Impact in Qualitative Research: Anna Verey and Howard Burdett Reflect on Qualitative Longitudinal Research
Anna Verey and Howard Burdett examine the potential impact of qualitative longitudinal research through reflections on ‘Military Veterans and Welfare Reform: Bridging Two Policy Worlds through Qualitative Longitudinal Research’ (Scullion et al. 2021).
Qualitative research is used to understand how humans experience the world they live in and how they make sense of the contexts they inhabit, the relationships they have and the feelings and behaviours these evoke. If quantitative research is an explorer’s torch shining a light on a little-known landscape, qualitative research is the explorer’s hand picking up and examining an object to know its textures, colours and delicate decoration.
In terms of contemporary issues, such as welfare reform, quantitative research provides helpful statistical data on the numbers and characteristics of those claiming certain benefits over time, while qualitative research is used to explore the attitudes, motivations and behaviours of the population dependent on such social policies; thus, qualitative research depicts in greater detail the real impact that nationwide policies can have on individuals. In the world of social reform, it is valuable to monitor recipients’ experiences over time, as they navigate changing systems and the complex, corresponding effects that can ripple across their lives, while at the same time their own professional and personal lives may be in a state of flux. By doing so we can better examine how individuals are affected by policy and social change, capturing individual processes of adaptation and assimilation.
In this blog we reflect upon the impact of Qualitative Longitudinal Research (QLR) by examining its use in the article, ‘Military Veterans and Welfare Reform: Bridging Two Policy Worlds through Qualitative Longitudinal Research’ (2021), an article which explores UK veterans’ interactions with the social security system .
In the world of social reform, it is valuable to monitor recipients' experiences over time, as they navigate changing systems and the complex, corresponding effects that can ripple across their lives.
Qualitative Longitudinal Research is well-placed to explore the ways individuals respond to personal, societal and political change. When conducting QLR, data is gathered from participants at different times within a given period (even a relatively short one, such as a year). QLR charts dynamic processes as they occur, to individuals or groups, and tracks these over a period. Typically, the inquiry is generally not only concerned with events, changes and transitions that occur but with the way in which individuals inhabit and respond to these, the strategies that they use to navigate them and the societal influences that shape these experiences.
In the article in question, the authors adopted purposive sampling techniques; former members of the UK Armed Forces were recruited via Armed Forces charities and third-sector organisations. Data were collected over a period of two years (2017-19) and there were two waves of repeat qualitative longitudinal interviews completed within each year (the starting sample comprised 68 veterans and decreased to 52 at the second wave). In the context of the article, QLR creates the opportunity to examine perceptions of service provision over time; specifically, the ways in which veterans both utilise and respond to the UK social security system.
The authors provide an example of precisely such a situation; one participant who indicated poor experiences and perceptions of support when first interviewed. At the subsequent re-interview, although their health status was reported to be unchanged, the participant had nonetheless been provided with support and had experienced a number of positive changes. The authors were able to examine in detail both how the external situation of the participant had changed with regard to support received, and how the participant’s mental health and wellbeing situation had improved over time. In this case, the participant reported improvements in mental health and interactions with the benefit system after receiving support from their local DWP Armed Forces Champion between the two interviews.
The authors were able to examine in detail how the external situation of the participant had changed with regard to support received, and how the participant's mental health and wellbeing situation had improved over time.
This article is one example of how the different experiences and outcomes for the same participant at different times can provide more insight than standard cross-sectional approaches; at the same time, there is yet more that could be extracted from comparisons over time. For example, the authors do not provide examples of using the longitudinal data available to examine how perceptions develop or change over time.
In the case of the participant whose circumstances had changed for the better, they do not provide any information on the participant’s perceptions of the future in the earlier “worse” period, nor how their perceptions of the past may have changed in the later “better” period. Such information may have been collected and analysed but is not presented in the article. This information could inform researchers regarding changes in perception and memory, and processes such as recall bias. Such an approach could help understand the processes by which social policy affects individuals. QLR has great potential value for facilitating and evaluating welfare reforms, but this possible impact has yet to be fully realised .
Typically, qualitative research is used to depict the nuances, complexities and depths of participants’ lives, but QLR is unique in that it allows these details to be examined over time and thus help hold the government to account about the real-life consequences that social policies can have in the lives of citizens. QLR is useful in that it helps understand the hurdles that citizens may be facing as well as give feedback on what is going well.
In theory, large scale QLR could help institutions to be more responsive to the problems faced when new policies are introduced and to target accurate solutions. For example, QLR could be used to identify best-practice, to locate where previous issues have been solved, and to highlight new and residual challenges when a new socio-economic policy such as Universal Credit is introduced.
QLR could help institutions to be more responsive to the problems faced when new policies are introduced and to target accurate solutions.
QLR comes with challenges: it is heavy on resources and can be expensive to implement. It is especially at risk of attrition of participants over time; in the article described here the authors reported a 76% attrition rate between two phases of data collection over two years. It also poses certain ethical considerations due to the repeated contact with participants, as the necessary relational boundaries between researchers and participants risk becoming blurred as repeat, in-depth data collection occurs.
QLR demonstrates an alternative and complementary method to quantitative methods, to draw out the experiences of participants grappling with social reforms which can take time to implement at a policy level, and to navigate at an individual level.
A parting word for prospective QLR researchers! If you are planning your own QLR study, remember that commenting on the meta processes at play in the lives of participants is of interest to the reader, not only the descriptive findings from stand-alone time points. Bearing this question in mind during data analysis could be helpful: what could the underlying epistemological reasons be for the processes occurring for participants across different time points?
This post originally appeared on the QUAHRC Impact in Qualitative Research Blog: Impact in Qualitative Research: Anna Verey and Howard Burdett reflect on qualitative longitudinal research | QUAHRC
Howard Burdett is a Research Fellow at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. Howard’s research has focused on socioeconomic trajectories from in-service to post-service life of UK military personnel, and the long-term socioeconomic and wellbeing consequences of battlefield injury during Operation HERRICK and associated recuperation. His experience is in mixed-methods research, including cross-sectional studies, longitudinal studies, randomised controlled trials, meta-analysis and data linkage.
Anna Verey works as a Research Assistant at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. She is part of the ADVANCE-INVEST study team and has an interest in mixed-methods, innovative data collection techniques and the effective dissemination of study findings.