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When Psychology and Ethnicity Meet

Much has been written about the advantages to taking a psychological approach to qualitative market research. As well, there are many companies out there who specialize in “ethnic” market research. But what happens when the two intersect?


Much has been written about the advantages to taking a psychological approach to qualitative market research—it gets to the core of what participants are thinking and feeling, can inform clients of the best ways to pursue action, and generally makes the research deeper and more effective. As a graduate of Columbia University with an advanced degree in mental health, I can say that I incorporate these elements into every aspect of my work. I am continually looking for new ways to reach participants through probes and encouraging input.

As well, there are many companies out there who specialize in “ethnic” market research—that is, reaching out to Hispanic, African-American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and international consumers and other participants Many firms have been very successful at bridging the chasm between the mainstream market research world and these sometimes-isolated groups of people who are valuable informants to our research world. This relatively recent contribution has spawned entire new industries, and created a mini-revolution in the qualitative sphere. Having moderated for some of these companies, I can say that the research is very valuable and contributes a great deal to our field of knowledge

But what happens when the two intersect? Not much has been written about how to probe the Latino mindset, or how to help newly-immigrated Indians feel at home in a focus group. This leaves a gap in our research, and a void in our knowledge. From 16 years’ experience in healthcare, healthcare-related industries, and mental health, most of it with minorities, I can say that there is a wealth of knowledge out there waiting to be tapped.

What about the 16-year-old American-born boy of Dominican descent whose mother was born in the Dominican Republic and maintains many traditional values, while he is stuck between two worlds? Struggling with issues of sexual orientation, he seeks to bridge his mother’s conservative values with the mores of society at large. Should he participate in a focus group or in-depth interview, it would be imperative that a, psychologically-oriented culturally sensitive approach be taken. These issues should also be kept in mind when analyzing results, as his responses will inevitably be influenced by the above factors.

After many years working as a therapist for non-profit agencies, working mainly with minorities and immigrants, I can say that probing their mindset to get at deeper issues (not just superficial responses) requires sensitivity, skill, and a psychological orientation. For example, the 16-year-old boy previously mentioned struggles with his mother, who does not accept his sexual orientation. As a result of this and many other factors, including having a father who was jailed and then deported, he cuts himself frequently with sharp objects. In order to assist him, I must not only use my expertise in psychology to assist with the cutting, but also integrate his expectations due to the pressure his mother puts on him.

She is a “hard-core” Hispanic and tends to get overly emotional when “Enrique” (assumed name) is in trouble. This affects him deeply. Again, if we were to put Enrique into a focus group setting (of course, not all Latinos have such serious and intense problems) we would have to take both his verbal and nonverbal communications into account. Even if he doesn’t state so obviously, he may have more conflicting emotions about what is discussed.

Obviously, this is an extreme example; we would not expect to encounter such difficulties in focus groups we conduct. I used it in order to show with clarity some of the issues we may encounter, even if they be on a smaller scale.

For another example, I worked with a newly-immigrated French-speaking family of African descent. They had a great mistrust of the American system and had numerous family problems including extreme poverty, under-employment, lack of childcare when welfare required a work/school program, domestic violence, and a history of extreme misbehavior of at least two of their five children.

In order to work with this family, trust, an essential element in all human interactions, including qualitative research, had to be built. An understanding of the Senegalese and Mauritanian culture was required, including gender roles, respect of elders, family values (sticking together, not allowing external interference), and general traditional values. However, a psychological approach was also necessary, in order to cope with the crushing effects of poverty and domestic violence, and the rape of the mother when she was a young girl.

“Yanira” presented as afraid, with post-traumatic stress disorder and overwhelmed by childcare responsibilities. Psychological intervention was necessary in order to calm her and orient her to a new way of viewing the world. Once again, most African families would not be going through such multiple crises, but we must always remember that ANY of our participants at ANY time (including mainstream ones) may be experiencing such difficulties.

If Yanira were to present in our group, we would have to settle her nervousness, and warmly greet her in French, acknowledging her respect for family and authority and culturally make her feel at home. We would have to be aware that certain questions might “trigger” her, or bring the subjects back to her and upset her. We would have to take extreme care in introducing questions and probes and watch her responses carefully.

These two “extreme” examples illustrate how we must take both culture and psychology into account when approaching “ethnic” clients. Probes need not necessarily be on the deepest level, but they must take into account cultural values and norms. They must also encompass sexual orientation, as the LGBT community grows in strength and influence. With these individuals, the concept of “family” may be very different from the mainstream, and it may be necessary to refine probes in order to efficiently delve into their psychology. In this case, delving below the surface may mean, if we are “straight”, reorienting ourselves to a worldview vastly different from our own.

It is necessary to combine our quickly-developing understanding of cultural differences with our vast knowledge of psychological processes. It is only by doing so that we will effectively reach the hearts and minds of ethnic and international communities, and by doing so we open up a whole new realm of research.

I welcome your questions and comments. Please feel free to contact me at or call (917)488-8383.


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Expert Market Research

New York, New York, United States of America
(917) 488-8383
About Expert Market Research:
Multilingual moderating and in-depth interviewing from an experienced, RIVA-trained team with almost 20 years' experience with individuals and groups.