The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Creativity will be the key

As qualitative researchers our work revolves around questions and answers but sustainability is the 'big one', requiring change on a multitude of levels.

I was born into a 'hippy culture', surrounded by adults whose formative years were spent freeing their thoughts and expanding their minds through a time of considerable change: the 1960s.

Got a question? Pull a 'medicine card'. Wondering what's next? Take a palm reading. And if it's really serious, go and see Aunty Ali for an I Ching reading and seek answers from the divination Book of Changes, composed around 1000 B.C, in China. (If you want more on my somewhat unconventional childhood, see me at the next AQR event.)

But what does this have to do with qualitative research? Well, ours is, of course, an industry of questions and answers. And recently, those questions have grown larger, demanding that we get creative if we are to sustain ourselves.

The challenge to sustain, though currently synonymous with environmental issues, AQR believes an environmental focus is absolutely correct and by the time you read this will have hosted a panel debate on this issue in September, runs through every area of our lives. Whether welcome or not, each day we are faced with a raft of questions: How sustainable is my relationship? My diet? My work/life balance?

Each requires a different set of parameters when considering their sustainability, to be considered in their own right. And the level of sustainability will likely be different for each of us, dependent on our respective threshold for the challenges.

But what do we mean by sustainability in qualitative research, and what does it take to truly sustain our industry? Seeking best practice qualitative research at every stage of a project, from commission to outputs, across hiring, training and agency culture, feels like a good start.

'Best practice', though, is an ever-evolving concept.

For example, while the basic principles of moderation remain largely the same over time, the changes that arise in the world must not only be taken into consideration but incorporated into our work in real time. The obvious recent change we have all faced is moving to online methods during the pandemic.

We all learned lessons such as how to use new tools, unearth the optimum number of participants in online groups, to mute or not to mute, how long to expect people to remain engaged, and how to manage clients during the chat.

We also learned the benefits of reaching people who might otherwise go unheard, achieving the perfect sample with geographical limitations now no longer an issue, and we bid farewell to jetlag and curled up sandwiches at the end of the evening.

Yet we also lost

Viewing facilities closed down due to lack of demand; the buzz of being in a room of people *IRL* and watching how their exchanges spark and fizzle in a way that, truthfully, feels like an exception rather than a rule following the shift online. Even the travel, which reframes your headspace prior to a group, including the inevitable briefing on the local area and how to solve the problems of the world with whichever taxi driver you encounter, makes its absence felt.

To be sustainable, we must ask ourselves how to maintain what's great about face-to-face qual while integrating the benefits of online. There are other big shifts that will, and should, impact our work: a focus on diversity and inclusion, the climate crisis and global political unrest.

So, how sustainable is our industry?

That question demands we open our minds and adapt alongside the world around us. To quote Aunty Ali's I Ching: 'The only thing that remains constant is that everything changes'.

 

Ella Fryer-Smith
Qualitative Research Consultant, Ella Fryer-Smith Ltd

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2021
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2021