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The Research Renaissance

A ‘renaissance’ is a rebirth. It takes us back to a period of time when the modern world was first formed, when big ideas were new, and so it invites us to interrogate the role of research from the ground up.


By Oliver Conner

What word do we use to describe the changes undergoing the research industry? Are we undergoing a research ‘revolution’ or ‘transformation’ as it is common to claim? Or are we at the nascent stages of a research ‘renaissance’?

When we talk of ‘revolution’ or ‘transformation’, I feel that the discussion is being led by the new digital tools that are at our disposal, or how these tools are altering the old research methodologies. Whilst this is an important discussion – online communities, big data, facial analysis and the rest are all revolutionary forces – there is the possibility for a different conversation.

A ‘renaissance’ is a rebirth. It takes us back to a period of time when the modern world was first formed, when big ideas were new, and so it invites us to interrogate the role of research from the ground up. To dig out the important ideas that emerged from that era, and apply them to our own world.

It therefore provides us with a useful framework to think about marketing research on a grander scale. It encourages us towards the loftier ambitions that characterised the renaissance. It helps us take that crucial step towards understanding the possibility of business in the digital age, and what role research will play.

What was the renaissance?

Speaking to those that study the renaissance, you realise that the era has a lot to teach the contemporary world. In fact, the renaissance period itself was all about the process of looking to the past (ancient Greece and Rome) and finding lessons for the present.

The renaissance was a period in Europe, starting in Italy, that marked the end of the middle ages. It was a period that gave us great and timeless ideas. Beginning in the 14th century, and ending in the 16th, the renaissance was an explosion of ingenuity, creativity and experimentation.

At its centre was a shift in power from the feudal landowning noble rulers, to the emerging world of tradesmen and merchants. Consequently, the renaissance was a period when humanity’s perspective changed from revolving around God, religion and superstition, to one that was concerned with the lived experience of man – it was the rise of what we now refer to as Humanism.

A similar context

There are parallels between then and now. Just as power shifted from a small number of nobles to a newly emerging middle class, we see a similar transformation to our economic base in the digital age. Power is becoming more distributed.

Today, being a large company can prove a handicap. With legacy structures and layers of management, size can make it difficult to be agile and adapt to cultural and market changes. Instead, we see a rush of start-ups scooping up new opportunities. And the larger companies are increasingly relying on the services of these new, smaller, business models.

In the renaissance, the workers that were previously ploughing the noble’s fields were now doing their accounts and selling them their supplies. Today, it is tech-entrepreneurs and their start-ups which are building the new platforms facilitating newly democratised methods of communication.

Whether we look to the sharing economy or to crowdfunding, we can see that the walls are falling down between business and customer. Social media gives consumers more of a voice.

Of course, the nobles of the renaissance weren’t too happy about losing their power – and they had the soldiers and weapons to defend their position. But it was a losing battle. The trade-guilds of the middle classes could battle against their violence by collaborating together. They could sacrifice short term gain for long term profit.

And this is exactly how the entrepreneurs, freelancers and start-ups of today are changing things.

New disciplines

As I mentioned, the renaissance started as a reappraisal of the past. During the middle ages the church wasn’t too fond of the classical world of Rome and Greece. They felt they made life on earth far too attractive. And if you’re in the business of selling heaven, then you don’t want people thinking life on earth is all too great.

But this changed with the early renaissance thinkers. They encouraged religion to become more open to learning from the past. The result was a gold rush – people dived into the classical world to see what lessons they could salvage.

This led to whole new fields of inquiry. If you wanted to understand and date ruins, then you needed to invent archaeology. If you wanted to source and verify ancient document, you needed to bring about philology and editing. In sum – the renaissance developed scholarship as a tool to distinguish truth from false.

The parallel with today’s world of research is clear. New ideas, technologies and motivations are generating a plethora of new disciplines and approaches, which leads to one of the cornerstones of the research renaissance…

The renaissance man

The renaissance man is a key figure – the ultimate generalist.

He can best be understood through an analogy that is used a lot in management today – the hedgehog and the fox. Which would you rather be? A hedgehog is great at one thing – rolling up into a ball to protect itself. A fox, on the other hand, is agile and adapts to its environment. We need hedgehogs – the people that specialise in one thing are essential, but the research renaissance is calling for more generalists.

Consider Michaleangelo – the archetypal renaissance man. Whether he was sculpting David, painting the Sistine chapel, or designing St Peter’s Basilica, he was perfectly at home. And, like the new generation of millennial workers, he didn’t see much distinction between work and leisure. In fact, he spent five years living with the Medici’s (the bankers that financed much of the Italian renaissance), sitting with them at dinner and discussing how best to use the Medici’s money.

As researchers, the renaissance man should be our model. That’s not to say that we should abandon our specialist knowledge in favour of surface knowledge. Rather, we should be aware of the explosion of new disciplines, and be methodologically agnostic when we design ways to answer research questions.

Humanistic depth

The role of qualitative research is to paint a deep and nuanced portrait of people. It is to step behind the eyes of others and understand how they see the world.

This was the goal of the renaissance. As an artistic movement, it gave us depth of character. This is best illustrated by the change you can see in art. During the medieval ages, paintings used humans merely as 2 dimensional symbols, lacking expression or emotion. Over the course of the renaissance, the human form became 3 dimensional, and artists increasingly relished depicting the sensuous contours of the human.


For us in the digital age, we are becoming understood by the data we create. Each interaction is recorded, and creates a digital outline of who we are. It is powerful data. But there is a fear that we might become too obsessed with ‘big data’, at the expense of gathering deep data.

The renaissance teaches us to look for new ways to understand and represent ourselves. The artists of the period were afforded new opportunities through the development of perspective in painting. As researchers, we have at our disposal the advent of social media platforms and mobile phones. From research communities to mobile ethnography, we are still finding our feet with these new tools, but the new possibilities of representing people are exciting.

Sex sells?

In the middle ages, nudity was a sin and associated with the fall of humankind. But the buyers and patrons of renaissance art were demanding more lifelike paintings.

As artists began to explore the human form, it became more erotically charged. Whether it is the nude grace of the statue of David, or the naked beauty of the portraits of Venus, the use of nudity is instrumental to many works.

Even by today’s standards, the emergence of such a liberal attitude is astonishing.

It was justified by a line of philosophy which argued that divine love starts with beauty, and beauty starts with sexual desire. Therefore, nudity is used as an invitation to consider the higher forms of philosophical, religious and intellectual thought.

Zoom forward a few centuries to today and we are surrounded by sexualised images in advertising – images that are used in the same manner as the renaissance, but as an invitation to sell products instead of philosophies.

But recently there has been a consumer backlash – best typified by the controversy around the ‘Beach Body Ready’ campaign. Leveraging sexual desire in advertising has been criticised for the way it objectifies people and guilt’s people into conforming to particular body types.

Using sex in advertising isn’t necessary. Ad Age ran a feature on the 100 best adverts of the last century, and only 8 of them invoked sex. Opinion polls show that people think there are too many sexualised adverts. And a recent study by the American Psychological Association found that sex has little or no benefit to advertising whatsoever.

It is clear that a reappraisal of the maxim ‘sex sales’ is needed, and the renaissance provides a useful grounding for such an inquiry.

Engaging stakeholders

There was a problem that the newly rich merchants of the renaissance faced. Although Humanist in their outlook, they were still god-fearing Christians. And the pursuit of money, particularly charging interest, was not a way into heaven.

So, to reconcile the massive accumulation of wealth with Christianity, the humanistic merchants began arguing that the accumulation of money was virtuous if it was used to help the poor and increase the public good.

As a result – the merchants began what we can consider modern corporate philanthropy. They spent money on houses for the poor, and began patronising the arts.

To them, the art and architecture of the age they funded was to represent the classical ideals they cherished, and to be made available to all. Consequently, the citizens of renaissance cities began to feel proud of being an inhabitant.

This strengthening connection continued as the renaissance merchants introduced early forms of fairer income tax. Rather than a system of taxation that simply took from the poor and gave to the rich, there emerged the idea of citizens investing in the state. The state shifted from being ‘them’ to being ‘us’. An instrument of private sacrifice for public good.

As researchers in today’s organisations, we have a similar opportunity. Until the digital revolution, we were hindered by the cost and difficulty of conducting research. Today these restrictions don’t apply, and it is cheap and easy to reach out to customers.

In fact, by using communities and social media, we can include the voice of the customer in every little decision that is made. As a result, our relationship is altering.

The most powerful research has always been when participants are intrinsically motivated to take part (instead of just doing it for the incentive). This is best achieved by regarding the participant not as something to be studied, but as a co-researcher in the process.

By renegotiating the relationship between the citizen and the state, the renaissance created the idea as the city as a piece of art. Walking around the cities of Florence or Venice today, you bear witness to cities whose beauty is timeless and without rival.

This should be the ideal we strive towards as renaissance researchers. The tools are now here to develop a deeper understanding of people. We can integrate people into the very fabric of organisations. We can make culture and business unify as we enter into the new age of digital business.


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Oliver Conner

Oliver Conner

Research Director, COIN Research