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Archetypes: What Are They? Can They Be Trusted? Are They Useful?
By David Kay
Identifying archetypes – in the ageless symbols and defining character traits so vital in shaping the human psyche – makes it possible for researchers to investigate attitudes, beliefs, emotions and behaviours in ways that go far beyond traditional qualitative reports.
Archetypes are often defined as the originals, the
prototypes, the base units, or the models from
which copies are made. But models of what?
Prototypes for what?
In fact, they can be the models of, or prototypes for, almost
anything. Take the metre, for example. The original standard
was a calibrated bar of platinum-iridium alloy stored at zero
degrees Celsius at a site outside Paris. (It is now more accurately,
and abstractly, defined as the distance light travels in a
vacuum in exactly 1⁄299,792,458 of a second.)
Most modern artifacts begin as drawings, which are turned
into archetype models. They may be full-scale working models,
with tolerances that are far tighter than those required for
the copies. Or the models might be non-working mock-ups,
made of convenience materials (e.g., plastic or wood), constructed
to demonstrate the shape or pattern the products will
take. Of course in 2008, the model may consist of mathematical
parameters rather than scale models.
DEFINING THE HUMAN RACE
Archetypes become more evocative when used to define the
human race or explain segments of the human race – you and I, for example.
The idea is hardly new. The ancient
gods were archetypes of power, weakness,
guile, mischief, love, fidelity,
courage, deception, drunkenness, and
every other human characteristic. Think
of Aphrodite, goddess of love, a complicated
archetype, since she was a virgin
goddess – clearly not an archetype for
our era. Or Hermes the messenger, a
personal favourite, described as a quick,
mentally agile wordsmith, easily crossing
boundaries and moving between
levels, and also as lucky, friendly and inventive.
He is a problem solver and, oh
yes, a wily trickster.
How about mesomorphs, ectomorphs
and endomorphs, body types linked to
personality traits that define the entire
human race? Well, perhaps they do, and
perhaps they don’t. And how about
other archetype sets: Aesop’s anthropomorphic
animal archetypes or literary
characters such as Hamlet or Lear? Does any one set of archetypes truly define
the human race to the exclusion of
the myriad of alternative paradigms?
We, at Research Dimensions, don’t
JUNGYou can’t mention archetypes without
discussing (or arguing with) Carl Gustav
Jung, who is sometimes credited
with inventing (or at least popularizing)
the concept. In his view, archetypes are
fundamental, universal and timeless,
supposedly hidden in the deepest realm
of the psyche, the preconscious psychic
disposition that essentially makes us human.
Of course, these archetypes can’t
be all that well hidden, since they are
discussed and described endlessly in academia.
Jung believed that there are basic archetypes
or patterns which exist at the unconscious
level: self, shadow, animus/anima, mana, and others. These lead to
an infinite variety of more specific images.
The basic archetypes are building
blocks for many more recognizable
characters that form the “latent dispositions
common to all men.”
Any Google search will give you basic archetypes
of the family: the father (stern,
powerful, controlling), the mother (feeding,
nurturing, soothing), the child (exemplifying
birth, beginnings, innocence,
There is no magic or mystery in these.
We’ve all seen them many times.
Here are some other common character
archetypes: the hero (protection, rescue),
the maiden (purity, desire), the
wise old man (knowledge, guidance),
the magician (mystery, power), the earth
mother (nature, nurture), the witch or
sorceress (danger), and the trickster (deception,
disguise). They are like a deck
of tarot cards.
Jung recognized that the archetypical
images that “recurred in his patients’
dreams also could be found in the
myths, legends, and art of ancient peoples,
as well as in contemporary literature,
religion, and art.” This seems
self-evident, even if we don’t fully accept
his concept of a universal collective unconscious.
Just look at the characters recurring
in fairy tales, sagas, legends,
country music themes. Western (cowboy)
movies have bad guys, good guys,
drifters, loose women who tempt the
hero, and good women who end up
with him – at least they used to follow
this pattern a couple of decades ago. Is
Batman an archetype?
There are animal archetypes as well.
What do you think of when you think
fox? Clever, subtle, sly. Lion: powerful,
fearless, leader. Owl: clever. Think about
the mythology of the snake. Even the
lowly ant is a powerful archetype. Are
these archetypes as true as the Jungian
version? Yes, why not? Are they universal?
Do they represent us in the guise of members of the animal kingdom? Is
your next door neighbour a sly fox or an
industrious ant? In our view, probably
both. We carry elements of each archetype
within ourselves, varying with respect
to the degree of each character
trait. Importantly, we also believe that
the degree of each archetypal character
trait within us changes, depending on
the situation we are in.
I have no issue with using archetypes in
research (or in life). What gives me a
problem is misusing archetypes.
In your research, should you adopt
Jung’s archetypes? Aesop’s? Someone
else’s? Or should you develop your own
for each group or situation?
Some quantum physicists say that there
are many parallel universes. There may
be. But there certainly are many parallel“universal” archetype sets, not just
When searching for an archetype segmentation
set, the most relevant consideration
is this: Is it useful? The
usefulness of any particular archetype
set will depend on the issue, the situation,
the context, the category.
The archetype set that defines nurses
differs from the sets that define doctors,
technicians, financial investors, natural
food eaters, art lovers, and every other
definable group. Each is unique, even
though parts of the archetype set may be
The nurturer or caregiver, for example,
is found under many archetype names
and in many archetype groups, from
Jung to astrology. Is it a useful archetype?
Sometimes. It is, for example,
when conducting research to understand
the internal dynamics of a corporate
organization. Time and again, we
find someone in the role of nurturer
(perhaps the situation brings out the archetype
rather than the other way
around). We haven’t studied sports
teams, but I suspect that teams, too, often
have a nurturer.
Is the nurturer archetype useful when
trying to understand the world of beer
drinkers? Probably not. But when we
are investigating the market for children’s
products, we inevitably discover
the nurturer – sometimes called Mom.
So finding that nurturer moms are involved
in the purchase of children’s
products is undoubtedly correct, but it’s
hardly a breakthrough. Is it enlightening
What are some of the constituent elements
in an archetype set, and how are
they different from classical segmentation
In our view, archetype segment characteristics
are far more complex than classical
segmentation schemes. They
include many more constituent elements
that define the individual or the
group in terms of elements that cross
many boundaries. Let me explain with
an example, mall shoppers.
Any consumer study of shoppers, especially
mall shoppers, will find people
who love to shop. They enjoy spending
hours in the mall. Let’s call them “browsers.” The study will also find
those who are item-specific shoppers,
that is, shoppers who search for the one
item they need and then leave. Let’s call
them “get ’n’ go shoppers.” (Of course,
there are other shopping behaviour
groups as well.) This is useful information.
A mall that appeals to both shopper
types will be in a better position than
one that appeals to only one type.
A qualitative study using archetypes will
delve deeper and uncover more insights.
There is a common set of mall shopper
archetypes that barely resembles Jung’s model or later developments such as
Meyers-Briggs, although the specific archetypes
can vary by mall. Some of the
archetypes are “shopping as therapy,”“get in and get out,” and maybe even“bargains mean victory!” shoppers. Do
you recognize those types? Good. Archetypes
are always familiar.
To find the constituent elements in the
archetype, let’s look at the “shopping as
therapy” archetype as an example. In this
archetype, we find a package that includes
the elements in the chart below.
We go deeper into individuals’ and
groups’ fundamental identity, watching,
listening, talking and hearing.
All of us can be represented by different
archetypes, depending on the situation
we are in. That is, each individual is a
collection of archetypes, not a single archetype.
A hero in one situation may be a villain
in another. The nurse who is a classic
nurturer at work may be an aggressor, a
tiger, as a parent. The class clown may
be a father figure to a younger sibling.
The archetype needs to be tied to the
situation or category.
FINDING THE ARCHETYPE SET
How do we create or locate the archetype
set? How do we start?
It is helpful to begin by looking at common
archetype frameworks – not simply
to tap into some universal answer,
but to draw your attention and thinking
away from demographic and product
usage segmentation. It is unlikely that
Jung’s archetypes or Aesop’s totemic animal
archetypes will completely apply.
However, starting with these types of
frameworks will remind you that you
are looking for defining character traits
linked with attitudes, beliefs, emotions
and behaviours that are fundamental to
that character’s being.
Then you will need to consider behaviours– what nurses do, what health
food buyers buy, how car purchasersmake
their decision, how investors invest
and why. And then drill deeper.
Qualitative research is required. Techniques
that go beyond simple questionand-answer are needed. Use of visuals,
storytelling, symbolic imagery, and a
wide range of projective techniques are
In the situation or category that you are
researching, your archetype set might
include variations on some of the frequently described archetypes (heroes,
villains, martyrs, tricksters, nurturers,
warriors, etc.). However, the standard archetypes are likely to be greatly modified
by your needs. Other archetypes, not found in the common literature,
will probably be added, as well. To identify
them and understand their meaning,
it is important to:
What are archetypes? Can they be
trusted? Are they useful? All of these
questions can be answered through experience.
Archetypes are most useful if
you, the facilitator, and your participants
use imagination and courage to
discuss gut reactions, and have the ability
to extrapolate from today’s reality
back in history to primitive symbols.
Identifying the ageless symbols and
characters that are relevant to the topic
and target can make for interesting,
evocative groups that allow researchers
to go beyond the bounds of most of today’s
traditional qualitative reports.
- listen to respondents’ language
- have them draw pictures from another
kingdom (animal, medical, extraterrestrial,
underwater) to express character or describe their role in the situation
- use visuals, music, art supplies, tools, jewelry as stimuli, all of which lend character and provide avenues for expression.
Attitudes toward the act of shopping: two examples are pride in ownership and
fun in treasure hunting
Attitudes toward family, friends: how about shopping with a teenage daughter?
Attitudes toward self/self definition: I love to shop
Shopping history and tradition: used to shop with mom
Buying patterns: not satisfied coming away empty handed
Psychological predisposition toward shopping: shopping as a response to stress,
Social behaviour, beliefs, values, emotion gratification, related behaviour outside
the category, and many more: some shoppers resemble the nurturer, others the
seducer, and others yet the warrior (these are starting points, not end points)
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