What is an insight? Ask Werner Herzog

Clients pay us to ‘find’ them and we spend hours deciphering for them but remind me again… what exactly is an insight?

There are many competing definitions out there. This video from the APG gets close but is probably better on what an insight isn’t than what an insight is.

Like all things in life (or in my life, anyway), I think the answer lies in the philosophy of Werner Herzog.  For those that have never heard of him, Herzog is an incomparable German film director and documentary-maker. Incomparable because in the making of his film Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man who pulled a boat over a mountain to get to the river on the other side, he actually pulled a boat over a mountain. Incomparable because, while being interviewed by Mark Kermode outside his home in LA, he was shot by a sniper with an air rifle and barely flinched, declaring it an ‘insignificant bullet’. I could go on but suffice it to say, he is a director of incredibly powerful films.

So what does he have to do with insights? The guiding philosophy of his filmmaking – the thing that ties his documentaries to his works of fiction – is an idea he calls ‘ecstatic truth’ (stay with me now). He defines this in opposition to the ‘accountant’s truth’, which is concerned only with recounting facts; ecstatic truth, on the other hand, is the deeper, more illuminating truth beneath the facts. The only way you get there is through effort, style and craft. In documentary cinema, where debates about the ethics of representing ‘reality’ are ever-present, this idea has come in for criticism but I think it has parallels to what we do in qualitative research – another endeavour concerned with representing reality.

Bad research is the mere relaying of findings – ‘he said that’, ‘she said this’ (what Werner would call the ‘accountant’s truth’). Good research – research that generates insights – involves the interpretation of those findings to arrive at a truth that belies them. An insight, then, is a sort of ‘ecstatic truth’. It’s not the truth, rather a persuasive, powerful and illuminating reading of the facts. And, let’s not forget, something that will hopefully unlock the client’s problem.

So there’s my attempt at defining an insight, via Werner Herzog. Of course, if you buy into this definition it also means an insight (and qualitative research in general) is unfalsifiable but we’ll conveniently save that for another blog post. 

(PS. In a good example of his ‘ecstatic truth’, here’s a video of Herzog on the depressed penguins of the Antarctic. Just listen to that voice.)