The rise of the active citizen

This blog follows on from our previous one in February, where we explored the increasing frustration of the public, their need to be listened to and the importance of public debate and discussion about the future. However, it’s more than just listening, we want to be involved in how our world is taking shape.  We are becoming a nation of citizens who demand more action, more urgency for change and more participation in their choices, be they economic, social, environmental or political.

We are working in very different times, where people are becoming more vocal and demanding.  We are seeing further mass participation in protests on a scale that has not been seen for years.  The Extinction Rebellion has gained increasing support and today, as I write this, The Guardian is reporting that support for the Extinction Rebellion in the UK has quadrupled in the past nine days as public concern about the scale of the ecological crisis grows.

The plastic problem also continues to dominate the headlines and every day we are seeing old products demonised and new ways to make a difference in halting the growth of the plastic landfills and damage to our environment.

The impact of our current crisis will require big changes in the way that retail, brands and manufacturing supply their consumers. The future of our buying habits is changing, we will expect more from our brands and products, we want to be involved and make our choices based on our beliefs as much as our convenience.

The Association of Qualitative research (AQR) recently hosted a webinar with Jon Alexander from The Citizen Project (  This was a thought provoking webinar illustrating the shift from consumer to active citizen that has happened over the past decades.  Our review of this will be in the next AQR newsletter – In Brief.  A copy of this review follows below.


Citizen Shift – Review


 ‘Consumers just buy stuff, Citizens participate.’

This webinar gave me a lot to think about – social history; consumerism across generations; my own buying behaviour and what changes I need to make in the way I work with clients – all in the space of 40 minutes or so.

Jon talked about the collapse of the consumer story, from early century ‘subjects’, to post war consumerism to the evolution of the citizen, who wants and expects to be more involved in the world and the choices and contributions they can make.

How we label people is important and can define how we view ourselves and others.  How many of us are still calling our research attendees ‘respondents’ rather than ‘participants’?  Labels are fundamental in helping us make the mental shift in how we view and find our way in the world – a consumer/respondent is passive, less likely to become involved in changing society; a participant/citizen is participatory, more powerful and more likely to be engaged in making changes in society.

The challenge for our industry is how we respond to this ‘citizen shift’ and how we engage and work with our clients. For example, Jon asked what is the purpose of a brand? Is it just to sell products or can a brand affect behaviour?  Should brands be designing opportunities to create something together?  How the rise of the citizen will change the way we interact with brands is fascinating and impacts greatly on how we as individuals also ‘shift’ our own way of working as qualitative researchers.

This morning on my usual dog walk I asked my fellow walker why she bought the brand of beans that she did.  She went through the usual remit of taste, family history of buying this brand etc etc; but then she said, ‘That’s all changing now anyway, because I want to consider the environment in my choices, and I’m not buying my usual olive oil anymore because they use plastic bottles….’ And I thought – oh a citizen not a consumer is emerging here!


Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash