Rachel Ormrod provides a thumbnail sketch of both the Association for Qualitative Research and the Qualitative Research industry.
New Labour's highly publicised penchant for 'focus groups' has raised the profile of qualitative research, so you would be forgiven for assuming that its key use is to provide ammunition and sound-bites for spin doctors.
Such a view risks undermining seriously the true nature and value, the breadth and depth, of this particular form of market research. In essence, it is the study of the relationship that people have with products, brands, services and environments in order to help in commercial and social decision making.
Qualitative research's repertoire of methods and tools enables the skilled researcher to explore and understand people's attitudes, motivations and behaviour to a specific subject matter, product, brand or whatever.
Quantitative research employs market research surveys to elicit 'who' is doing 'what', while qualitative research explores the reasons, the 'how' and 'why' behind the 'what'. In the process, it provides deeper insights into how people feel and think, helping to illuminate data collected by other means.
Qualitative research is based on small samples of people. The group discussion and its younger brother, the 'focus group', is the most commonly used method, but a good researcher tailors the method(s) to the specific project.
Other methods include individual, paired or triad face-to-face depth interviews; brain storming and idea generation sessions; observation including accompanied shopping and pre or post-group discussion tasks, such as diary keeping, etc. All are designed to uncover what people actually think and do, rather than what they feel should be the case.
The information is elicited using a casual, conversational, non-directive approach. The researcher then analyses and interprets the data, going beyond mere reportage, to provide the research findings together with their implications for the specific client. The statistical significance of qualitative findings can be tested quantitatively, if required.
Qualitative research has been practiced in the UK for over 40 years, rooted primarily in psychology and related social sciences, from which it takes its methodological and conceptual procedures. It is not, however, a static discipline and is constantly adopting new methods to mine consumer thinking and behaviour more richly and deeply in search of the all too elusive truth.
What is AQR?
The Association for Qualitative Research is the new name for the former Association of Qualitative Research Practitioners. The name change reflects the diversity of our membership, which includes those involved at every stage of the research process: from commissioners through to recruiters and viewing facility proprietors.
In addition, the name change reflects our desire to represent the industry on a wider stage. Our declared aim is to be the 'mind, body, soul and voice of commercial qualitative research'.
Strengthening our offering to members is not our only objective, however. We also want to raise the profile of qualitative research among the wider audience of the marketing fraternity, senior management, politicians and the media.
Our responsibilities fall into four key areas:
- Promotion of qualitative research
- Raising of standards
- Encouragement of new thinking
- Provision of a medium for members to interact
As researchers we are quick to castigate the notorious 'focus group' for its lack of gravitas, but its prevalence has put qualitative research into the media spotlight. AQR sees this new, higher profile as providing an ideal opportunity to promote the wide-ranging applications and benefits of this form of research.
The main thrust of our efforts for the coming year will focus on the promotion of a new AQR-endorsed book, Qualitative Research in Context. Its merits are described in the following chapter, but in essence it offers a detailed analysis of qualitative research's use and best practice across a range of industries. These range from education, social policy, religion, politics, the arts, the media, design and direct marketing.
The book will, hopefully, enable us to get qualitative research on to relevant conference programmes and into apposite trade press. AQR's marketing committee, supported by our PR agency, will spearhead the initiative.
As for the Association's role within the market research industry, it has representation on all cross industry committees and working parties, ensuring that the interests of qualitative research are taken into account when policymaking takes place.
Education and training are at the core of AQR's activities. They are known for the consistently high standards they achieve and the excellent value for money they offer.
In addition, after many years of discussion and debate, we are publishing the Best Practice Qualitative Recruitment Guidelines. These will, we hope, be adopted by everyone involved in the recruitment process and assist in raising standards across the board through the setting of clear, practical benchmarks for good recruitment. We also hope that the guidelines will give recruiters a greater voice and higher status than that which they currently enjoy.
AQR also sits on the Market Research Society Professional Advisory Board, supporting and developing moves to continually improve professionalism at every level.
As with education, new thinking is at the core of AQR's responsibilities. The flagship is our annual Trends Conference, which invites luminaries from our own and other, relevant disciplines to share their experiences around a central theme that impacts on qualitative research, rather than focusing on the qualitative industry itself.
AQR has also established links with a number of academic institutions, with the expansion of the Internet facilitating even greater co-operation and cross-fertilisation of thinking between the academic and commercial worlds.
AQR was originally established in the early 80s to provide networking support for independent researchers. The aims of the Association have grown over the years, but independents still represent a key sector of the membership, with the Independent Networker programme ensuring that their needs remain a priority.
Everyone, of course, gains from fruitful interaction and In Brief, our bi-monthly magazine, helps members keep abreast of developments within the Association and the industry as a whole.
Our relaunched, interactive web site, www.aqr.org.uk, is also fast becoming a valuable source of information, news and views.
AQR is a non profit-making organisation which, though still run by members for members, now enjoys the support of a team of professionals in the guise of Rose Molloy and Angela Webb, who runs the Secretariat; Louella Miles, who edits In Brief and the Directory; Camargue, our PR agency and Amanda Tatham, our designer.
If you're new to qualitative research, I hope that I have persuaded you of the merits of picking up the phone and ringing Rose Molloy on +44 (0) 1480 407227 to discover still more about what AQR has to offer. In the meantime, I hope that you find the Directory useful.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001