In a qualitative process we often use semiotic analytic technique, which is a method of conducting one-on-one interviews and group sessions that maximizes the extraction of useful information.
Semiotic analytic technique, in turn, is based on synectics theory, which holds that core ideas from spoken language are drawn from a number of places, only one of which is the content of the spoken language.
Semiotic Analytic Technique: Hearing What You’ve Never Heard Before
Semiotic theory forms the basis of much of the contemporary work in fields such as Management, Market Research, Psychology, Psychiatry, Sociology, Social Psychology, and Linguistics, where the specific interpretive modes of human communication are an important and relevant consideration.
In effect, what a person says is not necessarily what that person means or what he/she truly believes. Our active probing techniques permit us to discover the following:
What does a person really think?
What does a person really mean by what he/she says?
What is a person’s real opinion?
The analytic approach we use to understand what is in the speaker’s mind is a semiotic analytic technique: examining the order in which ideas occur (syntactics), the meaning behind the ideas occurring (semantics), and the context in which the ideas occur (pragmatics). The result is not only a description of what is said (reactions), but also the meaning and motivational capabilities (personal relevance versus intellectual appeal).
Semiotic analysis is not an intuitive descriptive process, but rather a systematic approach of breaking down the speaker’s perceptions of a concept into thought processes.
There are three steps in the approach which we perform as part of the analytical process:
- Defining: identification of the key components of elements which make up a person’s ideas;
- Explaining: the comparing and contrasting of the components or elements of any ideas as they differ across groups;
- Implication: an if-then consequence construct. If these are the similarities and differences, then what are the consequences?
Ordinary research asks questions, gets answers, counts them and reports differences among and between populations. Many of the answers that ordinary research gets are superficial or top-of-mind answers. We can obtain top-of-mind answers with qualitative techniques, as well, but we don’t treat them as anything but superficial responses.
We probe deeply and get the underlying meaning beneath the answer. A person can have an opinion, but we don’t know what that opinion means until it is connected with other opinions that person holds. It is this connection that gives the “idea” meaning. We probe topics so that connections between ideas can be identified, thus achieving a deeper, more precise understanding of what the person means by what he/she says.
Knowing What to Listen For
Research has shown that a 15-minute segment of a focus group or depth interview will generate from 800 to 1,200 usable words. Knowing what to listen for is critical to our discipline, since only about 20% of those respondent words are relevant to our understanding of what people mean by the words they use. Within a group setting, clarification of meaning for all respondents enables the moderator who uses this technique to conduct a superior session. This technique works equally well for all types of respondents, consumer, business, or industrial.
Active probing is the only way of making sure we understand what the consumer means and why. Here are some examples of active probes:
Why do you say that?
Why is that important to you?
What do you mean by that?
What does that mean to you?
Would you explain that further?
How does that relate to what you said before?
Could you give me an example of that?
Define or describe that.
Active probing overcomes four key problems in extracting useful information from spoken language:
A generalization is a vague, all-encompassing word or phrase, without a context, which has no meaning in and of itself until inferred by the passive listener or probed.
The moderator probes a generalization by uncovering the context for the generalization, thereby determining the actual meaning. This is accomplished by repeating the word or phrase (i.e., the generalization) or saying, “What do you mean?”
Example: “The cake is good.”
What does “The cake is good” tell the listener? The word “good” has no specific context aside from its connection to the word “cake.” The moderator probes for meaning.
Probe: “Good? What do you mean by ‘good?'”
Response: “The cake is good because it is my favorite, chocolate!”
The passive listener could have inferred the “good” meant “tasty” or “homemade.” By probing, we know “good” had a different meaning.
By probing for more information, the moderator determines what the communicator means by “good.” However, probing a generalization has limits in that the meaning of an idea is defined within the context of the statement made. It is not known how the idea relates to the attitudes or behavior of the communicator. Probing a generalization uncovers the meaning of that specific idea, but for more information the moderator must use different probes.
A deletion is something that is left out of a conversation that could be key to understanding the communicator’s attitudes.
The moderator probes a deletion by using an open-ended question to determine what has been left out of the communicator’s response. This is accomplished by saying, “What else?”
Example: “For my father I’d probably pick something bright and blue.”
The listener could assume that blue was chosen because it is society’s chosen color for boys. That inference would not have been correct.
Probe: “Why blue?”
Response: “Because that’s his favorite color.”
By probing “Why blue?,” the moderator gets the communicator’s meaning.
By probing a deletion, the moderator will develop a fuller picture of the communicator’s meaning and know the relative position of the item mentioned in the communicator’s decision-making process. If a deletion has occurred and a probe has brought no further response, the moderator knows he has the complete picture and that the communicator’s ideas are actually limited.
A distortion is a deflation or inflation of the integration of an idea into the communicator’s decision-making process. This occurs when the moderator knows neither the boundaries of that idea nor the connection between the idea and the communicator’s attitudes or behaviors.
The moderator probes a distortion by determining the boundaries of that idea. In the following example, the communicator is voting in a court case regarding the amount of restitution. How does he decide the amount of the restitution?
Example: “I don’t know how I’d vote. It’s hard to say if you don’t know the background.”
Here we could have probed the word “background” as a generalization, getting the meaning, yet still not know what components of “background” play a role or how they affect the communicator’s decision-making process. We should probe in a way that tries to discover how much of a role “background” plays in the decision-making process (large or small). Maybe other factors play a greater role.
Probe: “What information would you need in order to determine how much restitution she should get?”
Response: “I’d like to know more about the laws concerning restitution, and also more about the events leading up to the accident.”
The moderator probes to determine what components are included and excluded relative to “background.”
By probing a distortion, the moderator determines how important something is to the communicator. Given the boundaries between which an idea exists, the moderator gains an understanding of the communicator’s attitudes and behavior.
A contradiction is at least two statements which imply opposite or conflicting ideas held by the communicator.
Probing a contradiction requires careful listening and tact…careful listening to catch the contradiction because one statement may occur long before an opposite statement does, and tact because people do not like to be told they have contradicted themselves.
Example: “I love my black car. It looks so much sportier than other colors.”…(later) “Black cars are nothing but trouble.”
Probe: “You said that you love your black car. Is there anything about it that you don’t like?”
Response: “Well, it doesn’t hide the dirt very well, and it gets very hot in the summertime because it absorbs the sun’s rays. But it looks great when it’s clean!”
Probing a contradiction lets the moderator know how seemingly opposite or blatantly opposite ideas fit together or don’t fit together in the communicator’s mind.
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