The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

How useful is qual to medial research?

Ian Muchamore works at medical research charity the Wellcome Trust but just how useful is qualitative research in this area? In this article, he is interviewed by Louella Miles.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and your current job?

I joined the Wellcome Trust nine years ago, after being a medical researcher. I’d always had an interest in communications and joined primarily for an exhibition in London, which has since moved on to Manchester.

Since joining I’ve become more involved in organising formal and informal topic debate, which has led to my current role as senior project manager for consultational research. It’s really the formalisation of public debate, the talks that so many science-based organisations have, trying to find more rigorous ways to construct that dialogue between scientists and non-scientists

My job is really focused around our public consultation programmes that refer to specific projects and more public attitudes research. The work is basically commissioned for two reasons:

  • Direct commission in-house, so we’ll develop a briefing document and put it out to tender. That is for more policy related work.

  • We have a grant system that is targeted at more academic work with longer timescales. This runs parallel and is responsive. It’s an academic social science bio ethics funding stream with some education work in there as well.

Insofar as AQR members are concerned, I don’t think that many would be eligible for the latter. It requires an academic link, certainly on paper.

Did your first job provide any of the skills necessary to commission qual or quant work?

Prior to joining Wellcome I was - what is colloquially known in the trade as - a ‘gene jockey’. This means that I was one of many scientists on the (netco/bravo/gene?) modern genetics bandwagon, because that is one of the most popular and exciting routes into medical research at the moment. I moved out from the lab bench into the wide world and then since then have undertaken second degrees into social research methods, so have gone to the ‘dark side’ in the view of many of my former colleagues.

That is quite an important point for scientists, who come from a hard science background. We often don’t consider the philosophy of social sciences. What we understand is knowledge in the social context in which our works sit - because we are so busy in exciting fields, and there are so many of them, of the day. For example, qual methods are something that hard-core scientists can initially find, depending on the field in which they come from, quite difficult.

We are working within a scientific organisation here as well, so it is an educative process, not just for me but also for the organisation.

How difficult is it for people within Wellcome, or internal clients, to come to terms with focus groups and qual work given their perception in the outside world?

Well, I’m not too sure what the perception in the outside world is. The way in which we use focus groups is to use them in quite a rigorous fashion. We are possibly unusual in that we publish the results from our focus groups. That is an important point. It is not work that never sees the light of day. It is also transparent to the outside world just how we have done it. That is part of creating the confidence in the rigour of the work that you are undertaking.

We use a traditional, at least in social science terms, style to introduce the methodology and present the results. We will always produce appendices with topic guides, and list the stimulus materials that have been used, so that it is transparent to everyone how this focus group has been undertaken.

I think it is important, firstly, that the results are published, but also that the methodology behind it is published and open to people to examine and criticise.

There is another aspect, too. By publishing the methodologies that we have used, making them transparent, and by expressing our limitations when these exist, we give people who are unfamiliar with qualitative research methods - both within our organisation and externally in the wider science world - the opportunity to understand what a focus group is.

I have seen this particular term used in so many situations to mean a whole host of things that we wouldn’t recognise as qualitative researchers. It is now used in a colloquial fashion, in the media and by non-qualitative researchers, so that it can mean just a meeting of 50 people.

If we are going to use this term, or replace it with discussion group, which doesn’t have some of the more familiar negative connotations, we need to explain what it is. We shouldn’t assume, particularly within the science communication community, that people are familiar with what a group involves, particularly if they haven’t been to one.

One of the other ways to break down barriers is to get people who are non-scientists, in other parts of the organisation, involved in the commissioning process and observing some of the field work, too, if possible. I prefer not to use specialist rooms with one-way glass but they can, at the beginning of a project, be quite advantageous. The other users of the research can sit behind the glass, at least in the first session, and understand what the research is about, particularly if they are unfamiliar with focus groups.

And it is normally a revelation to them. I’m sure that this applies to other clients as well in other fields. They really have no idea of what a focus group is about and it is very woolly to them initially.

Have you seen attitudes change in past nine years to qual research and focus groups?

There has been a big shift in what we see as science communication within the UK. I would hope that some of the Wellcome research has been at the cutting edge here, and has led to some of that change because it has come from talking to the public (and defining what the public means as well).

Maybe a little background to this dialogue with the public is in order. The public understanding of science movement, as it is often called, or public understanding of science community, was kicked off by The Bodmer Report On The Public Understanding Of Science in 1984. The Royal Society, the major scientific body, produced it to show how a greater public understanding of science was necessary.

Most of the emphasis up until a couple of years ago was on educating the public on what is known as a deficit model. If only the public knew more about science they would be more accepting of science. Yet social science, especially through the qualitative work of a number of groups but particularly through those in the academic field, demonstrated that this simple assumed relationship - between more knowledge and greater acceptance - does not hold up in many cases and that the relationship can go in both directions.

There was a report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee at the beginning of last year called Science and Society. This put that deficit model effectively to bed and criticised it as patronising. Wellcome had been saying for some time that the model was unsatisfactory. Our view was that we needed more of a dialogue, where we listened to people’s concerns, which is where qualitative research is so valuable.

What you have to understand is where non-scientists are coming from. Their concerns may not be scientific concerns, but other social/ethical/moral/political ones. The scientific community needs to listen and take that on board if the scientific developments and advances that we get excited about are to have a beneficial impact on society.

Qualitative methods, though relatively unfamiliar, are very powerful in going beyond what are often described as non-opinions about many of these technologies. If you go and ask someone in a survey what their opinion about the use of embryo stem cells is, or if you were to have asked people five years ago what their opinion was of GM foods, whether they thought it was acceptable or not, most people would not have a considered opinion. They would, however, still give you a response in a survey, you could be sure of that.

But that response won’t necessarily tell you what they think about stem cells or GM food. So we need other ways of exploring what those opinions might be. This means that you need to give people some information, to set it in context for them, and provide them with opportunities to deliberate, to discuss what it means for them, which will lead to an informed opinion.

It is that process of deliberation and its connection to qual research that I think is critical. What has happened across the board in terms of shifts is that, at the Trust, we produced our first five-year corporate plan last year, identifying four strands. One of those, which runs through all of the Trust’s work now, is public engagement. It is dialogue with the public, with non-scientists, in both directions and I think that is a major shift for a scientific organisation.

Other scientific bodies are also trying to work out the ramifications of this term. I think we are trying to move beyond the rhetoric of and the language of public dialogue to understand what it means and how we can implement it. And that means some experimentation.

Has the perception of qualitative research by external clients, government bodies and so, varied over time?

In the past we have used qualitative research in have two different circumstances. We have used it in some of our social research - and some of the medicine in society programme work (which is the unit that I am involved in) - in our responses to Government consultations on various topics. We feel that it is important to understand public attitudes and some of the qualitative work that the Wellcome Trust has commissioned, for instance the report Public Perspectives on Human Cloning, is available on line.

Our other contact with external clients is through collaboration. Last year we worked with the Government’s Office of Science and Technology (OST) in a collaborative project that involved both qualitative and quantitative work. This resulted in the publication of the Science and the Public report. This came out a few months after the House of Lords Committee. It forms part of the process of accepting the idea that the deficit - potentially patronising - public understanding of science model will no longer be sufficient and that we need to build a two-way dialogue. So how do we do that?

One of the criticisms of previous public understanding of science work has been, essentially, that it preaches to the converted, that it targets people who already have an interest and are positive about science anyway. And that it treats the public as one amorphous mass. Now qualitative researchers are very familiar with the concept of segmenting the public into different groups.

The Science and the Public report was based on a number of qualitative groups, followed by segmentation analysis through a large survey. The outcome from both pieces of work was to break down the public - from a science interest and attitude perspective - into six different groups. This project was in collaboration with the OST, and this fact led to much greater weight being lent to the joint report than would otherwise have been achieved.

Is it available on the Net?

Yes, on the public consultation page.

You use a mix of research, whatever is appropriate for the project in hand, and you mention that you try to ensure transparency of methodology, results and the original brief. But what role does archiving fulfil for you?

There are two aspects. One is the increased recognition that organisations need to be transparent in their work. In the context of scientific advice, as much information as possible should be made public. We have found, though research in previous years, reinforced by qualitative work, that there is a great deal of public mistrust in the sources of scientific advice, a concern that there are ulterior motives and that sources cannot be trusted. That is obviously a long-term concern, so a number of the scientific advisory bodies and government bodies have been opening up the ways in which they operate. It is vital for other scientific organisations to demonstrate operational transparency.

When a piece of scientific research is completed, saying: ‘these are the findings, this is the methodology and, for legitimate researchers, the original material is available for secondary research’, is an important statement to make. It’s almost irrelevant as to whether it is used, it is just important for bodies to be able to say: ‘this is our original source material’.

In the natural sciences it is common for others to be able to examine the source material and draw their own conclusions. I appreciate, however, that it is really quite unusual in the qualitative research field at the present time. Having said that, there are different ways of interpreting material and it poses a serious question as to how practical it is for someone who hasn’t been in the field, who doesn’t have a deep understanding of the research project, to visit a transcript, say, which has been anonymised. Will they be able to analyse it when so many factors will be missing, even if all concrete material is placed in an archive?

So I think that the matter of transparency is important, and that there is extra potential there, almost a need for the work to be available for secondary research and as an historical archive, too. It will be important in 50 to 100 years time, when we may have different attitudes as a society about cloning or test tube babies or different genetic technologies, to ask: ‘how did our grandparents feel about this?’ And those transcripts, those archives, could be a very valuable resource to understand how, as a society, we have changed, particularly since we’ll be faced with these types of technological and sociological decisions in the future as well.

What would be in an archive?

From qual point of view, the obvious catalogue to place material in would be the ESRC, Economic Social Research Council, qualitative archive. It would require all the support material, topic guides, and probably the transcripts. The option is for some source records of the data, either tapes of transcripts. That poses some problems for qualitative researchers and tapes may not be anonymised to a sufficient extent. It depends on the topic and the consent given by the participants. It should also be well enough documented so that a researcher, coming to that material cold, should be able to see the project as a whole and undertake secondary analysis, which might be on a different topic, for example.

I think that for organisations like ourselves, a charity, we are looking for value for money. If there is further value for an academic researcher, for example, to come back to a data source that must be an incentive for us.

A way of getting bigger bang for your bucks?

Yes, there must be that argument to it as well. I appreciate that there is a debate in the academic social science qualitative community about the appropriateness of archiving and I think there is a question about how material is stored. Perhaps in the market research community, too. It is my understanding that most material has quite a short shelf life and if you ask many market research companies, they simply wouldn’t have the space, because the material has to be destroyed.

In addition, there are some sensitive questions around about consent and permission. They need to be addressed quite ethically and respondents need to be asked their permission upfront. There needs to be a mechanism so that if you have a focus group, for example, and one of the respondents objects then you can’t use that focus group. There is no other way round that.

Can you provide me with a few more detai


Ian Muchamore
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001