To provide context, each decade is broken down into four constituent parts highlighting: the needs of clients; what was going on in market research generally; key developments in qualitative research and, finally, external factors in the shape of the major cultural and social trends. We hope it provides a fascinating look at the history of qualitative research and maybe some pointers as to its future.

We'd also like to thank Roddy, Merry Baskin, Marilyn Baxter, Les Binet, Joanna Chrzanowska, Nick Coates, Mark Earls, Paul Feldwick, Wendy Gordon, John Griffiths, Teresa Hadfield, Caroline Hayter, Mike Imms, Kevin McLean, Dan O'Donoghue, Roger Titford and Judith Wardle for their invaluable contributions.

Some landmark moments in AQR's history

1980: Mighty oaks from little acorns
In January 1980 a small group of qualitative researchers came together to explore the Idea of setting up a professional association. The first meetings were held to set up articles of association for AQRP.

1981: First evening seminar
On the night Bill Schlackman says: “Qualitative research may not have a future unless it becomes more sensitive to new techniques and social sciences”.

1995: Rose Molloy comes on board
Rose Molloy becomes Secretary to the Committee, aided by her trusty assistant Angela Webb. Louella Miles becomes Editor of AQRP publications the following year, with the first Issue of In Brief newsletter published in July 1996.

1997: Website breakthrough
Association website launched, run and designed by SKILLZONE, to reflect new image and help distribute information to members.

2000: AQRP morphs into AQR
Name change to Association for Qualitative Research (AQR) to reflect all member types with initial concern that this might lessen perception of professionalism/gravitas.

2001: First joint conference
First joint international conference with US membership body QRCA in Paris. We have helped deliver the Worldwide Conference on Qualitative Research with them every couple of years since then in Lisbon, Dublin, Barcelona, Prague, Rome, Budapest, Vienna, Valencia and, in 2020, Brussels.

2012: Tweeting for qual
AQR joins the social media world on Twitter. Since then has sent nearly 4,500 tweets and today has over 3,400 followers. On LinkedIn (joined 2015) it has over 750.

2014: Jumping on webinar bandwagon
AQR broadcasts its first Hub webinar, with Nick Southgate on ‘The Qualitative Instinct: Insights From The Behavioural Sciences’, introduced by Discovery’s Ken Parker. Our website now features links to 22 such sessions, which more recently have moved onto the Zoom platform, involving such luminaries as Wendy Gordon, Mark Earls, Peter Dann, and Rory Sutherland, with an exciting programme planned for 2020.

The 1980's

Client imperatives

  • Creating price premiums and building brand values are preoccupations, bringing a desire and need to understand brands and consumers’ relationships with them.
  • Technology means a surge in NPD activity.

Research environment

  • The MR establishment is dismissive of qualitative research, but clients love qual presentations, which contain so much that’s new to them. It’s also cheap and quick compared to quant, requiring less thought on the part of research managers, as they are called in the ‘80s. It is seldom required to deliver business-critical information.
  • This is a golden age for qual. It’s exciting and well paid. Good quallies are highly respected, with some revered as gurus, magicians, artists, craftsmen with special skills and uniquely penetrating insights. Shlackman, Bernstein, Cooper, Langmaid, Gordon.
  • Growth in large-scale qualitative market mapping, brand auditing, brand positioning and proposition testing, as well as in qual advertising research as ad agency planning catches on, led by BMP and JWT.
  • Good relations exist between qualitative research and planning, and advertising-sensitive researchers are invited to join the APG.

Qual developments

  • Qual adapts and develops projective and enabling techniques and introduces many varieties of F2F interviews beyond IDIs and groups.
  • Analysis (for which a couple of weeks are allowed) involves copious verbatim notes, transcribed from cassette tapes, and ‘old fashioned’ tablecloth analysis on sheets of A1.
  • Professionalisation gets under way, with famously good AQRP training courses and a Code of Conduct for qualitative research is drafted by the MRS.

Cultural and social trends

  • Huge technological advances
  • Conservative politics/Reaganomics
  • Privatisation
  • Trade unionism decline
  • Princess Di
  • AIDS epidemic
  • Designer everything
  • Globalism
  • Famine and Live Aid
  • Berlin Wall crumbles
  • New computer technologies
  • Cable TV/MTV
  • Raves
  • More women working
  • Gaming technology

The 1990's

Client imperatives

  • Recession means price and value considerations trump brand development.
  • A move towards developing global/international market strategies and multicountry global ad campaigns. International vs local approaches, and the relevance of cultural differences become key factors in decision making. New client theme: understanding the grey consumer (over 50).

Research environment:

  • Qual develops as a client spectator sport with the rise of viewing facilities, which allow them to sit in and make their own minds up. This adoption of the US model contributes to the under-valuing of post-fieldwork stages of analysis and interpretation and encourages clients to want results faster.
  • The endless tug of war between research and creativity in advertising provokes rumbles that only planners should belong to the APG.
  • A much broader range of companies and organisations commission qual: finance, public sector, political parties, county councils, charities, et al all begin to use qualitative styles of enquiry.

Qual developments

  • Qual moves away from introspective psychoanalytical, inside-out psychology in favour of social psychology as its main ‘model’ and becomes relevant to a broader range of clients and their questions.
  • More varied qualitative methods emerge: semi-quant, semiotics, ethnography, bricolage, but with ‘focus groups’ (brought to prominence by the Blair government) at peak fame, still overshadowing the category.
  • Website testing facilities proliferate as ad testing declines.
  • International collaborations grow and international qual agencies emerge.

Cultural and social trends

  • Relative peace and prosperity
  • Soviet Union falls
  • Cold War ends
  • Neo-liberalism
  • Privatisation
  • Cuts in social spending
  • European Union formed
  • Northern Irish Troubles end
  • Unprecedented advances in technology
  • Microsoft Windows, Amazon, Google
  • Internet for business/entertainment
  • Mobile phones, texting, laptops, email, search engines, and online shopping
  • Increased global homogenisation of younger people’s tastes
  • Multiculturalism
  • Branded coffee shops
  • Euro launched

The 2000's

Client imperatives

  • Clients seek to understand their place in a digital world, and to rethink marketing (media neutrality and integrated marketing) in order to monetise it.
  • Growing demand for ROI accountability prompts global brand portfolio rationalisation: which brands for which markets?

Research environment

  • Tilt away from deep understanding towards numbers as clients seek cheaper, quicker, cookie cutter process.
  • Simultaneously, an unstoppable demand for ever more insights per research hour as a demonstration of value, leading to insight inflation.
  • More multi-country, less UK-specific projects means the rise of international coordinators and less autonomy for qual researchers. Travelling to 4-5 markets for international jobs is the norm…until the crash of 2008 when everything gets reined in, never to be the same again.
  • Research managers become analysts, chief listening officers, knowledge managers, and insight professionals. Some begin to understand that brands are affected by non-conscious factors.
  • Decline in planner and qualitative researcher collaboration in advertising development.

Qual developments

  • Strong and fast emergence of online and the birth of the online community.
  • The movement from research as one night stand to constant conversation and relationship sees offline focus groups lose favour. Growth areas are: semiotics, ethnography and hybrid methods (qual and quant).
  • Qualitative research accepts the role of the social (digital and social media) and cultural (semiotics). Explosion of interest in understanding the role of social influence and WOM in customer journeys.
  • Hardwiring enters the popular research discourse and auto-ethnography gains traction, with a corresponding growth in app development.

Cultural and social trends

  • 9/11 and terrorism
  • Economic growth
  • Globalisation accelerates
  • Financial crisis
  • Diminishing energy resources
  • Hybrid cars
  • Touch screens, iPhone, Bluetooth, Kindle, USB sticks
  • Facebook, YouTube, Twitter
  • Reality TV
  • Maturing of the internet
  • Look at me generation, Instagram

The 2010's

Client imperatives

  • Agility is all. Move quickly and cheaply. Nothing lasts, including the buyer’s career.
  • Defensive strategies: maintaining share in a digital world.
  • Reduce cost and get to market faster.
  • Clients demand video as part of all outputs.

Research environment

  • Austerity has disrupted a lot, and business becomes more brutal.
  • Power swings away from practitioners to clients, who try to do the big thinking as well as some ‘DIY’.
  • Online is fast, cheap and repeatable. Qual isn’t, unless it dumbs down to play the game. The movement from cognitivism to behaviourism continues, and traditional qual (F2F, especially focus groups) becomes passé.
  • Online blurs the distinction between qual and quant, and counting is cheaper, easier and impersonates certainty. Clients favour big data over samples.
  • Timeframes continue to be squeezed, such that traditional independents can’t cope. Boutique agencies thrive, offering speed, polish and partnering.

Qual developments

  • Qual accepts the impacts of behavioural science and the internet and diversifies, becoming better aligned with the broader range of goals and types of brand relationship that clients now have.
  • Heuristics, framing, System One and choice architecture enter the research vernacular, and a plethora of new techniques emerges: online qual, bulletin boards, panel-based recruitment, co-creation, ethnography and autoethnography using mobiles and apps.
  • The end of decade sees pendulum swinging back in favour of qual, recognised again as critical in complimenting the what with the why. It is the only area of growth in research. Hope springs eternal...

Social and cultural trends

  • Brexit
  • Global financial crisis and recession
  • Austerity policies
  • Arab spring
  • Cloud computing
  • Mobile apps
  • The internet of things
  • Superpower China
  • ISIS
  • Me Too
  • WikiLeaks
  • Whistleblowing
  • LGBTQ+ rights
  • Climate crisis