Tuesday, 13 July 2021

From Focus to Study Groups

Powerful multinational corporations are paying researchers very good money to run focus groups to find out how and what we think. By obtaining 'qualitative date' on our perceptions and thought processes through interactive and directed discussions, they learn how to manipulate our choices as consumers and citizens.

It has been going on for a long time. As a student of the social sciences way back in the 1960s, I learned how research into human thought patterns and behaviour was being used to promote mass marketing techniques. It was in the interests of Big Business to use quantitative and qualitative research methods to understand, and hence to control,the ways we think and act. We learned how 'lies, damned lies and statistics', the tools of social engineering, were already being developed and used. To this day, the focus group remains one of the powerful social science tools used to govern the political economy.

Focus groups are a research method organised for the purpose of collecting 'qualitative data' through 'interactive and directed discussions'. Researchers bring together groups of individuals selected according to pre-determined criteria such as age, sex, social class and so on. The interviewees are asked about their perceptions, attitudes, opinions, beliefs and opinions regarding topics that may range from abortion and politics to views on commercial products and services. Group members are encouraged to talk and interact with each other, allowing researchers to explore and clarify the thinking of participants.

Participation follows 'discussion stimuli', which may take the form of a provocative thesis, a lecture on a text, a short film, or the unfolding of a concrete problem for which a solution needs to be found. Typically, groups are conducted face to face, so that non-verbal behaviour can be observed and assessed. There are certain advantages to online methods, however, such as ease of access and the avoidance of the need to travel. Because corporate products and services are marketed across geographically vast areas, online discussion groups are a very practical way of allowing geographically diverse individuals to determine how mass produced products can best be marketed free from local considerations.

Instead of paying small farmers well to develop ecologically sound farming methods, we are paying an army of researchers to manipulate our minds so that we will buy the mass produced products so cleverly marketed through the mass media. The use of social science research techniques allows vast corporations to dominate the political, economic and cultural spheres of the social order. It was not always so.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, when focus groups were first being developed, Peter Maurin's Easy Essays were published. He distinguishes between five forms of capitalism: Mercantile (no middleman: consumer deals with producer direct), Factory (waged slavery outside the home), Monopoly (massive centralised cartels), Finance (debt-based) and State (bureaucratic controls). He concludes:

"Economic activities* are now supervised* by State bureaucrats.* State bureaucrats* can give the people* State supervision. * State supervision* is not a substitute * for personal vision. * And without personal vision * people perish. * Personal vision * leads to personal action. * Personal action * means personal responsibility. * Personal responsibility * means dynamic democracy."

(In the above passage * indicates a line break.)

Since the mid-twentieth century, when The Catholic Worker published Easy Essays, focus groups have supplied corporate capitalism with the means to eliminate virtually all sense of personal responsibility for family, local community and the needs of the living planet. Social science research methods do not seek to help members of the group understand their rights and responsibilities. On the contrary, they cultivate the materialistic values of the corporate world. Their purpose is to create a population of willing producers and consumers content to serve materialism in all its forms. In this scenario, protests and petitions for social justice and ecological sustainability will at best serve to consolidate the status quo. One might as well save one's breath to blow one's porridge.

Through his work with Dorothy Day on The Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin enabled the poor and homeless to join with others to think things through for themselves. They were a part of the massive, liberal adult education movement that spanned the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. Study groups organised by the Workers' Education Association (WEA) and other similar bodies were a powerful force for social change, bringing public libraries, health, education and welfare services, often run democratically by municipalities. Those provisions were planned and organised by ordinary citizens in their roles as producers and consumers of the goods and services needed by the local community. See any local history of the municipality in which you currently live.

The task ahead is to use the techniques of mass production, mass transportation and mass communications to the benefit of local communities. That can only happen when well-informed individuals take time to develop the personal vision that leads to personal, responsible action. And that will not happen by chance. Fortunately, a wealth of study material is available to hand, and much of it is already being discussed in informal, non-vocational study.

Currently, study groups take many different forms. These include Steiner/anthroposophical groups, faith groups, book clubs, gardening, political, art clubs and so on. Such groups are called together by individuals who gather over a period of weeks or months to share in discussion of non-vocational ideas and practices. Often an existing group can shift to study of new material introduced by one of the members.

The reader of this blog might consider drawing together a group of friends, in person or on Zoom, with a view to sharing thoughts on the following:

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster;

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson;

Bloke's Progress by Hunt and Emerson (and John Ruskin);

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer/Feminism, the Body and the Machine by Wendell Berry. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard;

A starting point for an altogether new group might be a one-off gathering to discuss the merits of Yorkshire Airlines (You Tube) as a social commentary.

COMMENT: For all the works mentioned, except the last, see the Booklist on the YEA page of https://www.douglassocialcredit.com/

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