Plus ša change, plus...?
The qual industry celebrated its 40th anniversary in the UK in 1999, which was when Mary Goodyear looked at how the practicalities of working in this area had changed.
It was 1965, the research profession was young and work habits differed. Groups were held in recruiters" homes, unlike the US, whose researchers viewed the practice with dismay ("so uncontrolled").
The usually small sitting rooms were awkward to work in, especially with products and concept boards to display. Logistical problems were compounded by offstage sounds of the recruiter's exiled family, often sitting resentfully in the kitchen.
Work meant a lot of driving through the rush hour and rain looking for 22B, Woodburn Crescent. And why did recruiters always live on the gap between two pages of the A-Z?
As to tools of the trade, we used tape recorders: big, mains electric, 20lbs versions. These were pre-transistor and batteries days.
Much of the work was exploratory, needing full transcripts, which researchers did themselves. They also often had to take a turn at recruitment. It taught respect for those who did it for a living, and was just as difficult then as it is now. People were more friendly, but a lot more suspicious.
Waiting for the last people to arrive was a constant worry. I remember one elderly lady who confessed at the end of her interview that she'd been too frightened to speak in case she was offered drugs. Well, it was the "60s. As for two-way mirrors, these were still found only in Soho. If the client wanted to watch the group he had to pretend to be the technician crouched on a pouffe behind the respondents.
Now, a few decades on, the group comes to the facility. This is less tiring and less stressful for the interviewer, especially as the facility is purpose-built as well as in a central location.
But the mood is more staged. The whole process is one step further away from the realities of purchase and consumption. At least the recruiter's house was probably representative of the target group, and her comments on the project were always worth listening to.
The tools of the trade — in the hardware sense — are better. Today's researchers will not develop extra long arms, stretched by weighty equipment.
Back in the early 60s, we would have been ashamed to have other people transcribe sessions. Lucky, then, that such aids didn't exist. Nowadays, transcription services are wonderful, and the transcripts are reassuringly full. Recruitment has become much more professional but so, too, have some of the respondents! Seriously, this is one area where the industry has made a giant step forward. Let's hear it for those wonderful men and women who make it all happen.
Sometimes, when the number of observers exceeds the number of respondents, I prefer the days of the pouffe. But observation is the trend of the future. Just as we'll all become used to the two-way mirror, it seems likely that we'll be driving out into the suburbs again, this time with binoculars and hand-held video cameras. What goes around, comes around.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, January 2013
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013