‘consistency’ is not as strong as that of respect for others and deference for authority, which means that you tailor yourself to the situation.
Let me give you an example. When I first met the man who was to become my ex-husband, we were both post-grad students and we would go for drinks at the famous Beavers’ Retreat - the LSE’s student pub. We’d have a few whiskies, smoke a few fags, and think big ideas!
When, four years later, I finally met his parents, I realised that he did not smoke or drink in front of his parents. Why not? Why could he not just be ‘himself’? Why did he have to ‘pretend’ and be ‘false’? Who was he is ‘genuine’ self? I needed to know if I was going to marry a very traditional guy or the modern one I thought I knew. It all felt ‘hypocritical’ to me.
What I did not realise, of course, was that it was inherently traditional (that is, in line with a collectivist sense of self) to be able to adapt his behaviour seamlessly across very different traditions without making anyone in either situation feel uneasy. Adapting to the different demands of different situations was much more important to my ex-husband’s non-Western ‘self’ than to express some consistent ‘personality’ and ‘behaviour’ across all situations - which was of course my own expectations of what he should be doing.
So the first big lesson and big shift in my perception of the world from doing work on minority issues is that our ‘selves’ are not the same for everyone. And if the most basic unit of perception, cognition and action, the self, is itself culturally relative, then everything becomes culturally relative.
So this, in turn, contained another lesson, which is that you need to constantly reflect on yourself. You cannot take for granted anything. You have to introspect and question what you might be bringing to any situation - especially as a privileged white woman - and how that could change the dynamics.
It changes your understanding of our relationship to Knowledge
Another closely related ‘big’ lesson, perhaps more obvious, is that cultures value very different things. If you want to communicate successfully with different groups, you’b better understand this in depth.
Individualist cultures value, of course, individuality. They value critical thinking, creativity and independence. They require individuals to seek self-actualisation, to realise their full potential. They value change and innovation. They are much more oriented towards the future and celebrate youth. They put the emphasis on meritocracy and equality (as an ideal at least) in social relations. They attribute success to personal factors, like drive, talent and intelligence, and downplay the role of support, networks, etc. We praise people for their successes and blame them for their failures, when in fact neither may be of their own making: some people start life ‘more equal than others’.
Collectivist cultures, by contrast, value the continuity and success of the group. They value the acquisition and transmission of knowledge and tradition more than innovation. They acknowledge and value hierarchical social relations and give a prominent role to elders, for instance. They are more oriented towards the past. The attribute success to strong family alliances, as much as to hard work, and to the works of past generations and even to karma.
The government could not understand the pattern of responses given by people from minority ethnic and faith groups to some of their key survey questions. Such as: ‘To what extent do you expect to be treated the same, better or worse than others by the police?’
When I was doing research for the government on attitudes towards violent extremism, I was struck by differences in attitudes between how older and younger generations of Asian Muslims: how could parents and their children disagree so vehemently about what it is to be Muslim? This is where differences in cultural attitudes to Knowledge became apparent.
Traditionally, it is forbidden to translate the Koran because Muslims are required to learn by heart the word of God, as it was spoken to Muhammad: in Arabic. Muslims who are not Arabs always rote-learned text that they did not understand. That was never a problem for generations of Muslims in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because perpetrating tradition (in this case religion) and was more important than critically engaging with the text, which is really a product of the Reformation in the West.
But for second and third-generation Muslims who went to school in the British education system, this lack of understanding of the Koran is no longer acceptable. They want to exercise their critical thinking and independence. They now read the Koran in English and, as a result, become a stronger ‘authority’ on religious matters than their parents, who are unable able to defend their position (they never had to) despite having always lived as good Muslims. There is a shift of power. Youth challenge elders. They claim equality before the text. They can choose the verses of the Koran that appeal to them and reject others. We witness, not just different attitudes to specific verses or, more generally, to information, but a different relationship to Knowledge itself.
It sharpens your awareness of power
Working on minority issues also made me acutely aware of how power operates. By power, I mean the ways in which ideologies, beliefs and values, ideas about what is right and wrong, are embedded in language, in institutions, in spaces, in objects, in images and so on, and serve to include or exclude certain people.
For example, it is common practice to refer to people from minority ethnic backgrounds as ‘hard to reach’. This assumes that there is something about ‘them’ which is not quite right. Everywhere I go, I try to shift that terminology for ‘seldom heard’. That way, the responsibility for engagement is no longer exclusively on them, but also on organisations. Why are they seldom heard? A new type of conversation starts.
Beyond language, power is obvious in ‘things’. For example, I did research with ethnic minority consumers for a supermarket. Many research participants pondered: Why should there be a ‘World Food’ section, set apart from the other aisles? Why should basmati rice not be with Uncle Ben’s rice? Why is spaghetti not in the World Food section? The divisions are not arbitrary: they reflect the extent to which specific diets and communities are accepted as part of the ‘mainstream’ and others are not. It became clear that, for ethnic minority consumers, supermarkets are microcosms of wider society and that merchandising decisions reflect values around inclusion or exclusion.
Here is another example. In a recent study for Channel 4, we found something very similar when researching how diverse audiences (in terms of region, gender, age, socio-economic groups, ethnicity, faith, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity) perceive diversity on national TV. We found that - regardless of the minority group people belonged to - there were common aspirations: to be normalised into mainstream programming. Not to have specific shows that deal with ‘minority’ issues in silos: like the ‘Undateables’ on disability or ‘Muslim Drag Queens’ in the eponymous show, or ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. Diverse audiences wanted shows that resonate with their experiences but also teach them about other experiences; shows where they have a strong authorial voice and where they are embedded into narratives because of who they are, not of their ‘point of difference’.
So, for me, there have been as many shifts - big or small - as there have been projects. Each one continues to teach me something. But I now bring with me an awareness of how everything is culturally ‘relative’ and how power is what gives each version of reality the appearance of normality.
I see my role as understanding in depth the perceptions, experiences and needs of people from minority groups with a view to redressing the balance of power - whether it is in TV programmes, government policy or supermarket merchandising. As a result of that work, people from various minority groups are given a little more recognition, a little more dignity. They are portrayed a little less stereotypically. They can participate a little more fully in the labour market and in society as a whole. They can feel that they belong and are valued a little more. And that is why they will buy more products and reward brands with their loyalty. Because brands that genuinely address their needs and work to redress the balance of power are the ‘authentic’ ones. This goes much, much further than the marketing fluff around the new ‘authenticity’ buzzword.