The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Lowdown on Qual

Have you been curious about various aspects of qualitative research, but didnít know where to go for answers? Well, this year AQR chair Fiona Jack gives you a behind the scenes view of what makes qualitative researchers tick

If you’re reading through this Directory, chances are that you’ll know about the Association for Qualitative Research (AQR). For those who don’t — be they research buyers, suppliers or researchers — here’s the low-down.

AQR represents the interests of qualitative researchers. It seeks, in effect, to be the mind, body, soul and voice of commercial qualitative research, and aims, through the active participation of its members, to promote this specialist area, raising professional standards and encouraging new thinking.

Our Directory acts as an introduction to qualitative research — and to qualitative researchers internationally, plus suppliers. We also include a selection of articles to raise awareness of topical issues. As the Association’s chair, I normally provide the opening article, which talks about AQR’s aims, objectives and activities.

This year, though, we thought we’d try a different tack. Just for a bit of fun, we conducted a short survey of our members on some of the issues we’re faced with as qualitative researchers. Here are some of the resulting highlights, and I’d like to say a big thank you to those who participated.

Sample definition

First of all, to get the quant bit over, we had twice as many replies from women as from men. The average age of the men who took part was exactly 40, and the average age of the women 39.5. I’m not quite sure what the implications of this are, other than that there are more women than men in our industry, and we’re all a bit middle-aged (or do I mean ‘mid youths’?).

What was interesting was that the guys (with only one exception) were fairly upfront about their age, whereas quite a few female members either declined to ‘fess up, or owned up reluctantly and have sworn us to the utmost secrecy. So women are more sensitive about their age than men? I might have guessed.

In the field

You really have to love what you do as a qualitative researcher, because we spend rather a lot of our evenings away from home doing it. Based on the results, the number of nights spent away from home seems in inverse proportion to the age of the researcher. Those in their twenties and thirties are very likely to be away for between five and eight nights per month, and the more seasoned bunch averaging about four nights away. Some company owners even claim a ‘droit de seigneur’, i.e. making the juniors schlepp up to Manchester and Leeds while they remain in the relative comfort of the South East!

No prizes for guessing what comfort blanket many people turn to in case of stress? Yes, wine in large quantities is for many a first port of call, followed closely — especially for our female members — by chocolate, chocolate and even ‘a tub of M&S chocolate profiteroles’. Giant bags of Haribo were also mentioned, as well as ‘Supertrail mix’ from Holland and Barrett. None of which, of course, is good for the waistline.

Men, however, at least claimed to need some (cerebral?) stimulation. They listed among their favourites BBC News online, The Guardian website and, compared to Heat and Hello! which were popular with women.

Doubtless as an antidote to all the calories consumed in the form of wine, sweets and chocolate, a few of our ‘sportier’ members talked of walking (sometimes with dog), running, cycling home (with no hands!), yoga, and even pull ups on the door frame. Chakra colour meditation and American Silver age comics comprised some of the more off the wall solutions.

Client perspective

All our ‘respondents’ were unanimous in their assessment of how to identify a satisfied client: repeat business and recommendation to others within the organisation. A successful debrief can often be accompanied by a round of applause or even a standing ovation, but more typically one receives emails or phone calls of thanks, eye contact with client, nodding and ‘eager interruptions/intelligent questions’, or a request to present the debrief to another (often more senior) audience.

We also asked what changes members had noticed with their contacts at client companies, and many noted the demise of research managers per se in favour of marketing or product managers — the latter being seen as less research literate than the former. In contrast, debrief audiences seem to be more senior overall, which is an encouraging sign for an industry concerned with establishing itself in the boardroom.

We also asked (because we couldn’t resist) what annoys researchers most about clients. Some of the responses are unprintable, truth to tell, but there was also a deal of consistency and some common threads.

Shorter deadlines than ever before was the key issue for most people, while still being expected to produce recruitment and results of the same quality. There is a strong feeling out there that timings are being squeezed to the point where quality at all stages is being seriously compromised, and this is a big worry.

Another bugbear (and this may be a result of the decline of research as a separate discipline in some companies) is a perceived focus on detail at the expense of quality strategic thinking. This was often expressed as too much emphasis on process, e.g. detail of recruitment questionnaires and discussion guides at the expense of big picture thinking and full briefing on the underlying objectives of the project.

A number also commented on poor behaviour at viewed groups, e.g. criticising or laughing at respondents, not listening to the group and then asking questions that have already been covered, eating and drinking too much and drawing conclusions based on the findings of one group! I’m sure that it’s a case of non-research clients simply not having enough understanding about research processes, plus the need for researchers on the buying as well as the supply side to explain, educate and provide direction.

Future trends

The key trend at the moment is a move towards bricolage, with areas such as ethnography, semiotics becoming more mainstream, rather than being seen as specialist approaches. Many members also talked of complex sample structures, involving mixes of groups, workshops, triads and depth interviews.

In the light of client expectations of more sophisticated approaches than ‘just a few groups’, there was a strong plea for more time to be able to recruit conduct and analyse all these data. The message for 2005 is clear: as an industry we’ll rise to the challenge of innovative approaches, but please clients, give us time to do them justice!


Fiona Jack
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005