The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Checking Out Quality

Mention of quality standards makes most qualitative researchers" eyes glaze over. Yet standards can't be ignored, and it's essential that the AQR is seen as the definitive authority not just on this topic but on all qualitative research issues within the wider world of market research.

Importance of Standards

Quality standards are often seen by researchers as something that curtails the creativity of qualitative research, and prompts unnecessary paper shuffling. They are, however, of increasing importance to procurement managers and departments up and down the land and a key tool in assessing the suitability of agencies to work on their business.

As most qualitative researchers and companies tend to opt out of standards this leaves us in a weakened position for the future. There is a very real prospect that one day we will wake up and find that quality standards have become a prerequisite for those wishing to work for many clients, just as CRB checking has become for the Government.

Ensuring Fair Play

I have represented the voice of AQR on the IQCS (Interviewer Quality Control Scheme) and MRQSA {Market Research Quality Standards Association) committees for several years, trying to ensure fair play for qualitative research in an industry dominated by quantitative research.

The IQCS is the oldest and one of the best respected of all quality standards. It launched in the 1970s and its aim was to regulate the quality of face-to-face fieldwork. All the major large companies in the UK signed up, because membership was seen as essential to the running of a successful business. Indeed, most major clients demanded that their suppliers became members.

So what effect did its launch have on qualitative research? It not only introduced a more formalised training of interviewers/recruiters, but also standardised paper work and practice throughout the industry.

Every year all member companies have to endure a gruelling and intensive inspection, which strikes fear into the heart of everyone in the field department. Nothing can be concealed from their eagle eyes. Over recent years, meanwhile, the membership of IQCS has changed and now spreads across a broad range of companies, including small and medium-sized fieldwork agencies.

The IQCS committee recently surveyed its members to ascertain if they would like amendments made to their standards. This resulted in an updating exercise to take into account amendments from the new IS020252. The IQCS also offers regular forums to keep its members abreast of legislation and the impact of new technologies and methodologies on quality control, including online research.

The success of IQCS in the field arena led to a call for a standard to cover the whole of the market research industry. This resulted in the founding of the MRQSA. The first standard implemented across research agencies was BS7911. This had significant take up within agencies, as they were able to incorporate their own working practices within their standard.

Over time, MRQSA has been working internationally on developing a world standard for market research called ISO20252. This is still in its infancy and has not been embraced as wholeheartedly as BS7911.

Slow to Upgrade

From 76 companies that were registered with BS7911 only 28 have upgraded to ISO20252. This may be due to inertia or, just as likely, the fact that the ISO is somewhat more draconian since it has been created by a worldwide committee, with each country having its own pet issue.

Communication and dialogue across the industry is key to keeping qualitative research fresh and vibrant. AQR's involvement with IQCS and MRQSA keeps us involved and informed about what is happening today with quality standards, and what the implications are for the future.

 

Liz Sykes
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009