Audience Dialogue

Tales from the Field (4)
Group discussion, Samarai style

In Papua New Guinea, at first it seems impossible to do audience research.

You can't do a phone survey, because less than 1% of people have a phone.

You can't do a mail survey, because 50% are illiterate and most of the country has no regular mail service.

You can't do a door-to-door survey in the main cities, because of the high crime rate: most houses are protected by razor wire, locked gates, and fierce dogs.

Even if you manage to do an intercept survey (with interviewers approaching shoppers at markets) the resulting figures are suspect. The always-obliging respondents tend to answer Yes to every question. (In one of the few surveys that had been completed in PNG, 77% of the respondents said they had TV. Projected to the population, this represented many times the number of TV sets that had ever been brought into the country.)

At last I found one form of research that does work: group discussions. PNG people are great talkers, and in group settings they speak their minds, seemingly without trying to impress an interviewer or one another.

In Papua and New Guinea they speak many languages. In one province, Milne Bay, the main language is (supposedly) English. So we went there to try some group discussions. Our party consisted of the country's sole market researcher, a video-camera operator, a sound recordist, and myself. In any other country, this would have been a TV production.

After a hair-raising flight to the big city of Alotau (population 4,000) we took a boat to the small island of Samarai, once the capital of Milne Bay. On Samarai, we formed a roving research team. The market researcher (a New Zealander) stopped groups of people in the street, and before they knew it they were being interviewed. Meanwhile, I was taking notes, the camera operator (an American) was filming them, dancing around like a boxer to get the best view. The sound recordist (a Papuan) was dashing around, thrusting his huge mike under the nose of whoever was speaking at the time. The impassive locals, speaking in a treacle-thick dialect that scarcely resembled English as I knew it, weren't in the least fazed by all this activity. Quietly and thoughtfully, they answered the questions that the market researcher kept firing at them.

All day we roved around, dropping into the courthouse for a discussion (on radio) between cases. Everybody was happy to talk to us, and drop whatever they were doing. I suspect that a lot of them thought they were being interviewed for television, and had no awareness of research. To me, our power was almost scary. Yet when we edited the videotapes, what struck me most was that nobody looked directly at the camera.