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3 States of Awareness in Flexible Design

I’ve been thinking of the concept of flexible design of late and how it’s used within qualitative research approaches. Much of what we learn concerning this is limited to logistics or scheduling, rather than deeper was of considering how the flexible design approach is also indebted to an awareness of people and place. This awareness can be understood as states of being connected to practices in the field and these act as the catalyst for our flexibility in design. So, I want to spend a little time unpacking what I consider to be essential states of awareness and core ingredients of this research design ethos.

To get us rolling, I want to consider this old chestnut…

A plan works till first contact. That’s an old adage, to be sure, but one that should be taught in every single qualitative methods class. It’s definitely a truism when doing research, so, definitely keep this in mind. It has a lot to do with being a reflective researcher and of being flexible in both ideas and design. But, more importantly being reflective entails developing both the awareness and sensibility for being responsive to the field and adaptive in response.

So, by its very nature, qualitative research is flexible in design. That is the absolute basic underpinning or tenant, if you like, of this process of conducting qualitative research. When working directly with people and all their particularities, flexibility not only makes sense, but is essential. I only have to imagine a big family holiday gathering and how chaos always arrives uninvited. If you spend a moment here in reflection, I guarantee you’ll agree that flexibility is key to finding our way.

Oftentimes, we reference flexibility in some kind of binary way with comparisons to fixed designs and how they are structurally different. Now, if we leave our discussions at this point, thinking only of logistics or the basic differences between fixed and flexible we are left with only a shallow way of understanding the full potential of deep qualitative work and the nature of our entanglements with the field. And by that, I mean the relationships we cultivate and immerse ourselves with people, places, experiences and ideas.

So, let’s consider this idea of flexible design in more depth, take a deeper dive, if you will, into this dynamic project of qualitative inquiry. And, as a reminder, it is essential to see this as a dynamic and process driven endeavor.

To dig deeper here, I want to unpack three core ideas embedded in this approach. These three are states of awareness that inform fieldwork practices for the individual researcher or group of researchers to develop within the flexible design approach. The three I want to explore here include being reflective, adaptive and responsive. So, what are these and how do they work within a qualitative research project? They relate to one another, certainly, inform one another and nurture each other through the cycles of conducting research.

First off, I’d like to begin with what is being reflective.

Being reflective makes me think of several things. Firstly, there is of course the reflexive exploration of our own assumptions and what we bring into the research process. All research has some autobiographical dimension and we need to be aware of this and how this relates to the research at hand, how it informs us and conditions us to respond in particular ways. But, being reflective is also being aware of the actual process of research, how we are conducting it, how we are working collaboratively with others, how we build trust and how we think it is going. In this regard, qualitative research is pretty iterative—it works in waves and cycles as we design a plan, put that plan into action, consider how effective we are being and responding to what we are finding and experiencing, only to put modified plans in place as we adjust various conditions and situations.

And this iterative nature leads us to a key element of being responsive to the field. Remember that old saying about a plan working till first contact. Well, I can think of no better mantra to carry us forward. This does mean that we have to be pretty open to the possibility of failure and to a wide range of possible futures for the project as we modify our plans and ideas. Our responsiveness needs to be inventive, creative and aligned to our goals and to the goals of our participants. Ultimately, being responsive to the field provides the awareness necessary to act in adaptive ways through the entirety of the project.

Here, being adaptive assumes responding to various limitations and unforeseen conditions. You can see this in natural selection as particular adaptive traits respond to limiting conditions within the environment. Successful adaptations lead to the success of a species within a particularly system and we see this adaptive trait continue. Something similar happens during our research. We put a plan into action, reflect upon its success and consider responses to the various dynamics we are experiencing. From a wide range of possible responses, we refine and put into action adaptations to our research that account for the changes and conditions we have found.

I’m reminded of Thomas Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model in which the process of learning is in essence a cycle that entails preparations for an experience, the experience itself, reflection of what happened through the experience, a response based on these reflections and adaptations for future action. This is a really good way to consider research, acting as a guide for conducting research that is attentive to the field in which we find ourselves. So, this process encourages active engagement with the field of direct and concrete experience, moments of reflection and consideration, and then action that responds and adapts to changes based upon our reflections.

These three states of awareness; reflection, responsiveness and adaptiveness should be fully present from your initial thoughts on your research topic to the final write up of research findings. I would hazard to say, in true qualitative sense, our engagement with them should carry on far afterwards. For there are more questions to ask, more ideas to explore, more stories to share. These three states of awareness also inform the research practices we carry forward, so, a record of our thoughts, ideas and musings are essential for the ways we conduct our inquiry. From your initial considerations of a project, memos and research journals should accompany you wherever you go so you can capture your reflective thoughts, your responsive ideas and your adaptive path forward.

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