I have been working in the social research profession for over 13 years and have seen some significant changes in that time: the rapid decline of postal and doorstep surveys, the rise and to some extent fall of online surveys, the growth in ‘harvesting’ Twitter and other social media data for the purpose of sentiment analysis or ‘opinion mining’ and the ever growing challenge of recruitment for primary research in today’s highly pressured world.
My colleague Adam Greenwood and I were fortunate to attend the Social Research Association’s Annual Conference in London earlier this month. The title of this year’s event was “Adapting to change: where next for social research?” and the event included a refreshingly bold speech from Sir John Curtice on why researchers should have seen Brexit coming (more on that from Adam), Professor Trish Greenhalgh talking about why introducing technology as a way of driving change almost never works, and a range of workshops and masterclasses.
In both the workshops I attended, people talked about research in a variety of contexts, including immersive interviews with new and unfamiliar bus users to identify barriers to bus use, research with consumers in the private rented housing sector, research with patients and parents in Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to identify barriers and facilitators to high quality hospital care, and largely impromptu ‘interviews’ with older people and those with learning disabilities to inform the development of an easy-to-use touch screen ‘community kiosk’ providing information about local activities and classes to lonely and/or isolated members of the community.
Across the four talks there were two common themes of particular interest to me. Firstly, there was the notion of ‘real-time’ feedback in order to avoid post-rationalisation of interviewees’ experiences. The immersive interviews in the ‘bus’ research involved ‘journeys’, where researchers accompanied bus users whilst they researched their bus route, purchased their ticket and took their journey, continuously asking them to narrate their thoughts, actions and experiences. Consumers in the private rented housing sector used an online app diary enabling them to log their experiences (and frustrations) of house hunting via texts and photos on an ongoing basis and, more importantly, in their own time.
Secondly, I was surprised by the sample sizes used in all the studies. As an organization that secures work almost entirely through competitive tendering, we are routinely faced with the need to maximise our sample sizes in order to offer a ‘better’ method to prospective clients. Even in qualitative research, which is meant to be about understanding, rather than quantifying issues, numbers seem to count. Furthermore, when it comes to reporting qualitative research data, clients often asked for at least some level of quantification, despite the fact doing this is to all intents and purposes, meaningless. What I admired about the speakers discussing this research was that they were candid about both the challenges they faced in recruitment (almost always the hardest stage of a research project) and the fact that their studies involved a relatively small sample size. Rather than attempting to justify or explain the numbers involved, the research findings were presented in pure and unadulterated terms as in-depth research evidence that helped the researchers and their clients to understand and improve their world.