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The filling out of forms demanding consent and the obtaining of signatures may merely be ritual activity that mimics biomedical practice but does not end in subject comprehension.

This quick comment from the authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method will bring a nod of recognition from anyone who has had to take part in market research in affiliation with a thoroughly institutionalized client.

I have done plenty of research on highly personal topics. Think of the thing in your life that you most want to avoid talking about with other people. The chances are that I have conducted market research on that topic, doing one-on-one, in-depth interviewson the subject. I may have even performed research involving participant observation of related behavior.

The chances are also good that, during the course of that research, I did not obtain a consent form. Why would I? I have found that, despite the supposed disruption of bonds of trust in our culture, most people are willing to talk openly with a researcher who approaches them in the right way – even when they’re asked to discuss the most embarrassing parts of their lives. Many of them actually enjoy getting their thoughts and feelings off their chests, and they never ask me to provide them with a consent form.

There are the occasional research participants who are defensive and suspicious, of course. Signing a consent form wouldn’t change their attitudes, though.

What are these consent forms for, then?

It isn’t for legal protection. In all the years I’ve been researching consumer culture, I’ve never had a research participant even threaten to file a lawsuit against me, whether they’ve signed a consent form or not.

The authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds are on to something when they suggest that market research consent forms are an imitation of a ritual that developed in medical institutions. Medical consent forms aren’t just a legal formality. They’re a sign of submission.

Signing a medical release form is a test of surrender that enables entry into a system that puts people through terrible ordeals. By signing that form, a person becomes a patient, willing to do whatever the doctor orders – at least for as long as the hospital stay lasts.

By adopting research consent forms, market researcher and their clients seem to be trying to take on some of the authority that medical professionals exercise. They are seeking a ritual submission of the same kind that people perform when they agree to undergo frightening medical procedures.

Such submission is necessary in the practice of medicine, but it’s a mistake in market research. In medicine, when physicians need is compliance. In market research, what we need is honesty, and self-reflection. We need trust.

Starting out an interview or ethnographic observation by handing a research participant a long statement about the rights they are willing to give up and the indignities they must be willing to undergo is not an effective method for earning trust. In the context of market research, a legal consent form represents a microritual that shifts both researcher and participant into a state of cold, mutual apprehension.

As qualitative researchers, we earn trust by displaying openness ourselves, by speaking authentically, rather than reading from corporate scripts. A consent form gets a research conversation off on the wrong foot, sending the message: “Before we go any further, I have a note that my lawyer says I have to read to you.”