The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Industry focus

Ann Whalley looks at the industry milestones of 2002 and the prospects for 2003

This year the AQR published the ninth edition of the Association for Qualitative Research's Directory, reaching an ever-bigger audience now due to its online counterpart. In the midst of an advertising downturn, it's encouraging to note that, once again, the number of entries in the Directory has increased, with international agencies becoming an ever more significant element.

As always, the Directory's primary use will undoubtedly be to locate practitioners and suppliers quickly and easily. It also, however, enables us to provide novices with an insight into the qualitative industry and deliver an update on what AQR has achieved last year and its aims and objectives for 2003.

This year we also provide some figures on the qualitative research industry compiled by Marketing magazine, as well as our observations on what has been a turbulent year for the industry as a whole.

Industry insight

Qualitative research enables skilled researchers to explore and understand people's attitudes, motivations and behaviour to a specific subject matter, product, brand or service. While quantitative research elicits "who" is doing "what", qualitative research explores the reasons consumer decisions, the "how" and "why" behind the "what".

It is based on small samples of people, with group discussions and "focus groups" being the most commonly used methods. Others include face-to-face depth interviews at one end of the scale and observation (sometimes, for example, accompanied shopping trips) at the other.

The industry has existed in the UK for some 40 years, and is rooted primarily in psychology and related social sciences, from which it takes its methodological and conceptual procedures. It is not, however, static and is constantly adopting new methods to mine consumer thinking and behaviour more richly and deeply in search of the all too elusive truth.

AQR's aims

The Association for Qualitative Research represents those involved at every stage of the qualitative research process: from commissioners through to recruiters and viewing facility proprietors. It aims to be the "mind, body, soul and voice of commercial qualitative research", and as such to raise the industry's profile among the general business community, politicians and the media.

Its responsibilities fall into four key areas:

<li>Promotion of qualitative research<li>Raising of standards<li>Encouragement of new thinking<li>Provision of a medium for members to interact

AQR 2002 and 2003

What did AQR achieve in 2002 and what are our specific plans for 2003?

We have continued to deliver more specialist courses and seminars for experienced practitioners such as an annual "New Thinking" seminar, plus an extensive programme of education designed to develop all aspects of the core skills.

This year's Trends Day took a more discursive format, which facilitated greater interaction and debate.

We have introduced a programme of "Round Table" discussions designed to elicit what different sectors within the industry feel are the key issues for qualitative research in the future.

A major initiative begun in 2002 and which will be of primary importance in 2003 is to deliver an "Archive", primarily through the web. Its aim will be to provide members with quick and easy access to knowledge and inspiration. It is likely that it will be structured into three sections:

<li>Provision of extracts from selected past books, articles and papers as well as new ones as they appear<li>Access to more detailed information on different models of thinking<li>Access to information from other related disciplines such as creativity, semiotics and ethnography

The underlying philosophy behind this project is that qualitative researchers need not only a breadth but also a depth of understanding about different analytical methods if they are to use them with credibility and authority.

This year marked the launch of the Prosper Riley-Smith Award. It's an award designed to reward fresh and creative thinking that has enhanced the effectiveness of research's contribution. Luigi Toiati of Focus was our first winner and will be delivering a workshop on his paper in the New Year. Jem Fawcus of Firefish was also commended for his entry.

We hope that the awards will continue in 2003 to ensure that qualitative research remains a vibrant, evolving discipline by encouraging practitioners to stretch themselves and the boundaries of the discipline.

2002: a turbulent year

Data produced by Marketing magazine indicates that the total annual turnover for qualitative research, based on the performance of the 77 biggest agencies, is approaching a healthy £135m. This represents 17.5% of the total turnover for these agencies.

But what has been happening to the industry at a more micro level and what are the issues for the future? 2002 was an unusual year because it saw a number of larger older agencies close while, simultaneously, several new agencies came to the fore. Equally, a defining feature of the last year has been a sense of feast or famine within the market with some exceptionally busy while others have struggled to find work.

It appears that the gap between the qualitative researchers who are successfully meeting the needs of the contemporary client and those who are not is widening. AQR perceives one of its key aims of 2003 to understand more thoroughly client needs and thus help its members deliver a more relevant and inspiring product.

In this respect, we are to deliver a "New Thinking" presentation to Aura in March, continuing the debate about what clients really want begun at the Research Show in 2002. The AQR also plans to extend its series of industry round tables to include sessions with clients, the COI and mid-level researchers in 2003.


AQR is a non-profit making organisation; run by an elected Committee who give their time freely. Though still run by members for members, it now enjoys the support of a team of professionals: namely Rose Molloy and Angela Webb, who run the Secretariat; Louella Miles, who edits In Brief and the Directory and Camargue, our PR agency.


Ann Whalley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003