Guest post #2: Dr Fiona Shirani: Visual approaches in QLR

Our second guest post is written by Dr Fiona Shirani, a Research Associate at Cardiff University. She will be leading a qualitative longitudinal work package as part of the interdisciplinary FLEXIS programme, which seeks to investigate how flexible energy systems can meet modern-day energy challenges.

In this post, Fiona reflects on the intersection between QLR and visual methods, reflecting on both her current research and the qualitative longitudinal ‚ÄúMen as Fathers‚ÄĚ project, part of the UK-wide Timescapes network. This project explored the transition to fatherhood in both the immediate (over the first year) and longer term (8 years post-birth). One of the many questions Fiona’s work has provoked for us as a team is¬†how to¬†incorporate visual data into our dataset, and the reasons why visuals (and their meaning) can feel more ‘distant’ in¬†secondary analysis than the written word.¬†We welcome your comments and ideas.¬†

Time to be engaging? Multimodal methods in QLR

Both qualitative longitudinal research (hereafter QLR) and visual methods have seen a surge in interest in recent years, yet relatively little attention has been given to the intersection of the two. This is perhaps surprising given many of the arguments in support of visual or multimodal methods take on a particular resonance in the context of QLR. In this short blog, I draw on my experience of designing and undertaking visual activities in two QLR projects (Energy Biographies and Timescapes) to highlight some relevant issues.

Methodological innovation is an important element of research, and visual approaches have been key to enhancing creativity in qualitative work. QLR provides greater scope for methodological innovation and experimentation due to the extended timescales and flexible nature of the approach. For example, an activity that would take up too much time for a one-off study represents a smaller proportion of a QLR project. There is also time and space for reflection between interviews, giving the researcher an opportunity to hone and adapt activities for later waves of data collection.

Beyond methodological innovation, an advantage of incorporating a range of activities is the potential to make the research experience more engaging for participants. QLR requires a significant commitment from participants and maintaining the sample over time is an important concern. Whilst some participants enjoy the format of a qualitative interview, others may relish the opportunity to direct conversation through a photo-elicitation exercise, for example. Activities can also be conducted between interviews, serving as opportunities to both maintain contact and collect further data.

In both Timescapes and Energy Biographies we used visual activities to encourage participants to talk across extended time frames, thinking about their past memories and anticipated futures. Thinking temporally is a particular concern of QLR research yet can prove challenging for participants. Having a tangible reference point in the form of a visual representation can help anchor discussions.

Alongside these benefits, consideration must be given to some of the challenges arising from using multimodal approaches in QLR. Most notably, whilst accumulation of information about the individual is a strength of QLR, it also raises issues around anonymity and confidentiality. Adding visual data further complicates this issue and requires careful thought about how visual artefacts produced during the research should be analysed and presented, as well as challenges for archiving and data re-use.

In our Timescapes and Energy Biographies projects we have primarily used images as a means of eliciting talk; therefore analysis has focused on pictures and their accompanying text. We have found that narratives often go beyond what is represented in the image and therefore have argued the importance of attending to both talk and text. However, there are many possibilities for the analysis and creative presentation of multimodal data, and participant-generated images also inspired some elements of our public engagement exhibition. We also explored the possibility of working with images alone during a multimodal workshop with academic colleagues, where feedback indicated that the everyday nature of the images made them accessible for people to imbue with their own interpretations. However, there are clearly important ethical issues to consider in presenting images without the contextual information of their production and asking others to engage creatively with them.

Visual or multimodal approaches have much to offer QLR and combining the two could provide multiple benefits to future research.

See our paper in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology for more detail.

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