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    Archetypes: a useful research tool to access what lies beneath


    When my daughter was born the midwife said, ‘she looks like she’s been here before – and she wasn’t so impressed then, either’. A good line, however often it may have been used.

    Two things are often overlooked in research, with our current obsession with data and the ‘autonomous individual’. The first is what has gone before and the second is what other people do.

    Archetypes are a useful research tool as they bring into play the effect of history and the effect of culture ie what people have done before and what people are doing now.

    Archetypes help to reveal the hidden patterns beneath our choices and point to universal human motivations. Carl Jung coined the term archetypes to describe how symbols and myths permeate our collective unconscious. But archetypes are as old as storytelling itself. Plato called them “forms of intuition …templates of intuitive understanding”.

    Although there is a lot of academic theory (especially Jungian psychology) involved, it is possible to select only the more useful, practical elements from archetypes.  

    We recently studied thriller fiction for a large publisher. What encourages readers to choose a particular author/story/fictional character? How to maximise appeal and engagement?

    Thrillers are a great research topic as it covers habits and behaviour and also raw, visceral emotions. We used archetypes to go deeper into the topic, mainly in an analytical and interpretive way, but also as stimulus in client workshops. It was helpful in these three ways:

    1. Classification/categorisation

    Archetypes are an organising system, which help to categorise subject-matter. Christopher Brooker spent 34 years researching his book, “The Seven Basic Plots” (2004). Two of these resonate strongly in thrillers: “The Quest” and “Voyage and Return”. US literary critic John Gardner went further, saying there are only two plots, “a person goes on a journey” and “a stranger comes to town”. Asking what kind of thing is this? helps clients who want to replicate success by finding that elusive winning formula which does not come across as formulaic.

    1. Emotional hit parade

    The reader is less interested in types/genres than in the thing itself. What were the real emotional hooks in the story? What would get people reading, discussing and buying this book, one of many thousands available? The same underlying emotions sought in stories today are in ALL stories down the ages; the fear, lust, anger, bloodlust, pride etc is what has always driven us. These raw emotions are the essential ingredients of archetypes and using the model helps to surface the emotions and gives us permission to discuss them.

    1. Visual ready reckoner

    AC map

    We used the 12 Jungian archetypes as illustrated here to stimulate debate and discussion with clients about the main protagonist. A very useful resource is this site.

    In online workshops people chose the best fit using virtual stickers on Google Jamboard, the collaborative digital whiteboard.

    Archetypes in workshop

    Using archetypes like this helped us to get more depth and emotional resonance from the research. Archetypes are accessible personifications of underlying human motivations and remind us that, while we think of ourselves as free-thinking individuals, we are following in the footsteps of those before us and are more influenced by who and what is around us than we realise. Archetypes are thedesire paths’ of human destiny, the patterns laid down which we follow, cutting across conventions.

    Desire path


    Archetypes are just one tool available to qualitative researchers. So to those who may think that qual is selected verbatims from focus groups, you can suggest that in fact it embraces the whole of human history and culture.

    So there.

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