The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Evolution in action

The AQR has its roots in a small organisation formed in 1982. Mike Imms looks at some of the key changes in qualitative research that have become apparent since then

If we zoom in on ‘planet qualitative’ and look at the activities of qual researchers at work, we can see a number of changes today compared to a quarter century ago.

A time of more

For a start, there are many more of them — and the industry is much bigger. In 1982 about 100 qual researchers came to the first AQRP (as it was then called) AGM — today it has around 850 practitioner members.

The place of work has changed, too, with qual researchers much more likely to be moderating in a specialist viewing studio. Back then, virtually all groups took place in a hostess home — a typical living room usually in the suburbs of a major conurbation. The very first specialist studio opened in London in 1984. Today, between 50% and 60% of groups are estimated to take place in one. I

A different field of action

On the one hand, the quality of the space is much greater in some ways — effective and workmanlike — and there are huge benefits from clients being able to sit behind the mirror and share the experience. But it represents a sea-change in the relationship with respondents.

We now bus them into our rather business-like world rather than visiting them in their home environment. Not only does it make it slightly more alien for them (and, therefore, arguably harder for them to relax and feel comfortable — which in turn makes it harder to ‘form’ the group and create the right dynamics), but I sometimes feel we lose a layer of meaning now we don’t get so much exposure to ‘their’ home territory.

More profoundly, the fieldwork itself has become the visible and public part of the qualitative experience. That, in turn, means other stages — especially the analysis and interpretation stage, which I regard as the most important — receive even less recognition and are arguably less understood. This also creates something of a paradox, which I shall soon discuss.

Another change is that we’re now much more likely to see qual researchers flying around the world as international projects grow in importance. And the rise of international projects has brought with it a need to focus much more on cross cultural similarities and differences.

Clients and their experience has changed, too

Clients, meanwhile, are in greater evidence — not just attending the groups (usually watching from behind the mirror) but also sometimes playing a more active role as co-participants in more ‘workshop’ style groups. This is closely allied to the current management interest in more direct forms of ‘customer closeness’.

We also see many more clients — and from a greater number of sectors. In 1982, FMCG companies and their ad agencies accounted for the bulk of projects. Today, however, qualitative research is an integral part of the knowledge resources of service sector companies, all manner of public sector organisations as well as government and political parties — not to mention charities, broadcasters and programme makers, etc., etc. And we research all manner of ‘stakeholders’ (staff, citizens, voters, audiences, inmates) — not just ‘consumers’.

As the industry has matured, the nature of traditional clients’ projects has shifted somewhat, too, with growing numbers possessing well-established banks of qual-derived understanding. Back in the early days, many FMCG clients were still coming to grips with the fundamentals of their brand/consumer relationship but, by and large, most major clients now know this so focus either on more tactical issues or seek more creative ways of re-examining these relationship fundamentals.

Movement in methodologies and deliverables

Perhaps the most exciting changes concern developments in qualitative methodologies. In 1982, ‘qual’ meant interview-based methods: groups and depths. While this is still the dominant method we can note two changes — both facets of ‘bricolage’ — the eclectic use of all manner of socio-consumer ‘data sources’ or texts as the basis of qualitative analysis and interpretation.

Firstly, we now see more use of other forms of fieldwork — accompanied shopping, say, and in-home observation — as qual researchers adopt ethnographic methods from the discipline of anthropology. To be strictly accurate, though, this is more a rediscovery of the qualitative ethnographic methods evident during and after the Second World War, notably the work of Mass Observation.

Secondly, we can also note the use of other ‘texts’ and data — not simply those generated by researchers using conventional ‘interviewing’. Examples include analysis of written material (linguistic and discourse analysis), cultural symbols and phenonema (semiotics), plus the use of ‘unmoderated’ texts such as tracking blogs, chat-rooms, etc., to provide insight into the world of customers and consumers.

In some respects, however, this represents a paradox. We have already noted that the viewed group has led to the empirical assumption that being a qual researcher is just about moderating (the visible and public part of a project) — but these trends to other methodologies place the emphasis firmly on the researchers’ analytic and interpretative skills (the ‘unseen’ and largely un-discussed but crucial part of the researchers skill set).

At the debrief, the delivery of findings is almost always a PowerPoint presentation — but PowerPoint (and, indeed, office computers) didn’t exist in 1982. The typical debrief back then usually consisted of the researcher simply chatting or, if they were sophisticated, using visual aids written onto acetates and displayed via an overhead projector. It might include examples of respondent verbatims, maybe of some of the projective work such as collages, etc.

Today’s debriefs include smart graphics, video and audio clips. Whether this shift to all-singing all-dancing slick PowerPoint presentation is ‘progress’ is a matter for debate. Some have argued that it represents a triumph of style over substance at the expense of quality of thinking, as well as creating a quite specific form of researcher/agency relationship which is not wholly healthy.

The workshop format is also increasingly evident at debriefs as researchers take on a broader role of helping clients apply the findings to solve business problems and as stimulus for fresh management ideas and initiatives.

The other thing you would never have heard in 1982 was the term ‘focus group’. They were group discussions. In just the same way that sex was invented in 1960, focus groups were dreamt-up in the mid-90s.

Some factors fade

Concurrent with the rise of PowerPoint, we have seen the demise of the written report. It most certainly saves a lot of time writing but today’s PowerPoint charts often have remarkably poor ‘archive’ value. Have we unintentionally invented ‘the throw-away finding?’

At a more philosophical level, we seem to have left behind the ill-informed debate about the whole notion of qual’s reliability. This was a hot topic in 1982 (and, indeed, up until the late ‘80s). Is it ‘proper’ research? Don’t the small sample sizes mean it can’t be relied upon? This debate is largely over, with qualitative research’s role and relevance now firmly accepted.

Growing up

Looking at the researchers themselves, the industry of the early ‘80s was dominated by a colourful collection of ‘gurus’ — most of whom were in their thirties. You could have been forgiven for thinking that, like professional footballers, no-one over 35 could be a qualitative researcher. Today, by contrast, the approaching-retirement age moderator is very much in evidence.

It is perhaps a sign of the industry’s maturity that a more established career structure and training have largely replaced the cult of the guru. But this isn’t all good news. The gurus were also pioneers who actively sought out the new and, by and large, they were closely connected to their source disciplines (be that sociology, psychology in general or particular techniques from child psychology, semiotics or whatever). There is a danger that newer practitioners simply ‘watch & copy & perform’ without understanding the underlying principles.

The other clearly discernible trend is an increasing divide between the big multi-national mega-agencies and much smaller owner-managed ‘boutiques’.

And what happened to the ‘P’ (for Practitioners) in AQRP? It was dropped on 24 May 2000, when the Association decided it should represent all facets of the qualitative world — users, clients, respondents, and not simply ‘Practitioners’.

Some things remain undone

The massive and quite different academic world of qualitative research and the commercial world of qualitative market research continue to inhabit what seem to be parallel universes with limited cross-fertilisation of ideas and practices. Whenever they pay each other any attention at all, each looks at the other in utter bewilderment.

We still worry about recruitment standards and, while we have periodically sat up and noticed this particular elephant in the room, we haven’t managed to tame it.

We still haven’t found a positive way of talking coherently about qualitative sampling principles and how we do qualitative analysis — by and large we still talk in terms of what it’s NOT (i.e. “quant principles don’t apply”).

And the long-dreamed of ‘greater influence in the boardroom’ and a desire for a more management consultant-type role still remains an unmet aim for many.

Enduring core principles

So far I have sought to point out some of the key changes of the last 25 years — but perhaps the most significant points to note concern the issues that have endured.

The group discussion still dominates our qualitative methodology and, while qual is (and always has been) much more than group discussions, ‘the group’ has time and again proved itself robust, reliable, flexible, adaptable and practicable. Indeed, while innovation is clearly evident and some pioneering qual agencies actually do very little conventional fieldwork nowadays, it remains true that the bulk of demand is for groups ‘n’ depths.

Aside from some more workshop-style groups and in non-fieldwork-based methods, the respondents themselves will probably be doing more or less the same as in 1982 — i.e. answering questions, participating in projective and enabling techniques, etc. The fundamentals of moderating — the principles of non-directive questioning, active listening and other eliciting skills — haven’t changed much since those early days.

In a very positive sense, many qualitative researchers remain curious for new ideas and new challenges. They remain very eclectic in their use of theory and are adept at applying new thinking and ideas to the core aim of understanding people. New things such as NLP and neuroscience, etc., inform the work of today’s researchers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sheer usefulness of qualitative research for clients remains undiminished: its potency to unearth valuable insights, to reveal true meanings, to provide deep and complete understanding, and as a source of useable ideas. As a practical means of giving clients insights into the attitudes, motivations, hopes, fears, wants and needs of their customers/stakeholders — in all their complexity — qualitative market research is unsurpassed.


Mike Imms
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2007