Why is ‘Progress’ a Dirty Word to Social Scientists?


Our society, especially our economy, is centered around the concept of progress, of making things better, faster, smarter, all in the name of improving lives. And although many technological changes that could be categorized as ‘progress’ have indeed improved people’s experience over the years, there’s a reason why social scientists tend to cringe when they hear that word. It may seem that this discussion belongs squarely in the ivory tower of academia and has little to do with reality, especially our little reality that is market research. I would disagree. This debate has huge implications for the way we approach market research methodology because we are in the business of applied social science. Our job as researchers, first and foremost, is to understand the customer and translate that understanding into sound business decisions. In short, we are tasked to know people, and the paradigm by which we approach this task is as vital as the decisions it drives. Lately, discussion around market research seems to be caught up in concepts of innovation and progress. We are swept along by changing technology and increasing demands for more insights, cooler methods, bigger data, and the need to justify our existence as researchers. For Pete’s sake, our Research (R)evolutions topic this year is Innovation in Market Research because that was the overwhelming desire from our participants! But do we stop to consider what progress actually means? Perhaps while we’re chasing the latest shiny thing we don’t realize that we’re looking for something else entirely.So here’s the breakdown of what Progress actually means in Social Science. You get to decide whether you like the concept or not, but from my perspective, it’s important to know what exactly we’re talking about when we use this word.

The Dreaded Teleology. Progressive and Primitive. There they are. The two dirtiest words you could ever say to a social scientist. Why? Because of one concept that most of us still buy into to some extent: teleology. This theory has its roots before the time of Plato and essentially means that all things move towards a definite end, implying purpose and design. Often this definite end is a moral ideal that we’re constantly working towards. What this means for how we live our lives is that in our minds, the past is somehow morally inferior to the present, and that we are constantly striving towards a morally superior or enhanced future. I know this sounds nice on the surface, but teleological thinking is what justified, say, the enslavement and oppression of entire populations because they were somehow ‘primitive’ or stuck in the past and needed help to move towards a progressive form of life (i.e. Western European culture). I can hear you now: “Whoa, Ellen, we were just having a nice time talking about market research, and now you’re bringing up slavery and colonialism?” Bear with me. Yes, because that is how loaded the word ‘Progress’ has become, and that is the history behind it. What does this mean for the way we do business? Teleological progress makes the past disposable. It tends to ignore wisdom cultivated over centuries and decades in favor of the latest craze. Progress as a concept is inherently wasteful.

It’s not real. As nice as working towards a higher ideal can sound, the bottom line is that it’s just plain wrong. I mean, scientifically it doesn’t represent how nature actually works. It’s a cultural construct that we have created to feel better about overpopulation and competition for resources (okay, I know that’s a huge simplification, but it’s kind of true). What is real is evolution, which is just a fancy word for change. That’s it. Just change. All we’re doing all the time is adapting to our environment. I can understand that there is an illusion that we’re just getting better and better at everything until one day we live in some kind of Star Trek idyllic reality. But the sad fact is that the only thing that’s driving this innovation is that the world is becoming more and more competitive. The saying that necessity is the mother of invention is accurate on a global scale. I have this theory that if resources suddenly became as abundant to humans as they were 200,000 years ago without the need for agriculture, we’d all go back to being hunter gatherers. Well, maybe hunter gatherers with iPhones.

So what, we should just stop progressing? Not necessarily. What we should do is change our thinking about what is actually happening in market research. We’re not getting inherently ‘better’ with changing methodologies and bigger data. These are all attempts to change, to become more adaptive to our environments. Sometimes this means that the newest technology and solutions are the most advantageous options, but this isn’t always the case. That relies on the erroneous assumption that the future is always superior to the past (like that Delta commercial shutting the lights on Amelia Earhart, which I thought was really icky).

What this means for researchers. This whole article is pretty much a long-winded way of saying that we need to slow down, take a hard look at what is really going on in our environments and what our needs are, and figure out how we can adapt. Don’t just assume that because something looks really cool and innovative, that it’s better than what you’re already doing. We need to look at the metrics by which we typically measure Progress–speed, quantity, and efficiency–and ask ourselves if these are the actual metrics that we need to be successful. Consider other metrics that are often sacrificed by Progress, such as quality, sustainability, and thoughtful strategy. Oftentimes this means looking into that past that we thought was so disposable. You may uncover the real forgotten treasures that everyone else left behind in their scrambling to move forward.

Ellen Hart is a Director at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields. Email Ellen at ellen.hart@vivisumpartners.com