The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Heartland worth preserving

Two camps emerged in Rome, one urging quallies to go back to their roots, the other to charge forward. Leeat Racs discusses what this means for the industry.

This year's AQR/QRCA conference in Rome was themed "Renaissance", inviting us to consider if we as an industry, are going through a re-birth and, if so, prompting a number of questions that need answering in the not too distant future. Where are we headed? What does this mean for the future of qual research?

I'm not convinced that re-birth is exactly the right term (although if it was some kind of birth I'd describe it as a long, painful, forceps one), but I'd definitely agree we are at a critical transition point. It's one that's creating several tensions and raising moral and philosophical dilemmas, both within the industry and between researchers.

Drifting from the heartland

At this sensitive point in time, if I were to boil all this down into one "mother" of a tension, I would say it lies between two camps: if I had to name them, I think I'd call them "charging forward" and "returning to our heartland". Different papers/presentations at the conference seemed to be fighting for each one.

The former was rallying the industry to act, for fear of being left behind in this frenetic, hyped-up, digital world. It asked us to shake off our insecurities, habits and "old fashioned" ways of thinking. Instead, it urged us to adapt, update and embrace new technologies and methodologies in our work.

The "returning to our heartland" camp put out a plea that we should get back in touch with our original "calling" as researchers. It was keen that we should stay true to the "humanity" that underpins our work, reasserting the core, founding principles, practices and values that are the foundation of our craft. In short, it wanted to make absolutely sure we do not lose sight of where we have come from in the midst of this wave of change.

I have to say that, while I absolutely recognise the value and importance of this first camp of thought, my heart and soul is behind the second. Of the different papers that fought for our heartland, Rosie Campbell's paper (Curiosity, Circularity and Other Human Software) struck a particular chord.

Rosie presented us with some challenging questions. Are we losing our core skills and values as researchers? Is our research culture truly curious? She suggested our core skills and values are becoming blocked by "high data" (multiple sources of information) and "high speed" (unprecedented levels of project turnaround).

As a result, she said, the analysis process is becoming undermined, over-squeezed and undervalued.

Researchers are losing time to incubate and also losing depth in our work. There is an obsession about accessing and collecting information, rather than understanding people at a profound level.

Returning to our heartland

There is more than one reason to "live" our heartland values. One, perhaps more "obvious", reason is to protect the value, quality and credibility of our work. But another major factor is that this creates a unique kind of quallie experience, one that's needed to create long-term passion and commitment to the job. Without this, how are we going to keep researchers in the game for the long-haul and ensure a procession of future generations of quallies?

When heartland values are put into practice, and the analysis process is respected and protected, the experience of immersing in a qualitative project can feel unique and inspirational. Value is placed on real immersion and analysis … time to question, to ponder, to discover, to challenge, to re-visit ... to allow information to "wash over" you. Our brains, hearts and intuitive senses are fully engaged. Being a qualitative researcher truly feels emotionally rewarding (and the late nights and dried up sandwiches become a distant memory).

I fear, as the tide is changing, that the experience is evolving into something quite different. As the industry reaches unprecedented heights of pressure and competitiveness, the opportunity to fully immerse, analyse and "enjoy the confusion" becomes overshadowed by other, more "important" things. Depth becomes eclipsed by breadth.

In this new world order, motivation is more likely to stem from feelings of competing, achieving, proving and progressing. I worry and wonder if these kinds of emotional rewards are somewhat "superficial" and shortlived. If this is the case, where does the motivation and long-term commitment come from? Where does true passion come from?

Securing the next generation

Keeping quallies in the game for the long-haul is probably going to get harder. This is largely because it's becoming an increasingly tough gig; the levels of personal and professional commitment demanded by this career are intensifying. The need to ensure researchers feel emotionally rewarded in order to keep them in the game will only increase, too.

Most of us chose to enter into this weird and wonderful world because we were seduced by the promise of a deeply psychological, creative and analytical career experience, where understanding people is a common driving force. From what I can see, newcomers to our industry are entering for very much the same reason. But to what extent is our industry — today and in the future — able to actually deliver on this? To what extent is it/will it allow researchers to exercise their innate curiosity, to "indulge" in analysis and reap the personal and meaningful rewards it has to offer?

In addition and finally, the need to ensure the quallie experience offers unique personal rewards — that can't be found through other career pathways — will only grow. The threat of losing quallies to other "competing" industries is becoming more real. As the boundaries between them are starting to blur more and more, qual research may no longer belong exclusively to the world of market research in the future. There will probably be greater scope and opportunity for quallies to use their transferable qual skills to move sideways into other industries. Our heartland values are our brand's core USP: we should use them!


Leeat Racs
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012