Introduction to the special issue Prospective qualitative research: new directions, opportunities and challenges


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Introduction to the special issue Prospective qualitative research: new directions, opportunities and challenges
Longitudinal and Life Course Studies
Bernardi Laura, Sánchez-Mira Núria
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The combination of qualitative approaches and longitudinal research designs is a powerful way to explore changes in individual life courses as they occur. While qualitative research is mostly associated with retrospective studies that analyse lives ‘backwards’ in time, prospective qualitative studies that track lives as they unfold have grown in popularity over the past two decades. Their increased importance goes hand in hand with the growing attention in the social sciences to process and change versus stability and continuity through time. Prospective qualitative studies are uniquely suited to analysing continuity and change in people’s lives, offering a complex understanding of critical junctures, transitions and gradual, non-linear or contradictory processes of change as they are interpreted and revisited by individuals with the unfolding of their lives. With its intrinsic focus on time and temporalities, prospective qualitative research allows us to address not only changing meanings and perceptions, but how people examine their pasts and look into their futures, and how these temporal perspectives are modified along with life events and transitions.
Together with its undoubted advantages, a range of analytical and methodological challenges arise in the process of engaging with participants in a prospective qualitative study, where time, lives, perceptions and meanings are continually shifting and under revision. The benefits of combining prospective and retrospective insights and meanings involve a complex and demanding analytical effort that addresses potentially emerging discrepancies in the reporting of the same event or transition. The notion of a linear temporality that structures social action needs to be reconciled with narratives that reflect the fluidity of past and future time, stagnation, zigzag or even reversible developments. Questions of archiving are a source of concern for researchers whose data sets are iteratively generated over time, raising issues about consent, anonymity and ownership. Ethical issues also sharpen as the level of personal involvement between researcher and participant increases with repeated interactions across the different waves. With the increased availability of qualitative prospective studies, there is a growing agreement about the benefits of using secondary data. Arguments about research costs and underexploitation of existing data are gaining ground against the traditional reluctance of qualitative researchers to make their data available for reuse. There is, hence, an emerging need to reflect on the strategies and practices of data creation and management for long-term storage and use by others. In parallel, challenges of combining different data sources with similar foci for analytical and comparative purposes are increasingly recognised.
These are just a few of the challenges facing prospective qualitative researchers, but they clearly point to the need for further methodological reflection on how time impacts on the design, conduct and theoretical underpinnings of qualitative longitudinal studies. This special issue advances current debates and explores new theoretical and methodological directions in this field through a range of contributions that are both international and interdisciplinary in scope.
prospective qualitative research, longitudinal qualitative research
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