A consultation, Qualitative Vision Day, was held in July 2014 with the objective of shaping the future of qualitative research, a central topic being that of accreditation and professional qualifications. In total 50 qualitative practitioners took part in a workshop that was led by Wendy Gordon and Roy Langmaid. This was followed by an online consultation that yielded contributions from 71 practitioners.

The overall response was hugely positive. The primary benefit was that a broad range of people could share their experience of what it is like being a qualitative practitioner today. The decision to create a facilitated forum resulted in enthusiastic contributions and competent articulations regarding the challenges we face and a vision for the future. In the entire history of qualitative research in the UK, this has not happened since the formation of the AQR in 1980. The end result, (a one sentence Vision), was embraced by everyone who attended the day as a start point for development.

What is the one sentence take out?

Qualitative practitioners are united in their wish to evidence their professionalism and expertise in order to sustain the future of qualitative research and to protect the reputation and validity of our work.

What are the main challenges?

Most practitioners are aware of several, if not all of the challenges facing the future of qualitative market (social) research.

Anyone can ask a few questions or get a group together
There is no barrier to entry and no training necessary.

Process, methodology and turnaround time differentiate and define qualitative research today, rather than the expertise necessary to add value through understanding human behaviour.

Our territory is being eaten away by a wide range of other disciplines, e.g. management consultants, Big Data, behavioural economists, technology/digital platforms, academics, social media experts and more.

The global success of qualitative research, its adaption to changing contexts and innovation in methodologies has resulted in confusion about what qualitative research is and therefore an inability to judge good from bad.

The Vision

The vision for qualitative research was articulated as follows:

“The experts in translating what matters to people into what matters to organisations.”

Each element of the vision statement can be unpacked:

The experts
Qualitative practitioners can claim to be the experts, but so can other disciplines. Therefore it needs strong supporting evidence (‘reasons to believe’) and communication.

Experts in understanding people
Professionalism through demonstrative methodologies and evidence (e.g. research effectiveness case histories), training, qualifications, years of experience, theoretical frameworks of thinking, standards, etc.

Requires talent, skills, craft and principles/rigour; “it’s more than a mechanical reportage — it’s about explaining the deeper meanings”.

What matters to people
Not consumers, not data but human beings — “human truths’’, “we understand and interpret the consumer voice and bring it to business”, “we allow people to express what matters to them whereas quantitative research gives them answers to choose”, “we are the bridge between human beings and business or organisations”.

Organisations, both business and non-commercial
The main point is that so many different qualitative practitioners are able to embrace it. It summarises what practitioners believe they deliver. It unites, conveys respect (expertise), allows diversity, positions qualitative methods as a bridge between people and organisations and implies value to end-users.

It is not intended to be outward facing at this time.

Professionalism rather than Accreditation

The word ‘respect’ came up many times during the course of this work. Qualitative practitioners crave respect (“It is difficult to get respect for qualitative research”, “it has no weight and authority”) and that is why there is an appetite to explore how qualitative research could become a recognised profession.

However, accreditation is not a term practitioners feel comfortable with. It brings up spectres of review boards, automation, pressure to conform, loss of creativity and inflexibility. An accreditation process is feared to exacerbate the downward spiral of commoditisation.

An individual qualification, on the other hand, lies at the heart of becoming a professional. Here the creativity of practitioners came to the fore and they were able to imagine a multi-faceted approach taking into account flying time, completion of course modules, different levels, demonstrative success in skills and methodologies, theoretical models of thinking, self awareness training, 360 peer reviews and so on. A professional body with the resources and expertise to manage such a programme will be essential to the success of this initiative.

What next?

Our consultation process encouraged the voice of all practitioners — those for and against moving towards making qualitative research a respected profession with agreed standards of expertise. There were no voices against. Caution and good thinking yes but outright rejection no. It also highlighted the need for particular attention to be paid to those with under five years experience, for they are the future and they are the most enthusiastic and willing to contribute over the longer term.

A full report has been sent to the AQR, MRS, ESOMAR, AURA, the SRA, the ICG and Unilever. The AQR remains fully involved in the newly-named professionalisation initiative, and will continue to update the membership as discussions progress.

A note on the sample

In total we spoke to 121 qualitative practitioners (50 face to face and 71 online). Of these, 74 worked at agencies and 47 were independent; 54 female, 67 male. There was a good spread of experience — 15 had 0-5 years of experience as a practitioner, 41 had 6-15 years and 71 had over 15 years. There were also contributions from beyond the UK, including Russia, South Africa, Australia, Spain and France.