Researching across space and time: A Web-based Qualitative Panel Study


by  Justyna Salamońska

How to research stories of people on the move? How to track their mobility in real-time? How to learn about realised and unrealised mobility plans? In this blog entry, I will focus on methods to research individual biographies as they unfold across time and space, with a research design that incorporates temporal and spatial dimensions. The Web-based Qualitative Panel Study (Web-based QPS) is an example of a qualitative research design, employing semi-structured interviews to explore migrants’ life histories. It is also an example of a panel design, as the study involves following the same individuals over time, with a series of semi-structured interviews. Finally, it is Web-based because the interviews are not carried out face-to-face but are Internet-mediated, using various communication platforms. In the following sections, I focus on the methodological premises that the Web-based QPS incorporates, followed by the description of the Web-based QPS as it is part of the MULTIMIG project on Polish multiple migrants based worldwide.

Bringing together longitudinal research and mobile methods
The Web-based QPS draws on developments in longitudinal research and mobile methods. Let us focus first on longitudinal research. Berthoud (2000) explains how the cross-sectional approach offers a photograph of how things are at any particular point in time. Longitudinal research logic brings together several snapshots collected at different time points, turning the perspective from a single photo shot to an album of pictures that illustrates how things change over time. We can distinguish between retrospective and prospective approaches. Longitudinal data can be obtained via retrospective data collection, which asks about the past, for example when reconstructing past migration trajectories. Prospective longitudinal research (panel design), which is less common, collects information from the same individuals and involves measurements at different time points (to learn more about the longitudinal research in the migration context, see Beauchemin and Schoumaker 2016).
However, longitudinal research is particularly challenging in the case of migrants. Many quantitative panels are not specifically designed to include emigrants and once the respondents move away from their usual place of residence, they are not part of the target group anymore. Several panels rely on contacting their participants via snail mail at their residence, so the questionnaires do not reach the respondents who move away.
Panels have time in-built into the research design, but they can differ in what kind of data they collect, that is quantitative or qualitative. One advantage of the qualitative panel study in the migration field is that it allows following individual life histories over time, tracking trajectories and turning points, as they are narrated in-depth by the participants (for one example of a qualitative panel study in migration research see Krings et al. 2013).
The Web-based QPS draws not only on longitudinal research but also on the strengths of mobile methods (see Buscher et al. 2009 for an overview of mobile methods), which stress movement in space as a worthy research topic and develop ways to track it. Mobile methods reflection, developed in the last decades, puts mobilities at the heart of the social scientific enquiry. Mobile methods make extensive use of new digital technologies to research physical, virtual, and other mobilities, which matters particularly for tracking highly mobile migrants.

The Web-based QPS in action: Study of Polish multiple migrants worldwide
Building on longitudinal and mobile methods, the Web-based QPS was developed as a part of a MULTIMIG project financed by the National Science Centre (study ID: 2015/18/E/HS4/00497), researching Polish multiple migrants resident in various places across the globe. The MULTIMIG defined Polish multiple migrants as people born in Poland who lived in at least two countries outside Poland for three months or longer. The study started in 2018 with an initial sample of 70 Polish migrants. The sampling strategy involved purposive sampling, taking into account the context and nature of multiple migrations. This included typical multiple migrants, such as migrants who reported usually two to three migration spells in various countries, typically within the EU. The purposive sampling strategy also included extreme cases, as the most clear-cut representation, such as hypermobile migrants whose trajectories passed via five to 11 countries. Finally, the paradigmatic cases, most exemplar ones, are represented by highly skilled professionals whose careers led through international labour markets either with the internal labour market of transnational corporations or hopping between various employers. The sampling strategy ensured the inclusion of males and females, persons at different points of their life courses, and various levels of economic resources and occupational positions.
The MULTIMIG Web-based QPS is composed of three waves of semi-structured, Internet-mediated interviews. Wave one, which was carried out in 2018, consisted mainly of a retrospective interview to reconstruct the migration trajectory. The interview guide enquired about the individual history of migration, the situation before the first migration and reasons for migrating, the exact trajectory of migration spells in various countries, and the place of migration in the individual biography. In the context of multiple movements, we were also interested in the topics of identity and how migrants reflect on their sense of home. In wave one we also asked about plans for the future, in terms of life plans and mobility plans, to compare these with the situation in the final wave of interviews, to learn how the plans play out in reality. Such a design allows making most of the longitudinal data potential, making comparisons between what people say and what they do.
Interviews in waves two and three started with a section asking about updates in the participants’ life situations. These questions referred to life course changes and international mobility. In addition to the prospective longitudinal design, wave two and three interviews probed about selected themes. In wave two, which started at the end of 2019, we also asked about travels, social relations and keeping in touch, and attitudes towards diversity. In wave three, which started in early 2021, topics included migration and its links to labour markets, adaptation in the destination, identity issues, and assessment of migration and plans for the future. One advantage of the panel design was its flexibility to add new sets of questions on emerging research topics, such as COVID-19, to the interview guide. Because the fieldwork was Web-based, the study could continue during the pandemic, with interviews carried out via Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp and Signal. Most interviews were carried out as audio-visual interviews. In some cases, the informants did not wish to use video, while in a small number of cases the Internet connection was too weak to proceed with video interviews so there was only an audio connection. The Web-based QPS engages in a distinctive way with mobile and longitudinal approaches, as it allows connecting and re-connecting with the participants over the project fieldwork period. Re-connecting is a mediated process using Information and Communication Technologies, but it is well embedded in the way migrants use the media in their everyday lives.
The MULTIMIG sample included Polish migrants who have repeatedly been moving internationally in the past. We expected that – in the case of some - we would be able to follow their international mobilities almost in real-time during the MULTIMIG online study fieldwork. Indeed, we were able to track cases of return to Poland during the fieldwork. However, the return could have different meanings, for example, it could be planned as a re-settlement or, alternatively, constructed as time necessary to re-charge batteries before setting off to next destinations. The return could be directed not at country of origin, but at one of the previous migration destinations. Finally, we were also able to track onward mobility to new place during the fieldwork. In this sense, the qualitative panel design does its job very well, as it allows documenting the processes of settlement and mobility as they happen, over time and space. Especially in the Brexit and COVID-19 context, the panel study documents how individual biographies are lived and how they are affected by the broader social, political, and economic shifts. This is a powerful tool to better understand social life in the making through a spatial and temporal lens.
As for challenges, the Web-based QPS faces similar issues as other longitudinal and mobile research methods. Longitudinal research collecting retrospective data has to deal with memory lapses, distortions and mistakes. In turn, following the same people over time in the panel risks sample attrition. In fact, in wave three, MULTIMIG managed to retain 62 out of 70 participants from wave one. Panel research also requires continued consent on the part of informants to participate in the study. The use of communication platforms is another challenge, as Internet-mediated interviews differ from traditional face-to-face interviews. They are dependent on the Internet connection quality and do not always allow visual, in addition to audio, connection. Because the meetings do not occur face-to-face, technologically mediated video and audio-only interviews may be a more difficult setting for rapport and trust-building between the researcher and informant.

Suggested readings:
Neale, B. (2021). The Craft of Qualitative Longitudinal Research. SAGE.
Elliott, J., Holland, J., & Thomson, R. (2008). Longitudinal and Panel Studies. In The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods (pp. 228–248). SAGE.

Berthoud, R. (2000). Introduction: the dynamics of social change. In Seven years in the lives of British families: Evidence on the dynamics of social change from the British Household Panel Survey (pp. 1–20). Policy Press.
Beauchemin, C. & Schoumaker, B. (2016). Micro Methods: Longitudinal Surveys and Analyses. In International Handbook of Migration and Population Distribution (pp. 175–204). Springer.
Büscher, M., Urry, J., Witchger, K., Laurier, E., & Gillen, J. (Eds.). (2011). Mobile methods. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Krings, T., Moriarty, E., Wickham, J., Bobek, A., & Salamońska, J. (2013). New mobilities in Europe: Polish migration to Ireland post-2004. Manchester Univ. Press.


Justyna Salamońska

Experts mentioned

Justyna Salamońska

Kozminski University, Poland

Meth@Mig News