The Value of Researching Lives Qualitatively through Time

Categories: Creative Methods, Data Collection, Other, Qualitative, Research, Research Design, Research Skills

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We defined our April focus broadly to include any qualitative or quantitative methods that involve questioning, prompting, or working with participants to collect or generate data. Find the unfolding series here. 


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This is the first in a series of blogs that will explore the principles and practice of qualitative longitudinal research.  The ideas set out here are drawn from a new book, The Craft of Qualitative Longitudinal Research, published by SAGE in March 2021.  

Qualitative Longitudinal (QL) research has developed rapidly over the past 20 years as part of a widespread ‘processual’ turn across the social sciences. Processual thinking is hardly new. As Heraclitus observed, we cannot step into the same river twice. But this dynamic thinking has gained momentum recently in response to rapid social, economic and environmental changes in the contemporary world. John Law engagingly makes the case for processual enquiry:    

Events and processes are … complex because they necessarily exceed our capacity to know them. … [We need] the capacity to think six impossible things before breakfast. … [to create] metaphors and images for what is  …  almost unthinkable. Slippery, indistinct, elusive, complex, diffuse, messy, textured, vague, unspecific, confused, disordered …  intuitive, sliding, unpredictable … In this way of thinking, the world is not a structure, something we can map with our social science charts. We might think of it instead as a maelstrom or a tide-rip … filled with currents, eddies, flows, vortices, unpredictable changes, storms, and with moments of lull and calm. … We begin to imagine what research methods might be if they were adapted to a world that included and knew itself as tide, flux and general unpredictability. (Law 2004: 6-7)    

QL research works with the basic insight that if the world is fluid, we need fluid modes of enquiry to investigate and understand it. Like all longitudinal studies, QL research seeks to shed light on dynamic processes, but it does so in distinctive ways. Using responsive and flexible designs, QL studies operate in real-time and mirror and trace real-world processes. They are typically in-depth, small scale and targeted to trace lives through particular processes. Here are some key features:  

“life … must be lived forwards. … But … it must be understood backwards”.
  Sǿren Kierkegaard
      19th Danish philosopher
  • QL research uses panel designs to follow the same individuals (e.g. individuals, groups or organisations) prospectively, as lives and processes unfold. The aim is to discern change in the making. Typically, a panel of participants will be traced relatively intensively through frequent visits to the field, with the pattern of visits mirroring an unfolding process. This is finely grained processual enquiry, with flexible time scales and tempos that may operate over many months rather than years.  
  • The method combines a prospective (forward looking) and retrospective (backward looking) lens. This enhances insights into causal processes. As Kierkegaard observed, life must be lived forward in time, but it must be understood backwards. Gaining insights into people’s unfolding biographies, their family, housing and employment histories, enhances our understanding of their journeys through time, how they have arrived at the present day and their aspirations for the future.  
  • Tempos and timeframes for gathering data (the number and frequency of visits to the field) are flexible and tailored to the focus of enquiry. At least two waves of fieldwork are needed to gain a processual understanding. The method is cumulative and responsive to the groups and processes under study; each wave of fieldwork informs the next. This gives QL enquiry a unique capacity to follow lives where they lead. This flexibility is central to the methodological rigour of QL research, ensuring that the research process is in tune with and able to capture real-world processes. The aim is to create a balance between flexibility and continuity, and between creativity and precision in the way projects are designed.    
  • Data are generated from a range of strategically chosen and targeted cases (purposive samples). The cases are representative of an appropriately defined range of experiences and circumstances (rather than attempting to be statistically representative of the wider population).  Insights are elicited through a mixture of in-depth, qualitative methods: life journey interviews, ethnographic (participant-observation) strategies, and participatory tools (life mapping techniques and written, audio or visual diaries). The aim is to discern how lives are lived and how they unfold, as well as how they are narrated.  
  • Analysis is case-based and processual (using process tracing and process mapping and combining case-depth, thematic-breadth and processual-reach). Evidence is most commonly presented through narratives, cross-case typologies of people’s transitions and trajectories, and emblematic case studies that include direct quotations from participants. This makes QL research come alive and ‘speak’ in ways that are accessible and engaging for readers.   

Longitudinal enquiry is commonly said to turn a ‘snap-shot’ of the social world into a ‘movie’. But there are different kinds of movie. Large scale, statistically-based longitudinal studies create epic movies. They tend to ask the same questions of a panel at regular intervals (yearly/five-yearly), although new questions may be introduced at different waves. The overall effect is to create a sequence of snapshots in time, which measure chronological change: what changes, for whom, the direction/extent of change, where, when, and how often change occurs. This produces a valuable surface picture of social change. But there are drawbacks:

While demographic surveys show the magnitude and distribution of [migration] in entire populations … only individual or family histories can reveal why one individual moves and another stays put.  (Giele 2009: 236)

Although Quantitative Longitudinal research … provides detailed information about individuals, what is lost … are the narratives that people tell about their own lives … without this element there is a danger that people are merely seen as making decisions and acting within a pre-defined and structurally determined field of social relations, rather than contributing to the maintenance and metamorphosis of [society]. (Elliott 2005: 131)

Fluid processes:
a kaleidoscopic view 

QL research, in contrast, produces an intimate or ‘up-close-and personal’ movie, one that works with narratives and meanings, rather than numbers and measurements. Researchers ‘walk alongside’ as people’s lives unfold, discerning how change is created, negotiated, lived and experienced. It is founded on a participatory ethos: research is conducted with participants rather than on them, and they are accorded the status of experts by experience. Agency (the capacity to act, to interact and to shape one’s life and the lives of others) and subjectivity (the meaning that events and processes hold for those who experience them) are taken seriously as rich sources of knowledge and insight. They are just as important for our verifications of the social world as any objectively defined fact or process.

Part of the value of this methodology lies in its capacity to understand the causes and consequences of change; to shed light not simply on what changes over time, but how and why changes occur. This gives QL research extra-ordinary explanatory power. It lends itself well to the study of policy processes, where people are required to change their practices or adapt to changing conditions, or where the effects of policy interventions need to be monitored and evaluated.  

Researching through time raises many questions: how exactly do researchers engage with time, and what does this mean for research design, practice, ethics and analysis?  The process entails  a leap into the unknown, a capacity to see beyond the visible. Researchers may not know exactly where their research will lead, how long it may last, or what they may find, but they are likely to uncover some compelling insights along the way. Seeing things through the lens of time quite simply changes everything (Adam 1990).  

Adam, B. (1990) Time and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

Elliott, J. (2005) Using Narrative in Social Research.  London: Sage.

Giele, J. (2009) ‘Life stories to understand diversity’, in G. Elder and J. Giele (eds) The Craft of Life Course Research. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 236-57

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in Social Research. London: Routledge.

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