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The Qualitative Research Arc - 5 questions to improve your research (and your life!)

Author: Dr Cathy Gibbons
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Have you ever noticed that when you present a simple problem in terms of simple a choice, instead of getting a yes or no answer as you wanted, you get "It depends!"


Should I meet my participant’s request to use their own first name? 

It depends!


Or your question is simple but you know the answer will have implications for the research, and you just know that your supervisor or PI will say that you haven’t really thought it through. Maddening isn’t it? Where do you start?


Through more than 10 years of teaching and researching using qualitative methods and methodologies, I’ve developed these 5 questions into a series or arc which assists in the analysis process, and in decision making in research design and practice. I’ve also found that their usefulness extends into non-qualitative research, daily work, and life. This is hardly surprising as some of them come from fields of thinking around human behaviour, ethics and psychology, such as anthropology, systemic theory, and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).


All of the questions are simple and are powerful even when used in isolation. They are especially powerful when used knowingly and together. I have found in practice over the years that the sequence as presented here has become the most common and helpful process. However I have also noticed that in the early days of usage even using them in isolation was helpful. So don’t stress about remembering them in the right order, or even remembering them all. Use the one that feels most helpful in the moment and go from there. If it’s not helping, then notice that it’s not and hey, look! We’re back at the beginning again!

1.What do I notice?

Notice what you notice! Everybody seems to have heard of ‘mindfulness’ right now, but this basic command to the self has been around for years. The starting point is to pay attention to the self in any given situation. What am I noticing about how my body feels? Is it tense? Am I relaxed? Those more familiar with the concept can go for a full body scan.

Moving on to your surroundings. Use all of your senses. What can I hear, see, smell, taste, and feel beyond myself. Pay attention to your response to others. Pay attention to your research data. At this stage it is important not to make any judgement about the things you notice, otherwise you will only notice what you’ve noticed, look at things in the way you’ve always looked at them, respond how you always respond. Judgement can come later (using the other four questions of course), but right now you must be open. I sometimes rephrase this question as a command ‘State the blindingly obvious about what you notice’. Sometimes the answer is right in front of us, but because we’ve dismissed it (a judgement call), perhaps as something everybody knows, or as an irrelevance, we cannot notice it and therefore fail to give it fair consideration.   

More complex questions to facilitate mindfulness could include; Does this remind me of anything? Anyone?

What do I notice? Might seem like a narcissistic, or selfish starting point. It can be, but when used in conjunction with the other questions, it’s unlikely to be. Actually, if I consider the frequent advice to people seeking to improve their presentations to film themselves, I think of it as an example of an invitation to Notice what you notice. But people often shy away from this advice because they are starting with a judgement. They use non-specific yet highly judgmental terms like good and bad. We wouldn’t accept this kind of claim without evidence in research, yet we seem all too quick to apply it to ourselves and our outputs.

It might also seem like an invitation to endless introspection. Be disciplined. It takes practice to lose the judgement – it can be a significant moment in mastering this technique when you notice that you’ve made a judgement. Don’t berate yourself; acknowledge it and move on, repeating the question. If you are worried about how much time it will take, give a time limit. 5 minutes, 10 minutes is not long at all, but can bring returns once you’ve managed to notice and then suspend judgement. Even half a minute of what some might associate with ‘taking stock’ can bring insights; in your thinking, your writing, your behaviour or technique.

2.What’s my purpose?

‘What’s the purpose?’ is a common question in research and other areas, designed to keep you focused. Paying attention to the answers of both of these questions can provide you with insight into motivations, preferences and potential barriers or problems. We tend to be task focused and you may find yourself answering with an immediate task in mind. If this task is something that doesn’t fit your immediate purpose, this can lead to frustration. For example, a researcher might be asked or told to do something that they can’t see the point of, reading a particular branch of literature, use a particular technique, locate their fieldwork in a non-preferred location. If your purpose is to get on with your work and achieve your doctorate as quickly as possible, this might feel like an un-necessary deviation or distraction from your purpose. If your purpose is to avoid conflict with your boss, then in the short-term this won’t be a problem for you. However if this were to continue, your conflicting purposes might lead to personal frustration, which is, well, frustrating!

Conversely of course your supervisor may block you from trying techniques or activities that you think will enhance or broader research skills, improve your promotions prospects, or satisfy your intellectual curiosity, as they may see those as a distraction. And they might be right.

It should be apparent by now that each situation has many ‘purposes’ which occur at different levels of distance from you and your needs, and distance in time. Some of these purposes may even compete and contradict. The first step is to identify them. Then consider where they fit in relation to your work or even your life.  This suits a range of situations, especially if you face a decision in your research, from selecting participants, designing research, asking questions during interview, analysing the results, explaining or reporting your research to others.

Comparison of these two questions provides a way for a reflexive researcher to examine the etic and emic of the research experience, and to identify more clearly the objective and subjective position of you, the researcher.

3.Who benefits?

Cui bono? or Whose benefit? is a familiar concept in ethics, along with Do no harm. Once again there will be short-term and more obvious answers to your question, and morally ‘good’ answers are compelling – who doesn’t want a cure for cancer, an improvement in social conditions, world peace, and financial stability, or care and respect for their participants? An interrogations of your options using this question can definitely help with ethical decisions, but can also help in pragmatic decisions. Other questions that follow include, in what ways do they benefit, or not? Research is not conducted in a social vacuum. You are affected, the participants, the funders, parts of society such as economic markets, marginal groups, your supervisors, even your family are affected. Yes you can use this question as a starting point for sophisticated philosophical analysis, or simply to help you get a sense of the bigger picture, or even to create a simple cost/benefit analysis for yourself when faced with difficult decisions.

Academics and researcher are often told ‘know your audience’. It’s certainly my starting point when running training sessions on presentation skills, or even proposal writing. When reporting or writing about research;

  • it can be used in isolation or a part of a process, like all of the 5 questions.

  • Something to notice: if you notice that the answer is always the same regardless of the question posed e.g. the participant, you may wish to consider if this is the kind of balance that you want for your research; your life?

4.What’s the difference that makes a difference?

So often when facing choices about your research, the choices will be context dependent; should I send them the transcript for verification? Should I interview them on neutral territory? Shall I start analysis now? The stock answer to so many of these ‘should I/shall I questions is ‘It depends!’ and then you have to ask ‘depends on what?’ Asking yourself what difference will it make if I do X rather than Y provides a more constructive starting point than ‘It depends!’, which can shut down thinking, or acts as rebuttal to something that someone can’t answer, or doesn’t want to have to grapple with the complexities, as the possibilities can seem endless. So, don’t shut yourself down, use the question as a starting point to examine your points constructively and systematically. Remember to switch the points round for a helpful comparison. Your answers to the previous questions will lead you towards the difference that makes a difference to your research.

5.What are the unknown unknowns?

Perhaps one of the hardest questions to answer, but ultimately, one of the reasons we do research, and in particular, qualitative research. It’s also a difficult question because it’s a paradox. Surely if we knew the answer then it wouldn’t be an unknown! Again, we could get terribly philosophical here about the nature of knowledge and what is knowable and examine our ontological and epistemological perspectives. Whilst this might be desirable in your research, many fields of research operate on rarely discussed assumptions about the nature of knowledge and how we make claims about truth. Most of us are so accepting of statistical probability of proof as a good enough to proxy for absolute truth that we don’t bother unpicking it, as it blocks progress in other areas of thought or communication. We use generalisations throughout our lives to help us make progress and seek agreement. We use phrases like ‘everybody knows x’, ‘men like football’. They are frequently a shortcut to communication but they are stated as truths. The problem for you is when you don’t notice the difference. If you’re making assumptions and you don’t even know you’re doing it, then there you have an unknown unknown.

This question invites you to consider and even be explicit about what you might not know. It helps you uncover your assumptions and pay attention to what you notice. And when you are looking for that pattern in the data, seeking that insight, this can mean the difference between thinking that you’ve simply confirmed what is already ‘known’, and opening up whole new understandings; finding that Aha! or Eureka moment: the connection that no-one else has made before, the implication that changes the way we do things – whether that’s a method, technique or product, or a behaviour change.      


Now that you’ve seen all of the questions remember all of the questions are simple and powerful even when used in isolation. But they are not a quick fix. You will need to genuinely reflect on the answers that you generate, and pay attention to the questions that arise for you in an open, non-judgmental way. Having said that they are not a quick fix, they are powerful when used together and knowingly, and insight seems to come more quickly as a result. But don’t stress about remembering them in the right order, or even remembering them all. Use the one that feels most helpful in the moment and go from there. And if a different order emerges as useful for you, then notice what you notice, and hey, tell me! Contact me at Arc52. I’ve been working on this for a long time and I’ve no objection to re-modelling, if it makes a difference.


What do you notice? This can be distilled as command Notice what you notice. It is influenced by the work of systemic thinkers such as Gregory Bateson, amongst others. It can also be found as a principle in ‘Mindfulness’.  Gregory Bateson. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. London. (2000).

What’s your purpose? Another Batesonian principle and a common starting point in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), and many Business training guides. Gregory Bateson. (1979) Mind and nature: A necessary unity. (2002).

Who benefits? Is a common question in ethics. It is embedded in the Nolan Principle’s for conduct in public life (including public servants in Education) . The preamble to the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity specifically mentions benefits of research, and the principle is embedded within a number of stated responsibilities;  9 Conflict of Interest and 11 Societal Considerations in particular.

What’s the difference that makes a difference? Bateson, and Systemic Theory and Cybernetics generally. Gregory Bateson. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. London. (2000).

What are the unknown unknowns? Whilst originally part of the construct of the JOHARI window, Luft and Ingham (1955), (which refers to an area of the sub-conscious) the constrct here Is from the back-drop Every school-boy knows by Bateson. Gregory Bateson. (1979) Mind and nature: A necessary unity. (2002). However, some will be familiar with it from Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous commentary on the offensive capabilities of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2002. .

Arc52: Consultancy in Researcher Development

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