Revisiting longitudinal qualitative studies in social work: considerations for design and methodological insights

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Ximena de-Toro Universidad Autónoma de Chile, Chile

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Gabriela Rubilar Universidad de Chile, Chile

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Mahia Saracostti Universidad de Valparaíso and Universidad de Chile, Chile

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This paper undertakes an analysis and discussion of the methodological challenges and insights derived from three longitudinal qualitative studies, all conducted in Chile during the COVID-19 pandemic and subject to comprehensive theoretical-methodological reflection processes centred on their respective designs. This analysis makes a significant contribution to interdisciplinary discussions within social research, with a particular emphasis on longitudinal trajectories.

First, we present a comparative analysis of three studies in social work, utilising Saldaña’s questions addressing changes and learning in longitudinal studies. The first study explores the labour trajectories of researchers, the second focuses on the educational trajectories of students, and the last examines therapeutic alliance trajectories between social workers and families within the child protection system.

Following this, we delve into the methodological decisions made by the research group during the execution of these longitudinal studies. This encompasses an examination of participant involvement, temporal definitions of the adopted designs, and the most suitable methodological tools for analysing change processes over time. The outcomes of this comparative analysis reveal the distinctive characteristics of the three longitudinal studies, providing insights into how the time dimension is explored within them. We highlight key criteria essential for consideration in longitudinal qualitative research, particularly regarding participants and methodology.

In conclusion, we advocate for an expanded reflection within the realm of longitudinal qualitative methodology, encompassing aspects such as design choices, approaches to data analysis, integration of technology in information processing, and strategies for maintaining participant engagement.

Abstract

This paper undertakes an analysis and discussion of the methodological challenges and insights derived from three longitudinal qualitative studies, all conducted in Chile during the COVID-19 pandemic and subject to comprehensive theoretical-methodological reflection processes centred on their respective designs. This analysis makes a significant contribution to interdisciplinary discussions within social research, with a particular emphasis on longitudinal trajectories.

First, we present a comparative analysis of three studies in social work, utilising Saldaña’s questions addressing changes and learning in longitudinal studies. The first study explores the labour trajectories of researchers, the second focuses on the educational trajectories of students, and the last examines therapeutic alliance trajectories between social workers and families within the child protection system.

Following this, we delve into the methodological decisions made by the research group during the execution of these longitudinal studies. This encompasses an examination of participant involvement, temporal definitions of the adopted designs, and the most suitable methodological tools for analysing change processes over time. The outcomes of this comparative analysis reveal the distinctive characteristics of the three longitudinal studies, providing insights into how the time dimension is explored within them. We highlight key criteria essential for consideration in longitudinal qualitative research, particularly regarding participants and methodology.

In conclusion, we advocate for an expanded reflection within the realm of longitudinal qualitative methodology, encompassing aspects such as design choices, approaches to data analysis, integration of technology in information processing, and strategies for maintaining participant engagement.

Key messages

  • The analysis of various phenomena is enriched by incorporating a perspective that captures the dynamism of social life.

  • This paper highlights key criteria for longitudinal qualitative research.

  • It is necessary to expand reflection within the field of longitudinal qualitative methodology.

Longitudinal qualitative research and social work

Current state

Longitudinal qualitative research (LQR) employs qualitative methods and techniques to explore phenomena that require temporal tracking (Holland et al, 2006). Neale and Bishop (2012), and Neale (2016) define LQR quite broadly, encompassing research conducted over time or in relation to time, which allows for the inclusion of information collected retrospectively or prospectively. Here, time is not merely linked to a trend, but it involves a cultural shift that deeply explores the intricate aspects of social life, encompassing subjective interpretations and proactive formation of social connections, cultural traditions, individual identities, and life trajectories (Neale and Flowerdew, 2003).

Similarly, according to Saldaña (2003), what defines LQR is process-oriented analysis, covering: (1) how time interacts with data production and analysis; (2) the variety of possible changes; and (3) the influences and effects of the context on the project participants. Following Neale’s (2021) perspective, LQR is situated within the interpretative tradition of qualitative research, combining the potent strength of longitudinal design with narrative interviewing, participatory methods, and ethnographic and case study methodologies.

LQR has been utilised in multiple disciplines, mainly in the fields of health (Stanziano et al, 2010; Calman et al, 2013; Balmer and Richards, 2017; Tuthill et al, 2020) and education (Weinstock et al, 2020; Herrmann et al, 2021), which emphasise the replication of trial results, the specificity of data labelling and the safekeeping of information in order to provide continuity and validity in the results.

Regarding LQR in social work, the longitudinal approach has a long tradition in social work intervention, for example monitoring ‘cases’ over time to produce scientific knowledge (Travi, 2011), or observing the effects of policies on poor communities or social programme users. This interest can be traced back to the early days of the discipline, with Mary Richmond’s work on case social work (1917). Additionally, historical studies with a generational focus, such as those conducted by Hareven (1974; 1982) and Elder (1998; 2003).

Ethnographies have also contributed to this perspective, ranging from classic approaches like Lewis’s (1966; 1969), to more contemporary works by Perlman (2006), Moser (2010), Moser and Felton (2010), and Han (2012). While longitudinal research has been prevalent in practice, its use as a methodological perspective in research is less common, but includes contributions from Saldaña (2013), Henderson et al (2012), Caïs et al (2014), Thomson and McLeod (2015), Derrington (2019), and others, who debate their scope and potential for research design and training new researchers.

This work

This article reviews three Chilean social work studies:

  1. Study on the Research Trajectories and Transitions of Chilean Social Workers;

  2. Modelling School Engagement, Contextual Factors, and Socio-Educational Achievements of Children and Adolescents: From the International Scientific Literature to a Mixed Longitudinal Study in the Chilean Context;

  3. Clinical Social Work with Caregivers in the Child Protection System: Study on the Therapeutic Alliance from a Relational and Contextual Perspective.

The three studies are LQR and are currently in the closing phases or results presentation, meaning that all three investigations have undergone a prior analysis of empirical results. This article aims to provide a reflective analysis of the design decisions and their implications in the fieldwork. Based on these reflections and the methodological design experiences and decisions from these three projects, the researchers pondered the design choices and adjustments made. The purpose of this is to showcase some lessons to consider when planning a longitudinal study.

The latter is relevant considering that methodology in LQR has not been sufficiently debated (Flick, 2004; Koro-Ljungberg and Bussing, 2013; Neale, 2016). Despite the growing reflexivity among researchers documenting their experiences and interest in incorporating longitudinal methodologies to the extent of calling it ‘a craft’ (Neale, 2021), the search for literature on LQR when a researcher decides to conduct a LQR is not as straightforward, especially regarding the analysis of longitudinal data.

Additionally, Koro-Ljungberg and Bussing (2013) emphasise that analysing the continuity or methodological modifications in longitudinal studies is a topic that requires further examination and can serve as useful tools to address ambiguity in LQR. This is because the design may significantly change over time due to the characteristics of the participants and the study’s context. According to the authors, avoiding or masking the changes made in LQR methodology can impact the reliability of the results. Therefore, it is the responsibility of researchers to document and analyse these changes to ensure the rigour and credibility of their findings.

Regarding the analysis, one approach to longitudinal qualitative data analysis is the trajectory approach (Grossoehme and Lipstein, 2016), focused on individual or group experiences over time. All three studies include a trajectory analysis in their proposal. According to Grossoehme and Lipstein (2016: 3) the ‘limited methods descriptions in many such studies may make it difficult for other researchers, especially those new to qualitative research, to reproduce the methods in their own work’.

Three Chilean studies

The three studies included a device composed of various data production and listening techniques. The term ‘listening device’ was introduced by Cornejo et al (2011) to denote theoretical/methodological tools that make it possible to articulate the research process by systematising reflective work, a core epistemological aspect of the subjective nature of qualitative research. Listening devices reveal the polyphony of voices (such as researchers, assistants, transcribers, participants) involved in the knowledge construction process.

Study 1: Study on the Research Trajectories and Transitions of Chilean Social Workers

This research seeks to produce a longitudinal reconstruction of the trajectories of people who have contributed to the generation of social work knowledge in Chile. This is an unprecedented study, not only because of its goal of reconstructing the longitudinal trajectories of those who have enriched social work knowledge in our country, but also due to its design and duration (nearly one decade). This methodology follows up subjects over time using recurring interviews (Rubilar, 2013), with social workers undertaking academic research. The study has included 72 individuals and two group panels. It started in 2008 without a longitudinal design (Rubilar, 2009), adopting the LQR approach from 2013 onward with a biographical methodological focus. This was possible because the researcher remained the same throughout this period and kept the possibility open during the initial meeting to contact the participants for future interviews (see all techniques in Table 1).

Table 1:

Research trajectories and transitions: techniques used to follow up researchers (12 years)

Technique Number Time period Objective
Interviews 72 social workers who conduct research and who differ in terms of geographical area of residence in Chile, generation and gender 5–6 years with up to 3 repetitions or meetings with each To reconstruct and longitudinally analyse the research trajectories and transitions experienced by a set of Chilean social workers. To meet this objective, we expect to follow the tradition of written testimonies, constructed upon the basis of biographical-narrative interviews.
Virtual follow-up (websites and press) 72 follow-ups (1 per interviewee) 3–6 months To describe the interactions that emerge over time between study participants and researchers
Testimonies 72 narratives produced upon the basis of the interviews 3–6 months after interview transcription To map the research and the research networks of social work researchers in Chile
Panel discussion 11–12 participants in two discussion meetings
  • Month 1 2020

  • Month 2 2022

To conduct a comparative analysis of social work research considering three aspects: gender, generation and geographical-territorial location
Bibliographical and document review 7 documents per participant on average, 504 in total 2018–22 To map the research and the research networks of social work researchers in Chile

Source: Own work based on Fondecyt Regular 1190257 and 1230605 projects.

A key dimension of the design was the choice of intervals for data collection. For individuals, a period of five to six years was established, since this matches the national academic evaluation process for science and, in some universities, the timetable for promotion. Interviews take place over 14 years, with up to three interviews per subject, scheduled in 2008, 2013 and 2018/19. The authors used intentional sampling, with at least 40% of subjects participating in multiple interviews. The possibility for repeated interviews was suggested by Valles (2002) in several of their studies, which they defined as conducting interviews in more than one session. Repeated interviews or surveys has been used before in Chile, by researchers like Cornejo et al (2013) and Carvacho et al (2013) in studies on trauma and memory, although with more limited intervals (typically two to three years).

The group interviews were spaced two years apart with panels in 2020 and 2022. Ibáñez’s (2000) classic guidelines for groups (first published in 1979) were followed, with some additions from Canales (2006). Socio-structural saturation sampling (Ortí, 2000; Valles, 2002) was used to select group participants. Both panels included the same participants.

The data analysis process is conducted on the same questions that are repeated in the long-range restudy (five to six years later). Using a single-case design where interviews from time 1, 2 and 3 are integrated, this was possible because although there was no longitudinal design initially, contact with the participants was maintained over time through researcher networks and/or social networks.

Study 2: Modelling School Engagement, Contextual Factors, and Socio-Educational Achievements of Children and Adolescents: From the International Scientific Literature to a Mixed Longitudinal Study in the Chilean Context

This is mixed longitudinal research, situated in the field of intervention research on social work in schools, which is currently in its third year. The quantitative phase was conducted using an online platform that facilitated the administration of the questionnaires of school engagement to students from primary and secondary grades (de-Toro et al, 2021; Saracostti et al, 2022).

The qualitative phase aims to explore and analyse the meanings that children and adolescents construct regarding the components and interrelationships described in trajectories of school engagement, contextual–relational factors and academic achievements, as well as to explore and analyse how these meanings change over time over the course of three years. To do this, the children have analysed quantitative data in group and generated data on school engagement in their schools through interviews and observations they conducted with their peers, teachers and parents (see all techniques in Table 2).

Table 2:

School engagement modelling: techniques used with child co-researchers in years 1 and 2

Technique Number Time period Objective
Field notebook 40 Month 1 to month 18 To keep a record of the various reflections that emerged throughout the process
Interviews 3 interviews (led by children or adolescents) with family members (3 interviews in total) with teachers (6 interviews in total); and with classmates (10 interviews in total). The second year we added a similar number of interviews. Month 5 to month 8 (year 1 and 2) To collect information on each of the dimensions of school engagement within their schools
Transcriber’s notes 104 transcriptions Month 1 to month 18 To collect the impressions of the transcriber, who also facilitated the co-research process, as well as the relationships between the facilitator and the co-researchers (children and adolescents)
Semi-structured interview conducted over the telephone or with a messaging application Approximately 1 monthly contact (in one year/semester) per participant, 720 contacts in total Month 1 to month 18 To follow up and support the child and adolescent co-researchers when they collect data through interviews or other techniques
Discussion groups 13 per group of children and adolescents Month 1 to month 18 To discuss and choose data collection strategies. To discuss the initial results of the child/adolescent co-researchers; to design result dissemination strategies

Source: Own work based on Fondecyt Regular 1210172 project.

In the qualitative phase, the authors implemented a participatory action research approach according to which children and adolescents are integrated as co-researchers (Bergold and Thomas, 2012; Reimer and McLean, 2015; Zúniga-González et al, 2016; Saracostti and de Toro, 2023) with 64 children placed in eight groups from six schools located in central Chile. Thus, the co-researchers have played an active role in data collection, going beyond being mere informants, consultants or members of an advisory group. Their involvement includes tasks such as gathering data, accessing or recruiting other participants, and the dissemination of results. The research technique used has been thematic discussion groups with an adult facilitator, which has allowed for the research of both the temporal and cross-sectional dimensions of the interaction process between the child researcher and the adult researcher regarding the formation of school engagement over time. This, in turn, has highlighted power relations between the actors (adults and children) in the knowledge-building process. Each group has addressed the same topics related to the formation of school engagement over time, its facilitators, obstacles and changes, although the depth of discussions may have varied as each session constitutes a unique and non-reproducible communicative exchange. The use of a thematic script has ensured comparability over time.

During the first year, the following phases of the research were carried out, which were repeated sequentially in the subsequent years: training the children as co-investigators, data collection by the children, qualitative and quantitative data analysis by the children, analysis by the adult research team using thematic analysis methodology (Braun and Clarke, 2006) and dissemination of results. At the time of writing, the comparative analysis of year 1 and year 2 was being conducted using time-ordered matrices. The researchers plan to continue with the project for two more years.

Study 3: Clinical Social Work with Caregivers in the Child Protection System: Study on the Therapeutic Alliance from a Relational and Contextual Perspective

This study was the doctoral thesis of the researcher and sought to examine the trajectories of the parental therapeutic alliance between social workers and caregivers in child protective services (de-Toro and Sharim, 2023; de-Toro et al, 2023). The author adopted a longitudinal, multiple case design, which involves a systematic and intensive examination of a number of specific cases over time through in-depth data collection and multiple information sources, in order to offer a detailed description of the case or of topics related to the cases (Creswell, 2014). A case was defined as a social worker–caregiver dyad. In total, the author selected six dyads by convenience sampling, using the typical case criterion for caregiver selection and whole population sampling for the social workers (Flick, 2007). The author selected dyads at different points of the intervention (zero, four and eight months) in order to cover the largest period possible and thus reach a clearer understanding of alliance trajectories. The dyads were followed up for 11 months using a device composed of several data production techniques described in Table 3.

Table 3:

Therapeutic alliance: techniques used to follow up the therapeutic alliance (11 months)

Technique Number Time period Objective
Field notebook n/a Month 1 to month 11 To keep a record of the various reflections that emerged throughout the process.
Passive participant observation of one of the dyad’s sessions 6 dyad observation sessions Month 1 This was the first technique to be applied, since the authors sought to observe interaction and communication in the dyad without much prior knowledge about the participants’ relational experiences.
In-depth interviews 12 interviews with caregivers and 12 interviews with social workers; 24 interviews in total Month 2 and month 7 To address the relational experience between social workers and caregivers. In the second interview, some questions from the initial interview were reused in order to recap the participant’s experiences in the therapeutic context over the last five months.
Final interview 12 interviews in total Month 10 To generate opportunities for receiving feedback and discussing the results with each participant to determine the extent to which the researcher’s initial interpretations match the experiences lived by the participants.
Transcriber’s notes 12 transcriptions (initial interview) Month 2 To collect the impressions of the transcriber, also a social worker, about the relationship of the dyad and about the relationship between the participant and the researcher.
Semi-structured interview conducted over the telephone or with a messaging application Approximately 2 monthly contacts per participant, 240 contacts in total Month 1 to month 10 To follow up the participants after each dyad meeting. Its use is justified because, even though some attitudes can be understood through interviews that collect information about the past, such impressions result from interactions between various experiences that the participants may have over time.
Discussion group 1 meeting Month 9 To discuss the initial results with a team of three social workers.
Review of the reports submitted to family courts 6 family files Month 11 To obtain information about other significant moments of the interaction and about the results of the intervention as reported to the courts.

Source: Own work based on corresponding author’s doctoral project.

The research adopted a clinical approach to research in the social sciences (Mancovsky, 2011; Souto, 2014) that recognises a subject who conducts research and who is part of a reality that becomes object of research, operating from their subjectivity and the specific socio-historical context where they undertake the study.

Data were examined using longitudinal trajectory analysis (Grossoehme and Lipstein, 2016), which is compatible with all epistemological approaches and analysis techniques. It is advisable to adopt this approach when the purpose of the research is to understand individual experiences or processes over time. Specifically, the author used thematic analysis by integrating and triangulating the data yielded by a number of tools at multiple points of the process (Braun and Clarke, 2006). In line with recommendations for the analysis of qualitative trajectories, the author used matrices to facilitate analytic work with a variety of information sources at different moments (Grossoehme and Lipstein, 2016). Specifically, the literature recommends the use of sequential matrices sorted by time, since time-ordered visualisations help to preserve the chronological flow and indicate which perceptions led to others. After completing the data collection and coding for each unit of analysis, the author began the longitudinal analysis. At this point, the researcher focused on whether thematic groups or categories changed over time and how, paying close attention to missing data. This is not necessarily a coding deficit, but a variation in the signal over time.

All studies have the ethical approval of Universidad de Valparaíso (Study 2), Universidad de Chile (Study 1) and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Study 3)

Methodology

This article is the result of a secondary analysis of primary qualitative results, aimed at providing a more comprehensive description of a particular phenomenon (in this case, trajectories), including its ambiguities and differences. Secondary analysis is understood as any subsequent analysis of a set of primary data that offers new interpretations or additional conclusions. Following Scribano and de Sena (2009), this may involve a new research question or an alternative perspective on the original question. According to them, a secondary analysis is understood as the use of information elaborated by another researcher or by the same researcher in a different data production context, from a different investigative strategy than the original. This resembles what is known as qualitative meta-analysis for the meta-interpretation approach (Weed, 2005; Timulak, 2009). This approach allows for a broader and deeper understanding of the studied phenomenon by combining and analysing data from different sources and contexts, highlighting differences between studies that result from distinct data collection methods or even different researchers (Weed, 2005).

Here, we specifically reflect on trajectories based on Saldaña’s (2003) questions about changes and learning in longitudinal studies: ‘what differs from one pool of data to the next?’; ‘what remains the same?’; ‘what are the dynamics of participant changes over time?’; ‘what assertions about participant changes can be made as analysis progresses?’; ‘who are the subjects of change?’. Then we hold two discussion sessions to compare our analysis and reflect on the researchers’ experiences in designing and conducting longitudinal trajectory research. Subsequently, a review session of Neale’s texts (2016; 2021) was conducted, which allowed updating some of the previously analysed issues and distinguishing between short- and long-range studies. The results of these discussions were recorded by the lead author of this article to be analysed.

This aligns with the concept of reflexivity highlighted by Berger (2015). Reflexivity is underscored as a substantial contribution at various stages of the knowledge generation process and as a quality control strategy in research. It is considered an essential component and process in knowledge construction, involving the consideration of the researcher’s own perspectives, the research process, and the conditions of research production as integral parts of the knowledge built about aspects or phenomena of social reality (Cornejo and Salas, 2011).

In conclusion, reflection and reflexivity are essential aspects of research, especially in longitudinal studies seeking to understand trajectories over time. Considering the researcher’s perspectives and the conditions of knowledge production enriches the quality and understanding of the studied phenomenon. Additionally, the secondary analysis of primary qualitative results contributes to a more holistic and comprehensive view of the phenomenon under research.

Discussion

The following are the reflections made by the researchers regarding the questions posed by Saldaña (2003) with the aim of developing a longitudinal perspective in qualitative research, as well as the contributions of Neale (2016; 2021). Subsequently, we will proceed with the analysis regarding methodological adjustments and the lessons learned in relation to the design in LQR.

What differs from one pool of data to the next?

In study 1, of people who have contributed to knowledge generation in the social work field, the research participants’ and the researcher’s views on gender and gender inequality that have undergone the largest changes. Intersectional perspectives have also contributed to these transformation processes, which are strongly influenced by the topic of geopolitical positionality (Muñiz Terra and Rubilar, 2022) as an essential category for observing research trajectories over time. Also, there are changes at multiple levels: macro, involving political and economic aspects of a more structural nature; meso, with an emphasis on institutional contexts and policy frameworks that promote equality and foster access to education, science and research; and micro, with transformations in participants’ biographies due to becoming mothers, completing an educational cycle, and entering or leaving the labour market, among other transitions.

In study 2, the longitudinal nature of the study revealed changes in socio-educational trajectories that were influenced by the pandemic and lockdown measures during the first year and subsequently by the reopening of schools in the second year. Specifically, feelings of isolation and missing peers and school during the first year transitioned to contradictory reactions in the second year, characterised by the identification of violent events, mental health issues and problems in the school climate. It is worth noting that in Chile, schools were closed for an extended period under very restrictive measures. This had a profound impact on the socio-emotional development of children and adolescents due to the lockdowns, lack of contact with their peers, the economic situation of families, grief from the loss of a family member, and overexposure to social media. However, it is also important to recognise that this situation of violence is not something that only occurs in school contexts, and the pandemic may not be its only cause. Another consequence was the significant increase in school absenteeism after the schools reopened. It is worth noting that public schools serve children from more socially vulnerable backgrounds, and the closure of schools weakened the family–school involvement due to the stress families were experiencing. Additionally, the difficulties children had with remote learning led to a gradual disengagement (Lewis, 2020; Herrmann et al, 2021; Kardelis et al, 2021; UNICEF-PNUD-OIT, 2021).

In study 3, trajectories differed between dyads where the caregiver felt obligated to enter that therapeutic space and those where the caregiver, despite being obligated to attend, had high expectations of the professional support offered and was not being accused of lacking parenting skills because they were not the parent who had lost custody of the child. Initially, the therapeutic alliance is characterised by high tension derived from the obligatory nature of the intervention, the predominance of research work, fear of losing custody of their children, and a feeling of exclusion from the decisions made regarding their children. Even though some trajectories are predominantly marked by tension, others exhibit the establishment and strengthening of a collaborative and positive relationship where the bond is reinforced, shared goals and tasks are achieved, and caregivers develop more confidence in the therapeutic space.

What remains the same?

In study 1, as expected in longitudinal research, the research participants’ lines of investigation and theoretical-conceptual approaches remain consistent over time. However, some theoretical crossroads are observed, as described by Neale (2021), when analysing unexpected or somewhat unsuccessful trajectories

In study 2, participants maintain a critical perspective towards the results of the school engagement surveys, which come from the quantitative phase of the mixed longitudinal study. They consider that the results are more favourable than the reality, reaffirming the importance of interpreting quantitative data with children and adolescents in the school context. Additionally, the type of participation remains consistent depending on the educational level; younger students show more fluid communication, while adolescent students find it more challenging to express themselves verbally and tend to be more reserved. Therefore, alternative strategies for peer interaction and interaction with adult facilitators in the research process are needed.

In study 3, professionals continue to emphasise the importance of fostering a positive relationship with families, regardless of any changes that may occur concerning the user, the family or the therapeutic relationship. They also maintain an appreciation for the resources of individuals, in line with a strengths-based perspective that guides the intervention.

Who are the subjects of change?

In all three studies, subjects of change are acknowledged not only among the research participants but also among the researchers and teams involved in data production or analysis, including young researchers and university students. Additionally, organisations such as schools and social programmes are affected and transformed by the processes of reflexivity that arise when introducing a specific theme into a space.

In study 1, the subjects of change are the protagonists of this study, which has been conducted for slightly over a decade; specifically, 72 social workers, including the researcher. These changes also involve technical staff and other collaborators who have shared their multiple analytic approaches and incorporated new perspectives (for instance, feminist and intersectional positions, which entered the process in 2018).

In study 2, the subjects of change are 64 children and adolescents who, in a participatory and intergenerational study, exhibit a range of trajectories of engagement in their learning process and with their schools. Changes have also affected both the adult and young researchers who participate as facilitators in the co-research processes. All these subjects contribute multiple analytic approaches and incorporate new perspectives, which has been the case for intergenerational studies and those that allow children to play a leading role in knowledge construction.

In study 3, both the participants and the dyadic relationship undergo changes over time. For professionals, the change occurs as the interview space transforms into a space for critical self-observation in their practice, while caregivers experience changes mainly related to the judicial process or family dynamics. As a consequence, the therapeutic alliance also changes. Professionals highlighted the importance of being able to stop and reflect on the change processes that they were facilitating, which boosted their interest in strengthening their relational competences; consequently, two of them decided to pursue specialisation programmes.

In all three investigations, the researcher also underwent changes and learned throughout the research process. Berger (2015) mentions certain issues that may arise when one researches from within (which occurs when one shares an experience with the participants, in this case, one’s profession), and this applies to studies 1 and 3. Even though this approach has positive aspects, such as increasing rapport, trust, communication or knowledge about the situation-problem, the researcher runs the risk of privileging her own hypotheses, judgements or preconceived ideas about clinical practice, which may eventually constitute a barrier affecting the relationship established with the participants.

What are the dynamics of participant changes over time? What assertions about participant changes can be made as analysis progresses?

In all three studies, it was observed that change is directly linked to contextual factors related to the variables of interest.

In the case of study 1, the participants’ dynamics were directly linked to their trajectories; some of them retired during the follow-up process, while others changed jobs or were promoted to higher positions. Longitudinal studies let us conclude that a one-time perspective on the processes affecting individuals is insufficient, and that it is advisable to periodically evaluate the actions developed with different groups.

For example, in the case of study 2, the participants’ perceptions were impacted by the closure of schools due to the pandemic. It was also essential to consider that changes associated with life trajectories, socio-emotional and physical development, and the principle of progressive autonomy play a significant role, showing that a year in the life of a child or an adolescent is marked by changes that impact the outcomes. Here, the perspectives of actors regarding children and adolescents’ involvement in knowledge construction also changed, challenging the adult-centric logic that prevails in research and policy formulation, where the voices of children and adolescents are rarely integrated (Garcia-Quiroga and Agoglia, 2020; Saracostti and de Toro, 2023).

In the case of study 3, it was observed that although the obligation and the child’s departure from home imply that the relationship starts with tension, in some dyads, these feelings of discomfort diminished as the intervention progressed, revealing a stronger bond over time. It is thus concluded that it is not possible to account for a common trajectory, and factors related to the cause, the caregiver, other family members and the professional lead the trajectories to take various directions. From this, the notion of alliance emerges as a dialectical and dynamic process, rather than a single moment. In circumstances where the alliance is constantly changing and time is not necessarily an explanatory factor, having more time does not necessarily make the alliance stronger. In such cases, a uni-temporal design that focuses on a single specific moment would not be sufficient to capture the dynamics and complexities of the changing alliance over time. A longitudinal design, on the other hand, allows for the observation of changes and patterns in the alliance relationship across multiple points in time, providing a more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of its evolution and fluctuations.

Design decisions and adjustments

From the experiences of the researchers, several considerations were drawn when designing an LQR (see Table 4).

Table 4:

Criteria to consider in LQR

Item To consider
Participants/sample
  • Feasibility criteria when projecting the sample

  • The amount of information collected per participant when projecting the sample

  • Teams and time for sample management and maintaining contacts over time

  • Incentives to keep participants engaged over time

  • Strategies for maintaining research teams that have direct contact with participants

  • Strategies for addressing participant attrition over time

  • Ethical considerations due to strengthening the relationship with the participants

Methodology
  • Flexible methodologies that address changes in the context and the specific characteristics of the participants

  • Make adjustments to the instruments according to each participant’s particular characteristics

  • Integrate information technologies to strengthen methodologies and facilitate their implementation

  • The most suitable methodological devices for analysing change processes over time

In relation to the participants, the following considerations are suggested.

  1. Feasibility criteria when projecting the sample: this is relevant because, in longitudinal research, the amount of information that can be collected can be significant. It is advisable to have a manageable number of participants that the research teams can sustain over time. External factors, such as the pandemic, may also impact participant recruitment. For example, in study 2, the number of participants initially planned was reduced due to the challenges of contacting institutions like schools during quarantine.

  2. Amount of information collected per participant when projecting the sample: linked to the previous point, it is pertinent to consider strategies to organise, store and systematise the amount of information collected for each participant, especially when frequent contacts and various data collection techniques are planned. Since the volume of information per participant can be greater than in a single-time study, working with a reduced number of participants can be a viable option. For instance, in study 3, a reduced number of participants was chosen, considering the depth of analysis typically sought in psychotherapeutic processes, which often involves smaller samples (Krause and Altimir, 2016).

  3. Teams and time for sample management and maintaining contacts over time: planning should include the time needed to manage contacts with institutions and maintain them over time. This can be challenging, especially if changes occur in the professional teams responsible for contacting participants through institutions like schools or protective programmes, as seen in studies 2 and 3.

  4. Resources and time for maintaining research teams: referring to the teams that act as facilitators or have contact with participants, as staff turnover can affect the trust built and the richness of information derived from that trust, particularly critical for long-term longitudinal studies such as those described in this article.

  5. Incentives to keep participants engaged over time: due to the potential weariness experienced by participants from various factors, it is essential to consider strategies to maintain motivation and involvement in the research. Some of the strategies used in the studies analysed included collaborative production of research reports, monetary incentives, offering advice on relevant topics, nurturing relationships with participants’ host institutions and ensuring a strong one-on-one bond with participants. For instance, in the studies on research trajectories and therapeutic alliance, direct participation in interviews or data production, sharing discussions outside the study scope with professionals and offering advice when requested by caregivers proved helpful. In study 2, the school engagement research, having a young facilitator regularly contacting children through digital media, who recognised and appreciated the participants as co-researchers, significantly improved the process. In study 1, the authors adopted measures such as early involvement of participants in the project design, sharing results through updated testimonies, creating additional outreach products, and recognising the participants’ academic work and potential future outcomes.

  6. Strategies to address participant attrition over time: inevitably, there will be a decline in the sample size due to external factors or internal decisions made by participants. Therefore, it is recommended to anticipate potential attrition during the research’s design and develop alternative measures in case participant dropout impacts the study results. In study 1, two participants stated that they did not want to continue in the study, and two participants passed away before the next interview, which reaffirms the importance of starting the study with older generations. Additionally, some strategies that proved useful in study 3 to address potential participant burnout were involving the participants in a data analysis session, in a way that allowed them to reconnect with the purpose of the research and its impact on their professional trajectory.

  7. Ethical considerations due to strengthening the relationship with the participants: as time goes by, the bond with the participants is strengthened, and with increased trust, new ethical dilemmas arise that need to be anticipated depending on the subject matter. In study 3, caregivers requested counselling from the researcher or required emotional support during family crises, and the researcher had to act assertively to avoid affecting the existing relationship with the professional role. In study 2, dilemmas emerged when facilitators became aware of complex situations at the school level, and a good strategy was to address these dilemmas in team meetings. Additionally, the way children get to know the researcher/facilitator is crucial to what it means to be informed, and therefore, in longitudinal studies, the question of continuous consent becomes relevant (Graham et al, 2013).

  8. Adopting LQR after the study starts: study 1 started in 2008, but only adopted LQR five years later. The author noted good engagement and a desire for more interviews from the participants and, at that point, implemented an LQR design that has been maintained as at the time of writing. Minimal adjustments were needed because the initial questions were already open-ended and connections with the initial participants remained intact. Studies 2 and 3 did have an LQR from the beginning, so the adjustments were made more in order to adapt to the characteristics of the participants, especially in study 2 with the participatory action research methodology that starts with flexible criteria and allows the methodologies to be adapted according to the participants.

Methodological recommendations

Consider flexible methodologies that accommodate changes in the context

Neither people nor context are static. For example, an adjustment that had to be made in all three projects was transitioning to virtual methods to prevent contagion during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, interviews or group discussions during the full lockdown period were conducted online using the Zoom platform. This decision was implemented after obtaining authorisation from both the institutional review board (responsible for safeguarding the project’s confidentiality agreements) and the sponsor institution.

Adjustments in the instruments according to the particular characteristics of each participant

There were also changes to the research instruments to better adapt to the characteristics and interests of the participants over time. In the case of study 2, initially, the students were required to conduct interviews. However, it was observed that this methodology might not necessarily align with what the students wanted to do. As a result, in the second year, they were given the freedom to choose a data production technique according to their preferences. This decision was made considering that qualitative, flexible and creative methodologies are increasingly popular in social research with children and adolescents (Tisdall et al, 2009; Mannay, 2017; Saracostti and de Toro, 2023). Another adjustment was the role of the adult researchers as facilitators. Adult-centric positions or opinions were identified and adjusted, since they may have detracted from the position and participation of the children and adolescents as co-researchers. Some of their most relevant recommendations refer to the importance of using simple language and open-ended questions as well as studying general aspects before tackling more specific ones.

In study 3 the instruments were adapted, since the initial ones, which were to be repeatedly administered over time, were modified upon the basis of the participants’ first experiences and their understanding of the items proposed. The mode of contact also changed, as voice messaging was added when the telephone call could not be established.

Integrating information technologies to strengthen methodologies and facilitate their implementation

The pandemic forced us to become familiar with information and communications technologies (ICTs), which turned out to be beneficial for all projects. In the case of study 2, this enabled researchers to enrich their planning with playful activities for groups and individuals, conducted online with mobile devices; furthermore, they made adjustments for asynchronous and synchronous communication, among other changes. According to Gibbs et al (2020), technological advances or the use of ICTs can generate opportunities for children and adolescents to engage in a variety of practices. For their part, ludic activities are regarded as valuable resources for transforming a teaching–learning process into a more enjoyable and participatory moment, since they break with traditional models and dynamise learning environments, fostering creativity, cooperation, self-knowledge, participation and socialising, among other relevant aspects that influence student development (Piedra Vera, 2018).

In the case of research with adults (studies 1 and 3), conducting virtual meetings was a facilitator due to logistical issues and transportation costs involved in moving to another location. Using virtual platforms within a context of isolation while having a common experience with the participants – for example, the emotional consequences of the pandemic and difficulties in fulfilling parenting tasks – increased rapport with them.

In study 1, three design adjustments were identified. First, complementing the virtual follow-up of the interviewees with an online follow-up that initially included more formal networks such as LinkedIn as well as research portals such as ORCID and ResearchGate, and which was extended to include more personal social media with a public impact like Facebook and Instagram. Over the years, other technological elements have been incorporated into the trajectory follow-up process, with quick formats also being adopted to maintain communication and engagement with the participants, including WhatsApp groups and invitations to reciprocal activities for disseminating the science and knowledge produced. Finally, given the absence of a repertoire of these types of formats for biographical-narrative interviews, the authors conducted a virtual technical test with one interviewee and then made the necessary adjustments and adaptations to protect the reflectivity and closeness that had characterised this study up to that point.

The most suitable methodological devices for analysing change processes over time

It was not easy for any of the researchers to explore methods of data analysis in LQR as the literature is limited, especially in Spanish. In the case of studies 2 and 3, the use of matrices was initially proposed, and the use of framework matrices provided by qualitative data analysis software like NVivo proved to be useful to summarise or condense data in a grid with rows for case nodes. However, in study 3, which had a considerable amount of information from various sources, using matrices became somewhat complex. As a result, constructing timelines of the dyad with the analysis of information collected session by session proved to be useful.

One difficulty that arose was that when conducting thematic analysis at the end, with all the information of each participant sequentially ordered, it posed problems to distinguish the three time points (t1, t2 and t3). Therefore, it is suggested to conduct separate analyses for each time point (t1, t2 and t3) rather than doing it all at the end. This way, the analysis can be conducted without the ‘contamination’ of previously collected information.

In study 1, another adjustment involved merging the testimonies from all interview sessions into a single univocal text, which blurred the passage of the years and updated or adjusted the information delivered by the participants at different temporal points. Initially, repeated interviews were provided as separate testimonies, labelled ‘a’ or ‘b’ to differentiate the initial interview from the follow-up one; however, since 2018, when a third interview session was added, the authors evaluated the need to merge both testimonies and integrate into the narrative the edited and developed contents of the third interview, following the narrative production guidelines advanced by Cornejo et al (2019) and Rubilar (2009).

Conclusions

The analytical exercise in this work brought together three research experiences in diverse areas within social work, which allowed for a revisiting of the data and the methodological proposal. Specifically, our aim was to understand processes of change and analyse the impact of design with time-based monitoring. In the three studies, we observed how the analysis of various phenomena is enriched by incorporating a perspective that captures the dynamism of social life, in contrast to studies that only examine a single snapshot. A longitudinal look allowed us to examine the changes, developments and patterns over time. By following the participants for an extended period, the researchers were able to capture the complexities and fluctuations in their experiences, behaviours and social interactions. This longitudinal approach allowed them to observe how different factors and events interacted and influenced the lives of the participants, leading to a deeper understanding of the processes in action. In contrast, studies of a single point in time can offer valuable insights into specific moments or situations, but may not necessarily provide a complete picture of the broader context or evolution of phenomena and its changes over time. The longitudinal perspective allows researchers to capture and analyse the fluidity and ongoing nature of social phenomena, leading to richer and more nuanced findings.

Regarding the processes of change, Saldaña (2003) proposes several challenges: being sensitive to all types of change, analysing the relationships among changes and determining how to combine this analysis into a coherent report. For Thomson and McLeod (2015: 245) LQR ‘is increasingly understood as a sensibility and orientation rather than a specific research design’. However, from this secondary analysis made by the three researchers in the context of this paper, a focus solely on changes over time was not enough, and it was necessary to take into account methodological considerations different from those of other single-time-point research. Otherwise, the opportunity to draw conclusions about trajectories may be missed. Thus, research designs must be planned to capture this sensitivity.

One key objective should be to protect the bond established with the participants from the start of the data production process, taking into account participant engagement to avoid burnout and sharing results without excluding their political and socio-cultural contexts. This requires bolstering research designs with effective mechanisms that increase engagement over time. In addition, it is relevant to incorporate strategies that increase the feeling of being a participant in a space and a topic that are relevant not only to the researcher. When the objective and meaning of the study are shared, commitment is strengthened. Similarly, international research with children shows that giving children the chance to participate in various initiatives related to their well-being, education and development can strengthen their self-esteem, sense of empowerment and decision making in aspects that involve them (Cuevas-Parra, 2021).

Furthermore, with respect to research design, it was effective to adopt a flexible approach that enabled the researchers to react to the participants’ changes over time; not only cognitive and socio-emotional changes in children and adolescents, but also contextual changes like health or social crises. All three studies needed to adapt to remote work during the pandemic. This was initially regarded as a mostly negative situation, with researchers even planning to suspend their studies, but this was ultimately not a critical issue.

The above is in line with the points made by Adom et al (2020) and Eigege and Kennedy (2021), for whom the crisis derived from the pandemic has prompted the need to innovate, forcing researchers to explore nontraditional approaches; therefore, it should not be regarded as a barren field for research. Building trust at the beginning of remote research, when one does not personally know the participants, is an especially challenging issue; however, the studies on the therapeutic alliance and school commitment revealed that time plays a key role and that online interactions need not be limiting. Even more so, in study 3, logistics were facilitated by an in-person meeting and having a common experience such as the pandemic. This strengthened the bonds among the actors, since meetings with other people were appreciated within the context of strict lockdown measures. Without a doubt, this global context allowed for reimagining new norms for qualitative research in social sciences, particularly in sensitive contexts (Mwambari et al, 2022) which can be useful in LQR.

As for flexibility, the multiple phases of data production enabled the researchers to improve their research techniques by adapting them to make them more relevant to the subjects’ present situation. In doing this, the researchers recognised the limitations of designs generated considering only the researchers’ logic, without taking into account the participation of all involved. It was also pertinent to incorporate a variety of techniques aimed at facilitating the construction of the participants’ views and experiences (Lundy and McEvoy, 2012), especially when studying the experiences of children or when they are included as co-researchers (Clark, 2005; Darbyshire et al, 2005; Kilpatrick et al, 2007) and for vulnerable populations, considering the cognitive impact of poverty and/or other transgressions.

Thus, it is concluded about the importance of reconceptualising, contrasting and making pragmatic adjustments that, contrary to a pragmatic view that conceives the design of research as a static element, can contribute not only to the methodology and phenomenological analysis but also to ethical considerations and the rigour of the investigations. Additionally, it can generate and/or enhance skills in the researchers who conduct them (Lawrence, 2022).

To capture the notion of trajectory in more detail, it was useful to incorporate participants who were at different points: children of a range of ages, dyads at zero, four and eight months of intervention, and at least three generations of social workers at the beginning, middle and end of their career as researchers.

Beyond diverse techniques and flexible designs, what is not flexible when one wishes to implement a longitudinal research project is the inclusion of temporality in the analysis and the definition of multiple time periods. This approach makes it possible to capture not only two separate moments in isolation, but also the events taking place between those two moments as well as any changes in the participants or the meanings attached to the topic of interest. The subjects and the context change over time; therefore, the meanings, attributions, propositions and conclusions do not remain static. Likewise, the person who researches and their interpretations also change. This means that it is a challenge to detect said changes in the analysis, striving to ensure that the data are not examined as belonging to a single moment or as snapshots of two or more different moments. A useful technique for making visible the change process consisted in returning to the data at a later moment in order to generate a reflection on information that had already been collected.

In this regard, it is important to point out that the same amount of time is experienced differently by each participant. One year is not the same in the life of a child, an adult or a caregiver within the legal protection system. Hence, rather than the duration of a research, we must consider the words of Saldaña (2003) regarding the inclusion of time as an analysis variable and the importance of the processual perspective when studying trajectories. However, like the approaches to conducting longitudinal qualitative analyses, this is a point that requires further research. In addition, it is necessary to consider the issue of managing the large amounts of information yielded by longitudinal studies. This poses a challenge to research teams that is just as relevant as the need to maintain stable research teams over time.

Based on our findings, we conclude that it is necessary to expand reflection within the field of longitudinal qualitative methodology, including topics such as design choices, how to perform data analyses and how to use technology in information processing (Gobo, 2005). Additionally, Neale (2021) states that there are different ethical considerations when walking alongside individuals, which is an area that requires further exploration for future studies. Given that the scientific validity of qualitative methodology continues to be challenged, reflecting a limited conception of science (Gergen et al, 2015), efforts to cement its legitimacy must go on.

Funding

This work was supported by ANID under the following grants:

ANID/FONDECYT Regular 1210172: Modelización del compromiso escolar, factores contextuales (familiares y escolares) y logros socioeducativos de niños, niñas y adolescentes (NNA): desde la literatura científica internacional a un estudio longitudinal mixto en el contexto chileno / Modelling of school engagement, contextual factors (family and school) and socio-educational achievements of children and adolescents: from the international scientific literature to a mixed longitudinal study in the Chilean Context.

ANID/FONDEF IT23i0002: Sistema de evaluación, seguimiento y promoción del compromise escolar y factores contextuales (escolares y familiares) para la protección de las trayectorias educativas / System for the evaluation, monitoring and promotion of school engagement and contextual factors (family and school) for the protection of educational trajectories.

ANID/FONDECYT Regular 1190257: Estudio longitudinal de trayectorias y transiciones investigativas de trabajadores sociales chilenos / Longitudinal study of research paths and transitions of Chilean social workers.

ANID/FONDECYT Regular 1230605: Viajes centenarios y trayectorias de las ideas. Geopolítica, producción de conocimiento y agendas de investigación del trabajo social / Centennial journeys and trajectories of ideas. Geopolitics, knowledge production and social work research agendas.

ANID/Doctoral Scholarship Folio 2019/21190814.

Data availability

The authors take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the analysis. The data sets generated and analysed during the current study are not publicly available due the fact that they constitute an excerpt of research in progress but are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Ethics statement

The studies based on this article were carried out in accordance with the recommendations of the Chilean National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research with written informed consent from all subjects. All subjects gave written informed consent in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki. The protocol was approved by the Ethics Committee of the Universidad de Chile (Study 1), Universidad de Valparaíso (Study 2) and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Study 3).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
  • Thomson, R. and McLeod, J. (2015) New frontiers in qualitative longitudinal research: an agenda for research, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 18(3): 24350. doi: 10.1080/13645579.2015.1017900

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    • Export Citation
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Ximena de-Toro Universidad Autónoma de Chile, Chile

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Gabriela Rubilar Universidad de Chile, Chile

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Mahia Saracostti Universidad de Valparaíso and Universidad de Chile, Chile

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Longitudinal and Life Course Studies
An international journal