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American Association for Public Opinion Research

AAPOR Profile: Margaret Roller

by Alian Kasabian
Rene_Bautista-Large.jpgIf you’ve been following along on AAPORnet, Margaret Roller should be a familiar name. Champion of qualitative methods, she and Paul Lavrakas literally wrote the book on Applied Qualitative Research Design before starting the qualitative-focused affinity group within AAPOR, QUALPOR. A long-time member of AAPOR, Margaret’s company, Roller Research, is starting its fifth decade this year, and she also shares her knowledge on her blog, Research Design Review. I interviewed Margaret in December to discuss her career and expertise and why qualitative work is so important in our field. 
“My real passion is qualitative research because there is so much to talk about.” ~Margaret Roller
Margaret’s college degrees were in psychology, and she was trained in experimental and survey design but realized after graduate school that she knew nothing about qualitative research. She wanted to be a researcher, and to do that, she needed to know more. “A researcher was somebody who also was well versed and knowledgeable about qualitative research so that a researcher could look at a research question and develop the approach that was appropriate.” So she took a job that allowed her to train and then become a focus group moderator, by studying past video recordings and developing the necessary skills, before becoming a research manager overseeing qualitative and quantitative methods. After several years, during a trip around the world, she decided to make a change and leave her position in corporate research. But past colleagues wanted to keep working with her, and new colleagues had interesting work for her to do, and thus Roller Research was born.

Roller Research allowed Margaret to take on projects she was interested in, do diverse work and set her own schedule. If she wants to clear her calendar to work on just one project, she can, and often does. Although she regrets that she is rarely part of the follow-through when the research sponsor is actually using the study outcomes, Margaret thoroughly enjoys her work and the interesting paths on which her projects take her. I asked about what work she was proudest of, and she described two projects. For a government agency, she conducted asynchronous and in-person focus groups with a wide selection of behavioral and social scientists across disciplines to help develop the organization’s behavioral/social science research program. These were followed by a town hall in Washington, D.C., attended by researchers from across the U.S. to discuss future directions and priorities. The topic was very interesting and so complex. “You know, I love the complexity of qualitative research.” Then for a leading nonprofit organization, she blocked out four months of her time and conducted 86 in-depth interviews throughout the U.S. that resulted in the discovery of key segments across user types (such as private foundations, public charities and professional services) and a redesign of their website to really tailor it to the users’ needs. “It was just so fascinating. There were just so many, so many aspects of their work and what they do, that I could inform, and enrich and really help them. In the end, we want it to be useful.”
“To rest with quantitative research and not understand more than that is doing yourself a disservice.” ~Margaret Roller

Why QUALPOR, and why now? Margaret has always enjoyed the conferences because of the focus on research design and getting useful outcomes. But the same discussion was lacking in regard to qualitative research. Over the years, she has seen windows of opportunity for greater qualitative focus, and it finally came to a head in 2018 when she put the ideas together and talked with Paul Lavrakas about creating QUALPOR. The affinity group was approved by council that year, had the first member meeting in March of 2019, and has organized qualitative tracks for the conference— five panel sessions in 2019 and three panel sessions in 2020. The response to the calls for abstracts as well as session attendance have been tremendous, and, starting in 2021, the AAPOR conference will include a qualitative research organizational track.

While there have always been qualitative papers at AAPOR, qualitative researchers have been in the minority even while being such a fundamental part of the field. “Qualitative methods can be a great way, and sometimes the only way to include some of the most vulnerable segments of the population.” QUALPOR is designed for anyone doing qualitative research, but also those who manage qualitative work or just want to learn more. This affinity group is making a deliberate effort to support and better integrate qualitative research methods more formally within AAPOR. QUALPOR grew from “a perceived need to educate people on quality approaches to qualitative research.” To this end, a QUALPOR organized panel has been submitted for the 2021 conference. 

“It’s all about design.” ~Margaret Roller

Besides the love of design at AAPOR, Margaret’s passion for qualitative research and getting to talk about it and embed in the organization keeps her coming back. She shared a favorite memory from the conference—an image that has just stuck with her over the years. When the conference was smaller, Don Dillman was presenting a theory, and he had a stack of transparencies he was sharing (younger members may need to google what those are). The stack slipped out of his hands, and they were all over the floor, and he was flipping through them, and so passionate about what he was talking about. “[Don] flipping through his transparencies and overhead projector and then me in the back of the room with just my jeans on loving the fact nobody knew me, and I didn't care. And I was just soaking it in.”

Margaret Roller is incredibly passionate about research and qualitative methods and encourages you to join QUALPOR if you have any interest in qualitative research. They have two to three member meetings a year, several special interest groups, a newsletter, and share opportunities for training and resources through AAPORnet and their own emails. As of mid-December, there were 94 QUALPOR members, and if you would like to join please email Margaret or her co-chair Paul to be added to the membership.