Qualitative research is a ruminative profession. Practitioners are, by nature and certainly by nurture, inclined to think a lot, to think fruitfully, and often to think ‘against the clock’ — given that client deadlines are unforgiving on creative block.

At the centre of the qualitative industry — within the AQR Committee — recent years have spawned a particular style of introspection. It’s more than navel gazing, rather a look at qualitative practice in all its diversity in an attempt to develop a better understanding of what we do, how best it can be described and defined — not least among business populations and prospective new entrants to the field.

The AQR has sponsored a series of workshops to discuss what different practitioners feel about their industry and their working lives. These sessions have explored what kinds of developments would be helpful, stimulating and supportive in the future.

The Directory is clearly a perfect forum for sharing some of the gossip that has seeped out from these forums…

Let’s start with areas of common ground. One of the key universal perceptions relates to ‘feeling good about our work’. Most quallies are excited and satisfied by, as well as ‘happy’ in, their work. The life of a qualitative researcher is — according to a broad cross-section — a truly stimulating one.

Challenging scenario

It affords plenty of variety, an invigorating degree of stress, and frequent frustrations that all contribute to an intellectually and emotionally challenging scenario. But the reward — rather like that of an extreme sport — is often a glorious sense of achievement, the ‘high’ of idea ownership, the ego-massage of client satisfaction and the foot-vote of repeat business.

Another — less elevated — shared perception among quallies is the experience of ‘discovering’ the qualitative career. As a rule, they only became aware of it after higher education, and, in some cases, much later than that.

So, we have a ‘secret industry’, one which is poor at promoting itself among the battalions of students and their career advisors in further and higher education, yet one which is felt to be ‘quite a find’, an exciting and stimulating mixture of intellectual elements, once entered…

Paradoxical relationships

Qualitative researchers also share a bizarrely paradoxical relationship with so many aspects of their working lives.

  • they love the work/they feel undervalued,
  • they avow that qualitative work has a distinct skill base/they view the process as alchemy,
  • they see themselves as objective and analytical/they see themselves as ‘emotionally intelligent’
  • they are modest and dismissive of their skills/they are proud and assertive about the value of their contributions

And the extraordinary thing is that these paradoxical views co-exist, side-by-side, in the same individuals. As post-modern thinking would have it, the industry is blessed with an amazing ability to contain, intellectually, the sense of ‘both/and’ rather than the positivist ‘either/or’.

Take the ‘focus group’ thing. This description caused a furore of intellectual outrage some years back among the contingency that saw it as a debased concept of qualitative research, an American version of qual, administered by and for political researchers (or their ‘moderators’).

Change of focus

They were the hired hands who garnered quick and undigested opinions to be fed back to support political (or simplistic marketing) ends. And now, guess what? Loads of us write proposal documents happily, pitch for work and report our findings describing the methodology as…. yes, ‘focus groups’, where once the exact same beast was a ‘group discussion’. A rose by any other name, etc.

The qualitative community is essentially pragmatic and, in its commercial ranks at least, remarkably open to change, new thinking, learning and — if it must — terminological ‘adjustment’. Because, frankly, the piper is allowed to choose his tune.

Despite these — some might say, eccentric — shared experiences and attitudes, representatives of different ages and stages within these ‘industry examination’ forums did display significantly (or should I say, qualitatively) different ‘shades’ of thinking.

Path of progression

Older, and — and one would hope — more experienced quallies wrestled with the issue of the ‘path of progression’. The problems as they saw it lay (again paradoxically) in the fact that individually, though one could build an empire, and aim for ever longer spells in the Perigord retreat in the summer, the loyal client still required the ‘name’ and, indeed, still required the ‘name’ to do the same job.

This meant that there was the potential staleness associated with re-inventing wheels, the fact that 25 years could not, in practice, be ‘incrementally charged for’. Could forms of accreditation that enshrine certain skill bases and create effective professional levels overcome some of the ‘progression’ concerns, while acting simultaneously as useful measurements or references for commissioning clients?

Well, as with all things qualitative, the answer seems to be yes — and no. Some feel that an ‘MBA-style’ qualification would be the making of the industry, others, mumbling darkly about ‘articles’ and ‘clerks’, fear that it’s the first step to damnation, destroying the spirited, charming and often idiosyncratic approach of qualitative individuals.

But within the AQR, this publication, and among yourselves as constituency readers (unless this copy happens to be a truly chance encounter left on the seat on the Circle line), the debate about ‘whither training’ will undoubtedly continue. Help to keep it alive if it interests, concerns, even worries you — via contact with AQR.

Reputation concerns

What were the ‘new-to-the-industry’ people most concerned about? Apart, that is, from the difficulty of conducting a satisfactory social life as a 20 or 30-something due to evening work, hotel-life, short deadlines, lack of sleep and otherwise complete exhaustion? Well, interestingly, there was concern about the ‘reputation’ of qual research: how difficult it was to explain to high-flying friends about the lack of clip boards, and the fact that they were not necessarily the geek stars of statistics A Level.

Also, the fact that qualitative application was wonderfully broad, not just (dare I say it) a matter of ‘focus groups’, the reality of using particular psychological frames for analysing material, the quandary of how much transparency was appropriate for, and with, clients…

The young and those new to our industry are inspired by the skill and personal abilities that qualitative practice had, and was, developing in them — they could see not only a wealth of possible ‘sideways directions’ for themselves personally, but they were also very open to ‘developing the industry’.

Refreshingly, qualitative newcomers are inclined to expect the industry to ‘examine itself’ routinely. They want it to question existing practices; invite new ideas, if needs be, and reshape to stay valid, useful, a boost to market, business and social policy decision-making.

If ‘quallies on quallies’ is to conclude anything, then it has to be that qualitative research, its attendant lifestyle, its promise of intellectual challenge and change… is a surprising and inspiring career road. It’s just a matter of how much of a secret we want to keep it.

That’s because right now, we seem to be doing a pretty good job of viral-only marketing. But then, perhaps that’s why we end up with all the most colourful and eccentric style-leaders from the higher education playground!