June 5th, 2012
This article could turn into a Ph.D. thesis, so vast is the subject of time. I’m communicating it here to act as an opening fragment that may require some elaboration in the future.
I have seen no articles on the issue of time within qualitative research – not on blogs and forums nor at conferences nor is it ever addressed in research training workshops — that time is multifaceted and not to be taken for granted. But time is a big issue — how we handle it, how we define it, how we use it, and how time uses us.
For us who are working within and against the clock at every moment of a research inquiry, we want to be in the flow, we want open ended time to seek and probe, yet we must stay on time. Time is chronological, time is perceptual, time as eternal, and as researchers, anthropologists, and psychologists, we face the issue of radical shifts in the experience of time depending upon who is doing the research, who is experiencing the research, when in the research our inquiry begins to open up, and whether it is us, our clients, or the subjects themselves.
Qualitative research often undergoes planning as if time exists in strict chronological order.
Time perceptions affect every aspect of qualitative research because we are going for depth and clarity during an intention process that includes unawareness and confusion from the people we are researching. And time is required to see truth vs. appearance, sort out resistance from unawareness, and learn when an issue is being answered intellectually vs. emotionally.
Most of our consumers and respondents may never have thought even for a second about the issues we raise during interviews, groups, or ethnography, so all is new to them.
Newness requires time to adjust — for us and for them.
As researchers, we think about and include the time involved when we conduct research methodologies, how much time it takes to understand or explore an insight, the act of creating guides that have explicit timing but finding that they are thrown away and acknowledgment that time changes after the first two or three qualitative experiences. I often think about how different time feels like for the qualitative researcher-moderator-ethnographer vs. the experience of time with the client team in the backroom, trying to determine in advance or in the process how much time the respondent requires to answer a question, explore an emotion, or do an exercise.
Time seems a material we assume is solid in qualitative research and yet the experience of time shifts radically at multiple points.
We schedule group discussions, say, for 2 hours, indepth interviews for 1 hour, and ethnography for three hours — and yet we find that time allotments for understanding do not conform to time.
Answering a question — it could be very simple as a warm-up or throwaway in a research session — how do you really feel about sugar in carbonated soft drinks? about health and wellness in snack foods? about the emotional experience of spreads on toast? about life in Canada now that you’ve just arrived from India? Each simple inquiry could be answered in two minutes or 15 minutes or a day or a year or in eternity as the answer changes from awareness and creates new behavior reflected in upcoming time.
How long does it take for a researcher to understand the issues and be able to communicate the insights with power to herself or to the team or within a report present? This is a variable that has no answer, but we continue on not realizing that time intersects with eternity at every moment,
We circle back to issues over time. We hear an idea or behavioral fragment online or in a group, watch body language and eye movements that show something is there – and when observe our subjects in their homes, that issue expands to a lifetime of perception, behavior, and attitudes.
Allowing ourselves the space to explore and digest the consumer insight expressed within time but emanating from a lifetime of behavior and experiences by the respondent at home — multiplied by many respondents within many methodologies and regions — we grasp time, allow it to remain flexible, and give ourselves permission to exist within a transcendent time frame even as we stay on time, write a report on time, and come to conclusions on chronological time.