FEATURE19 March 2024

Professor Cathy Urquhart in seven

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Professor Cathy Urquhart is professor emeritus of digital business at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and visiting professor at the department of informatics at Lund University. Her area of research centres on the use of digital innovation for societal good, and she is the author of Grounded theory for qualitative research: A practical guide.

In seven - cathy urquhart

1. How is qualitative research methodology evolving?

It has definitely evolved to respond to the increased diversity of data sources that are available, especially online sources. Given the preponderance of visuals on social media, I still find it surprising that researchers don’t do more analysis of visual data.
I’m quite excited about the advent of computational theory development in my own discipline of information systems, where people are actively thinking about how to leverage large data sets from various digital sources and use them in conjunction with qualitative data to build theory.

2. What role can grounded theory play in the current research landscape?

Grounded theory shows no sign of stopping, and has become much more popular in business and management disciplines in recent years. It endures because it is a proven method of building new theory and, at the same time, providing deep insights into the data.
Because grounded theory is useful where little or no previous theory exists, it’s perfect for the 21st century, where we find ourselves surrounded by fast-paced technological change that has huge impact on our everyday lives. Grounded theory also regards different types of data as entirely legitimate for sampling – Barney Glaser famously said ‘all is data’ – so we can sample social media data with ease.

3. Has the pandemic permanently altered qual research?

I’m not entirely sure. It inspired researchers to collect qualitative data online when there was no other way, and some will have found that this widens their data-collection options. Of course, these online options tend to strip valuable context from the data, so a face-to-face opportunity for data gathering will always give more richness.

4. What impact do you think artificial intelligence (AI) will have on qual methodologies?

One of the first things I asked ChatGPT to do was code some data for me. I was sorely disappointed with the results. Possibly I could train it to do better, but qualitative analysis is still more of an art than a science. While ChatGPT is relying on natural language models, it’s going to be limited to examples of coding on the internet – of which there are not many.

All that said, I am optimistic that as AI becomes embedded in our practices as an everyday tool, we can use it to further automate analysis tasks. In my experience, however, grounded theory is successful because of close engagement with the data – and, at the moment, it’s human engagement that allows grounded theory to make a solid creative contribution.

5. How can social media help address social challenges?

I think it depends on the social challenge you are talking about. Social media is a great leveller; it gives people a voice, but, at the same time, it is open to manipulation. It also allows like-minded people to find each other and organise for social change. At the same time, it can polarise people – X (formerly Twitter) being a great example.

6. Are you optimistic for the future potential of technology to address societal challenges?

The climate crisis is an existential one, and I think human behaviour has to change, rather than putting our faith in technological solutions. I worry that we think of all technology as a silver bullet, especially when it comes to climate change. Governments need to act. Internet use is actually responsible for 3.7% of carbon emissions, which is similar to air travel. Given that these emissions will go up, it is incumbent on us to think about how to reduce them.

7. Do you feel businesses are taking societal issues seriously enough?

Businesses vary tremendously in how they treat societal issues. One problem, especially with regard to sustainability, is that green products are marketed in such a way that consumers might feel they can make a difference by making green purchases, when, in fact, no amount of individual action will make an impact on climate change without social and political change.