I have recently been drawn into an online debate on the topic of DIY research and it has reminded me of one of my favourite dramas from the 1980s (yes, I’m that old). It was a series written by Alan Bleasdale called Boys from the Blackstuff. In the most memorable episode, a main character (Yosser Hughes, played superbly by Bernard Hill), rampages around the streets of Liverpool asking unsuspecting workers to give him a job.
At one point he follows a council groundsman trying to draw white lines around a football pitch. As Yosser becomes more manic the white lines become more jagged with the workman becoming more and more nervous as Yosser taunts him menacingly saying, ‘Gizzajob mate, I can draw lines, go on, gizzajob.’
This particular drama came to mind, not just because it is a particular favourite but also because I think there are parallels to be drawn with running groups and indeed with qualitative research as a whole.
And one of the key points surrounding this, I feel, is that sometimes as qualitative researchers, we can become the victims of our own success. We run groups and conduct interviews so well that at times it probably looks as easy as drawing a straight white line along a football pitch.
This in itself of course ignores the fact that, as I have found to my cost, drawing a straight line along a football pitch is no mean feat. And whilst Yosser might have felt himself well equipped to draw the lines, one wonders how he might have coped with other aspects of this particular groundsman’s role, such as perhaps looking after the pitches in general, cleaning out the changing rooms, being available all weekend to open up, clean up, close up etc.
By the same token, observers at groups might also be forgiven for not considering what has preceded the group in terms of designing a topic guide, recruiting the ‘right’ people, designing the project as whole. They might also fail to acknowledge that this running of the group is just one part of the qualitative process, which will later involve analysis of what has taken place in the group and the crucial aspect of interpreting just what has been said and how it has been said. Then the writing of a document and delivering a debrief, with strong conclusions and actionable recommendations.
Just like Yosser then, the danger is that an observer at a group sees what they want to see – great respondents (‘weren’t you lucky they were such a good bunch’), a discussion which flows (‘wasn’t that fortunate how you were able to bring that topic into play at that particular time’) and a group that bonds (‘it was great how they all felt able to say what they thought but they listened to each other as well’).
I’m not suggesting that all of the groups I have run have followed this particular pattern but when they have done so the result has been that some observers have suggested that what I did was easy and that how I did it was perhaps something they could do for themselves.
And there’s the rub – when we make things look easy we lay ourselves open to the likes of Yosser suggesting he too could do it himself.
So what’s the answer here? I’m not suggesting we over-dramatise what we do (although I’ve seen many a qualitative researcher in action who already does just that) because that might suggest we protest too much. But what I am saying is that we need to try and put across to people that there’s a lot more to qualitative research and running groups than turning up, having a chat with a few people and going home.And what I’m also saying is that the more we educate clients and potential clients along these lines, then the less likely it is that they will ‘do a Yosser’ on us. Surely no-one wants that!