Conduct Better Multinational Research by Accounting for Cultural Differences

By Jay Zaltzman, Bureau West, Palm Springs, CA, jay@bureauwest.com

Whenever the topic of conducting research across different countries comes up, I think of a story I heard about conducting research in India, from my colleagues Piyul Mukherjee and Pia Mollback-Verbic. Their client was conducting ethnographic research around the world to learn how people do their laundry. They would go to people’s homes along with a videographer, watch them doing their laundry, and discuss the topic with participants as they worked. Of course, they would tell participants to “pretend they weren’t there” and just do their laundry as they normally would.

The problem is, in India, you can’t be a “fly on the wall” in participants’ homes.  The whole family will be present, and you will be treated as an honored guest. If you come with a videographer and foreign clients, the neighbors will probably be there, too!  Not only that, in most families, the man of the house will answer the researcher’s questions first, even though he has never done laundry in his life!

Piyul and Pia came up with an ingenious way to get around these problems. Instead of doing a typical ethnography project, they contacted the families, gave the husband a web-enabled video camera, and told him that they would like him to be “the director of a film about laundry,” where he would record his wife doing the laundry and ask her questions about it. This approach was a great success. The husband felt that he was “running the show,” and the clients received the input they needed from the person actually doing the laundry. Not only that, in Muslim households, the wives were recorded without their face coverings, because they were alone with their husbands. So, this was truly a win-win approach.

Cultural Differences

When we conduct research in different countries, there are frequently cultural differences that call for tweaking methodology like in the example above. Of course, my first step is to always ask the local researchers for their recommendations for changes in the approach. In addition to that, I find it helpful to conceptualize different cultures regarding where they stand when it comes to individual versus group orientation.

In the U.S., individualism is encouraged. People are encouraged to speak up and have their own opinions. (Some may say we’ve gone too far in this regard, focusing on our individual needs versus those of the group. But that’s a topic for another article!)  Many other cultures, in contrast, have more of a group orientation: People are taught that their personal opinions are less important than those of the group overall, or those of their elders or superiors. In Japan, for example, great deference is given to the opinions of those who are older. Japanese people also give far more consideration to what is acceptable socially than Americans do. As a result, when conducting research in Japan (or any country with a group orientation), we may want to consider separating groups by age. We also may want to look for exercises that will give participants permission to “suspend the rules,” for example, by playing devil’s advocate, or using techniques where we ask what other people do versus what they really think, etc.

Countries also have their unique cultural issues that may be unknown to a foreign researcher. For example, in France, focus groups take longer than in the U.S., because people need more time to “warm up” before they are comfortable sharing with the group. In Germany, privacy is very important to people, and participants need to be reassured their information is being kept private. If you’re a U.S. researcher going to Canada, do not assume everything is the same as in the U.S.! One example: In the U.S., participants are usually willing to talk about topics related to religion. In Canada, religion is considered very private; it would be difficult if not impossible to get participants to talk about religion in a group discussion. One-on-one research would be more effective. These examples once again highlight the importance of obtaining input from your local research partners early in the process.

Countries Are Not Monolithic

Of course, considering residents of a country to be one “culture” is overly simplistic. My colleague Astrid Velasquez in Mexico pointed out the wide range of education levels in Latin America. She said, “When working with lower socio-economic levels (SELs) in Latin America, we recommend simple moderation guides, with lots of projective techniques. Lower SELs tend to have lower education levels, and it is more difficult for them to express themselves in words. It’s more effective to use projective techniques and probe about feelings, sensations, etc.”

My conversation with Astrid also brought up another significant consideration when conducting multinational research: recruiting. It can be crucial to modify screening criteria in different countries. For example, Astrid said, “Most countries in Latin America do not use income to determine socio-economic level, because everyone will lie: Higher levels will report less than their actual income (to avoid getting kidnapped or mugged) and lower levels will say more (because of embarrassment about their actual income).” Instead, screening criteria might include education level, neighborhood, or even the number of light bulbs in the house. (People in lower SELs live in one or two rooms, so they know how many light bulbs they have; those in higher SELs have more than they can count.)

While it is true that residents of a country are not monolithic, recruiting for ethnic diversity can be tricky or inappropriate. It’s common in the U.S. to recruit a mix of ethnicities and to specify quotas for different ethnic groups, but that question can be irrelevant or insulting in many countries. For example, Japan is ethnically homogenous. Remember what we said about privacy in Germany? Asking a screening question about ethnicity there would cause extreme concern among potential participants. Consider whether an ethnic mix is really needed in each of the countries where you’re conducting research. Consult with your local research provider and proceed with caution!

Fieldwork May Also Need to Be Modified

Our discussion guides frequently include references that will be familiar to participants. Here’s a simple example. For some online research recently, I included a photo of two friends talking. I asked participants to imagine the conversation and tell me what each of them said. For the U.S., I included a photo of an African American woman and a white woman. When setting up the same research in Japan, we realized that photo would seem odd, and replaced it with a photo of two Japanese people. The same issue can come up in exercises such as photo sorts. Check your stimuli and make sure they’re appropriate for each country!

Cultural differences can also impact the physical environment for the research. My colleagues Piyul and Pia in India were recently asked to set up the focus group facility in a way that the American client thought would be friendly and informal: potted plants, colorful pillows and rugs, and moving the furniture to create more space. That sounds good for American research, but it turns out that those requests were completely wrong for India. Potted plants and rugs are avoided in India: the humidity makes them a hotbed for bugs and mites. Creating open space doesn’t work for Indians, who like to sit close together; a more open arrangement gives people stage fright—like sending someone alone to speak on an empty stage.

Don’t Forget Analysis and Reporting

I always ask the local researchers to provide a report, to make sure I didn’t miss any local nuances. A translated transcript of the research doesn’t tell the whole story. I may do a good deal of editing for style and grammar, but insights from a local researcher are invaluable! Take note of the graphics used by the local researchers. While we may think it’s universal to use green for positive findings and red for negatives (as in “go” or “stop”), in China, red is used to indicate a positive. So, consider who will be reading your report and proceed accordingly.

In Summary

When conducting multinational research, my number one recommendation is to solicit input from your local research partners. That input, along with increased sensitivity on your part, should lead to more effective (and even more enjoyable) research.

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