Practice in the Making: Memoranda

Memorandum 4

Methods for researching energy biographies

by Fiona Shirani

One of the central features of our project is that we revisit participants over time, which is known as qualitative longitudinal research (QLR). Our approach involves conducting interviews with each person on three occasions over a one year period, as well as asking our participants to undertake activities in between interviews. As part of the project, we wanted to consider some of the implications of significant life events for people’s energy use. By conducting research over time (as opposed to one-off interviews) we were able to explore the impact of life changes that occurred during the research period. For example, across the study, participants experienced a number of changes such as; bereavement, house moves and employment changes, which had implications for their energy use in terms of things like their heating routines and travel arrangements.

In addition to enabling us to consider changes and continuities during the study period, conducting multiple interviews and activities provides an opportunity to build up layers of knowledge about participants. Arguably, this accumulation of data in qualitative longitudinal research provides a better understanding of the individual, although not necessarily the ‘truth’ of that person (Thomson and Holland 2003), offering a more substantial base for writing about identity than a one-off approach (McLeod 2003). This layering of information gives us scope to analyse individual ‘case biographies’ (analysing the data from individual participants across all interviews and activities to see how individual trajectories shed light on wider processes of social change) as well as exploring data across our whole sample at different time points.

Finally, at the centre of qualitative longitudinal research is a concern with time, not only during the research period itself but also in thinking about how our past experiences and future aspirations influence our present lives. As part of the Energy Biographies project we have been exploring how images and video can help people to think about these longer-term time frames – see some of our recent presentations under the ‘our work’ tab for more details.

McLeod, J. (2003) Why we interview now – reflexivity and perspective in a longitudinal study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 6 (3) pp201-211.
Thomson, R. and Holland, J. (2003) Hindsight, foresight and insight: the challenges of longitudinal qualitative research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 6 (3) pp233-244.