And I remember … Room Service

By Peter Totman, February 2021

At the start of lockdown, I had to be dragged, kicking and screaming away from face-to-face qual. I’ve eaten some serious humble pie since then. Maybe I was little precious, even luvvie-like as I grandiosely prophesised ‘the death of qual research’.

If I was a little bit over the top, it was only because I cared so much.

Once I started getting used to online qual, I had to admit that although it was not quite the same as ‘the real thing’, it was still a powerful methodology, especially once I’d learned how to create necessary ‘empathetic presence’ in the virtual environment. (I am afraid the ‘Luvvie thing’ hasn’t gone anywhere.)

Lifestyle-wise I have even learned to embrace certain things about online groups. Mainly for the things I no longer have to do. I do not miss getting home at midnight from Central London groups, the horror of dealing with incentives, 4am Monday wake-ups to catch the first flight out of Heathrow or the endless succession of cab drivers asking about my job … and the exhausting effort of having to explain it to them, as their interest (visibly) wanes. (I am a qual researcher and acutely sensitive to subtle changes in body language – like eyes glazing over or snoring.)

What about the things I do miss? Well, there are many moderator-specific things that are both personally rewarding and important to the job. The acute sensitivity to the mood of the individual and/or ‘the room’, the meaning conveyed by a momentary silence or awkwardness, the way participants talk to each other about the subject, subtly distinct from how they answer the questions from me as moderator … all this texture and richness is diluted in the Zoom environment.

So far, so virtuous-sounding (and indeed virtue-signalling) … but there are also a number of (seemingly) trivial things about the lifestyle that I remember fondly … the sense of peace as the train pulls away from Euston, having a favourite hotel in every city and town in UK, accruing, and even, sometimes, using reward points.

But most of all, I miss room service. The post-group crashing on the hotel bed, freed at last from performance expectations and facing a series of lovely, non-pressured decisions – poring over the room service menu (when finally located) and choosing between the pizza or the curry (and then opting for both), choosing between a glass of white or red (and then opting for both). Then the welcome knock on the door … the gentle challenge of answering in my pyjamas in a way that conveys reassuringly ridiculousness, rather than a faint creepiness. Finally choosing between Law and Order or Chicago Fire, feeling no guilt for not even considering Newsnight. Endless small, vital decisions. The stuff of qualitative life.

Even when writing out that initial list, of things I don’t miss, I detected some faint stirrings of nostalgia. The ‘lockdown version’ of the qual role shares many of the same rhythms, structures and challenges, but fewer experiences, fewer vivid colours. Less life.