ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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Speaking to and speaking back: adding in a 'qualitative component' to an established longitudinal study

Lesley Patterson

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 10 - Law Building, Room 105
Date: 2012-07-10 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Last modified: 2012-06-08


The Competent Learners Study* is an educationally and developmentally focused longitudinal study that since 1994 has followed a group of 500 then aged near-five-year-olds who were attending early childhood education centres. As a longitudinal study, Competent Learners has sought to identity, over time, the impact of early childhood education experiences, family resources, home activities, relations with peers, and engagement in school and school resources, on a range of cognitive, social, communicative, and problem-solving competencies, and to capture the impact of different experiences and resources on the development of these competencies. The most recent wave of the Competent Learners Study began in 2009, and the quantitative phase of this age-20 wave found that many young people had a relatively smooth transition from school to tertiary education along what seems to be a ‘well-lit path’. The subsequent qualitative component explored the post-school experiences of some of the young people not on the well-light path.

This paper identifies and explores the methodological and practical issues that arose in undertaking a qualitative component for an established quantitative longitudinal study with a normative focus and designed with a view to informing policy processes to improve educational and social outcomes. In contrast, the qualitative component explored participants’ lives in context, with an explicit methodological commitment to a biographical sociology drawing upon interpretive traditions. The research design included a biographically focused narrative interview, and a ‘life grid’ co-produced by participants and the researcher during the interview process. The life-grid concretised temporally the key events the participants identified in their post-school life stories, as well as annotated the futures they imagined, while their narratives gave rich insight into how the participants made sense of their lives. The innovations in research design enabled the collection of a rich, temporally focused qualitative data that both spoke to and spoke back to the findings and the methodological assumptions of the quantitative component. This paper concludes with my reflections on presenting the findings of the qualitative component to interested policy-oriented audiences, and the opportunities and challenges qualitative researchers experience in these communicative contexts.

(*Competent Learners is funded by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) and the Ministry of Education. For more details of the study visit