Commentators have been busy discussing how qualitative research has changed over the last ten years and propose various theories as to why this is taking place.
Qualitative researchers themselves who have been active practitioners over the last ten, twenty, or more years are acutely aware of the shifting sands. No longer do they expect to spend two evenings a week in a viewing facility; rather they can start to reclaim their life.
‘Blame’ for cuts in the use of traditional qualitative research methodologies is sometimes put on those who set research budgets, the result of collaborative discussion amongst different organisational departments. ‘Blame’ is also put on the fragile UK (and global) economy and today’s context of austerity. ‘Blame’ is also place on the shoulders of qualitative researchers’ quantitative counter parts, the perception (even if not the reality) being that ‘cheap quant’ in on the rise in favour of more expensive qual.
Maybe all this is true to a greater or lesser extent, but maybe it paints an over-simplistic picture of the shifting research zeitgeist.
It’s an over-worn cliché, but the times really are a’ changing.
First, the start of the 21st century has ushered a relentless march of technological change. The birth and rapid growth of online communication tools, widespread WiFi connectivity, and the proliferation of smartphone, and tablet use – now referred to as the internet of things, all ensure this march retains its momentum.
Second, linked to the above, our research tools are changing. Qualitative researchers have new software packages to assist in the analysis process replacing the large sheets of flipchart paper of the past, but however qualitative research is carried out, it will always be seen by some clients, and increasingly so in this age of austerity as an expensive way of gathering data. Quant surveys are now quicker to design, carry out and analyse, resulting in the faster production of data than ever before thanks to online and telephone methods: we now live in the age of big data (and it’s cheap).
Third, the research zeitgeist is changing. We are more multi-disciplinary than in the past (helped by enhanced IT capabilities), consumers (and clients) increasingly seek experiential learning (whether in terms of how research is carried out, or how its findings are shared). Helped by social media, people are increasingly comfortable giving researchers a close-up view of their lives. They are no longer ‘respondents’, they have become ‘participants’.
How have these changes impacted on us and all those carrying out research?
Nothing dramatic has changed and it’s work as usual for most of us, most of the time. Subtle changes have occurred however, such as a gradual reduction in the number of face to face focus groups we conduct. In preference to these, we have found ourselves conducting more telephone interviews; a perfectly valid methodology, but lacking in the richness and depth that can be gained from people discussing as a group. The benefits to clients are primarily financial, and then there are often benefits to ourselves too: less time travelling across the country to ensure we get pan-Wales coverage, for example, but there is a trade-off to be made.
Less subtle has been the increase in ‘quick quant’: simple surveys carried out on line which can yield targeted data efficiently and rapidly, although quite often the ease of availability also leads to their misuse and subsequent misleading interpretation.
More significant, has been the need for us to think more about our delivery of qualitative research and what we offer our clients. Online qual work is one obvious example, and carrying out research using social media using bulletin boards, live chats, blogs, user-generated content, and webcam interviews for example. ‘Ethnographic approaches’ – the study of people and cultures, within qualitative work were always problematic because of how time-consuming they tend to be, and how expensive. Now, there could be a resurgence of ‘ethnographic techniques’ thanks to video chat, the ease and familiarity of carrying out mobile polls and such tools. These forms of delivery could especially be of value for research amongst young people, (for whom mobile phone use is second nature) and some classified ‘hard to reach’. Thinking of the latter group, a service user in sheltered accommodation, for example, may positively enjoy creating their own video diary, or taking part in live skype calls.
For presentations, as broadband speeds increase and become more widespread, a higher proportion of Skype conversations will become more common, as will video conferencing. So perhaps technology has evolved qualitative research. The fundamentals are still the same, but the techniques applied to gather the data are simply moving with the times. Indeed, the need to travel anywhere to see anyone could become redundant in time: but what’s the cost of that, whether in the context of carrying out research, or maybe even in the context of visiting your granny? That opens up a whole new debate!