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IMMIGRANTS AND MARKET RESEARCH: How do you say “focus group” in Bengali?

By Craig Charney | Newsletter Clip | January 7, 2007

Some time ago, a friend at a non-profit that helps immigrants called. She wanted us to do focus groups with some novel subjects: Kosovo refugees living in New York. Oh – and they had to be in Albanian, too!

Sound like mission impossible? Get used to it. We have.

The waves of immigrants and refugees sweeping into the United States are rapidly altering the commercial market and the populations served by non-profits here. For the market researchers who work with them, they pose unique challenges in terms of outreach, language skills, research staff, and cultural awareness. These challenges can be met by researchers ready to stretch – and they will have to in order to do effective research for non-profits and for-profits in 21st-century America. This article outlines the issues.

The country is changing faster than you think. In 2000, over 30 million U.S. residents, or one in nine, had been born abroad. Some 1.3 million more are arriving each year – almost twice the previous recorded peak a century ago. By 2050, immigrants will number one American in five. They are bringing a new mix of ethnicities to our shores, too. While 100 years ago the top five sources of immigrants — Germany, Ireland, Canada, Britain, and Sweden — all had populations of European origin, today none of them (Mexico, China, the Philippines, India, or Cuba) do. The transformation underway is so dramatic that by mid-century, the Census Bureau projects that only half the country’s population will be non-Hispanic whites.

In many states and localities, the future is here already. Some 25 metropolitan areas currently fit the “year 2030” national projection, where at least 25% of the population is Hispanic or Asian and less than 60% is Anglo. They include New York, where immigrants make up 36% of the population, and Los Angeles, where they are 40%. (In both cities, immigrants and their first-generation offspring – including this writer – probably make up a majority.) But heartland places, including Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Minneapolis are also immigrant magnets.

Immigrant numbers are growing fastest in the population categories served by many non-profits – particularly educational or social service organizations. For

For instance, half of California’s kids – and more than three in five of those in Los Angeles – have immigrant parents. Immigrants (with some exceptions) tend to cluster in low- paying, low-skilled occupations and are less likely than the native-born to have regular doctors or checkups – all issues concerning many nonprofits. Even recreational, religious, business, or leadership groups will find immigrants making up a growing share of their ranks. The same trends are transforming consumer markets, as new foods, media, and other ethnic categories are entering the market along with immigrants. On these trends, then, whatever their line of activity, businesses and non- profits – and those doing market research for them – will have to pay attention to America’s foreign-born.

To do research with immigrants, you have to find them first. Outreach for studies among immigrants can be much more difficult than for the general population. Even if their numbers are growing fast, specific immigrant groups may form a relatively small share of the population of a given state or locality, making RDD phone interviewing prohibitively expensive. The “digital divide” makes online research problematic for reaching representative samples of less-educated immigrant groups, particularly Latinos and Haitians, who lack internet access more often than the native- born. Focus group facilities may have few members of immigrant groups in their databases. The fear and suspicion towards outsiders in some immigrant communities, particularly among people who are undocumented or refugees from repressive lands, is another barrier confronting the researcher.

These problems have solutions – but they require extra ingenuity, effort, and (sometimes) cost. Since most immigrant groups tend to concentrate in certain neighborhoods, localities, zip codes, or counties, once these are identified from Census or other data it is possible to focus calling on areas or exchanges with substantial yield. For qualitative studies, or quant work where projection to population is not essential, list vendors can screen for ethnic surnames. (For instance, when a Chicago focus group center told us they didn’t have enough names in their database to fill a group of Muslims, we purchased a list of Chicago residents with Pakistani or Arabic surnames.) Online research, if panels are large enough, can pull in substantial numbers of immigrant respondents (though on a non-random basis). Immigrant networks and organizations also offer ways into closed communities (though the usual caveats against recruiting clumps of acquaintances still apply). In our Kosovar study, cooperation of the Albanian-American community was absolutely essential to getting the groups done.

To understand immigrants, you’d better speak their language. Speaking the language of foreign-born residents in a study involving them is a mark of respect. In many cases, it’s also a simple requirement if you want to reach them. In U.S. telephone surveys, we routinely interview in Spanish as well as English, according to the respondent’s choice – and one-third to one-half of Latinos called prefer Spanish. If they were omitted, we would lose a high proportion of Spanish-speaking immigrants, particularly the lower-income, more recently arrived ones many nonprofits care about. (Obviously, the same goes for focus groups.) Other languages are harder to come by, but specialized multi-lingual calling houses exist. For a New York health care survey where immigrants mattered, we found one that called in English, Spanish, Russian, Haitian Creole, and Mandarin Chinese.

For qualitative research, often the issue is not just matching immigrants’ language, but their ethnicity too. To promote a sense of ease and rapport, focus group moderators preferably should come from a similar background to immigrant subjects. Moderators’ directories show a fair variety of backgrounds, if you can afford to fly someone in. Asking colleagues can also help locate an experienced moderator from an immigrant group. (We did for our Kosovar study and found an Albanian immigrant who fit the bill.) In a pinch, social workers with clinical group experience from the relevant ethnic group can often make good moderators with a little training. Another solution is co-moderation, handled by a member of the group and an experienced researcher. (I did this with a Bangladeshi-American lawyer in a South Asian community leaders’ group soon after 9/11.)

Cultural awareness is a must for research with immigrants. As the population’s diversity grows, awareness of immigrant customs, attitudes, and lifestyles is essential for successful research. If you lay out a spread of food and drink in mid- afternoon before Arab-American housewives during Ramadan – the month when Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink from dawn til dusk – you’ll have a pretty angry group on your hands. Trying to do a poll in a heavily Indian community? Better avoid Nov. 9, when Diwali, the leading Hindu holiday, falls this year. If you want to confirm identities of Mexican-American group participants, don’t just ask for drivers’ licenses; many, particularly the undocumented, may rather have ID’s issued by the local Mexican consulate. Should a man offer to shake the hand of a Chinese group participant or let her offer her hand first? If you don’t know, you’d better find out beforehand. The list could go on and on – but the point is the same. Successful research with immigrants means knowing their communities – and increasingly will mean researchers from their communities.

It’s startling to realize just how different, in ethnic and racial terms, will be the America that researchers now starting their careers will live in by the time they retire. But the changes underway already have had a large enough impact on communities, and the country, to require market researchers working with businesses and nonprofits to pay attention now. Outreach, language, ethnicity, and cultural sensitivity will all have to change if researchers are to keep pace with the communities, as well as the businesses and non-profits that are trying to serve them. But what could be more quintessentially American than that?

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research in New York, which has conducted polls and focus groups in over 40 languages, from Albanian to Zulu.

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