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 think so.

You 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, salvation). 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.

Marketing Research

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 one.

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 familiar.

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 or helpful?

What are some of the constituent elements in an archetype set, and how are they different from classical segmentation groups? 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 needed. 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:

  • 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.

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.

  • 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, for example
  • 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)