‘Research relations in process’ and ‘subjects in process: lessons from qualitative longitudinal research for sampling

Last week I gave a talk as part of Bren Neal’s workshop on advanced methods in qualitative longitudinal (QL) research for the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre sampling in QL research. Through conducting QL research as part of Timescapes (http://www.timescapes.leeds.ac.uk/), I have learnt a great deal about sampling in qualitative research more generally. In particular QL research foregrounds the ways in which we learn from the social processes of doing research.
Here are four key lessons learnt from bringing common ways of thinking about sampling into engagement with time in the research. First, drawing on Glaser and Strauss’s (1967) grounded theory, QL research emphasises how we must build research relations throughout the research, because we are return repeatedly to participants. Maintaining a distance between observers and observed through the tabula rasa of the theoretically sensitive researcher, observation of interaction, and coding—the positivist twist in grounded theory’s methodology—is impractical. We build ethical relationships of trust with participants if the research is to proceed.
Secondly, QL research questions the notion of theoretical saturation. All grounded theorists from Glaser and Strauss (1967) to Kathy Charmaz (2014) advocate theoretical saturation; the point when no new properties emerge and sampling stops. Yet, QL research emphasises how research is conducted in time. Barbara Adam (1990; 2008) reminds us that we rework and revoke the past, plans for the future inform material practices in the present. And, to paraphrase a line from Alan Bennett’s play the History Boys, life, like history, is ‘one bloody thing after another’. If this is so then theoretical saturation can not be achieved, conceptual density will always be provisional and ‘theoretical completeness’, as Glaser (2001) has it, can never be achieved.
This means that our relations within the research, and therefore with participants are always subject to revision. MQ Patton’s (2002) pragmatic strategies of purposeful sampling provide important insight. Cases are purposefully chosen through any combination of Patton’s 14+1 strategies of sampling because they are information rich, contribute to answering research questions, and increase the credibility of the research with its audience. Drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, pragmatism deals ‘with matters in accordance with practical rather than theoretical considerations […] aiming at what is achievable rather than ideal’. The temporality of QL research means that strategies of sampling are always under revision, as new insights are learnt and new material practices addressed. What is considered to be information rich and credible will change. Researchers must respond to these temporal flows in the research.
The idea of a temporal flow brings Jennifer Mason’s account of a theoretical or purposive sampling strategy to mind and, in particular, her description of this interpretative and inductive strategy as organic. Like Giampietro Gobo (2008), Mason recognises that the representativeness of the sample in qualitative research is something researchers learn about as the research progresses. The fourth lesson is interpretation of representativeness must, necessarily, include an account of the historical context within which the sample speaks and the researcher interprets.
In short the four lessons for sampling from QL research are—1) relations in research are reciprocal between researchers and participants; 2) the natural aspects of temporality play an important role in explanatory approaches; 3) the research must be responsive to the material practices of participants, researchers and audience; and 4) biography and history intersect in the participants’ lives. An account of sampling in qualitative research (drawing on the lessons from qualitative longitudinal research) is an ongoing dialogue between ‘research relations in process’ and ‘subjects in process’, the title of my talk.

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