Longitudinal Qual: Triangulating With A Spiral Staircase

An excellent briefing yesterday on a new study I’m excited to be involved in. Massive team of us involved, but the interesting thing is the project is a proper piece of longitudinal qual. And it’s inspired me to mix geometrical metaphors like William McGonagall sharing a third bottle of Talisker with Kevin McCloud on the set of Grand Designs.

Moving up by going round in circles

I’ll be following two or three families over a year, with diaries, catch-up calls and quarterly half-day visits to their homes. Because of the timescales and costs inevitably involved, longitudinal research is under-represented really in the ledger of what gets commissioned out there. But I’ve always learned things longitudinally that I couldn’t have got from a standard project.

I recall one study I did in Edinburgh with old colleagues Ann Whalley and Louise Skowron of the People Partnership, where I followed several individuals over two months looking at their financial decision-making. The morphing from how people presented themselves to me initially to how they talked about their finances by the time of the third of fourth contact was fascinating. There was a building of trust and a familiarity – with some, not all, I should point out, as some kept their guard up or even raised it – that gave me and my colleagues a privileged view into what was really happening.

As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog – see Creating Memories: Jonah Lehrer and Faux Monty Python and shorequalblog.com: Knocked Unconscious – what we hear from people in any one interview is not some definitive statement of truth, but is necessarily contingent and inchoate. Researchers need to triangulate – draw upon other reference points – in order to get a firm interpretation of what we have heard or seen. This is why qual researchers like me usually propose mixed methodologies: not because we’re just wanting to do more research or try out a new technique, but because we need to see people from several angles before we can understand what they are doing and why.

Kevin McCloud: now don’t confuse things with cylinders, I was just getting my head around the spirals and the triangles …

Longitudinal research is really a form of triangulation: its real value is in being able to use our earlier encounters with participants to help interpret our later ones – and vice versa. I will understand my first meetings with the families much better once I’ve had my second and third. The opportunity to follow up on hypotheses like this is, for an analysis-focussed qual researcher like me, hugely exciting.

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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