Qualitative Coding Systems and the Extended Mind

Sometimes it can seem that our bodies are doing things without us knowing about it. I would struggle to tell someone the PIN number for my bank card, but my fingers know it – they just automatically type the right sequence!

Qualitative Coding Systems and the Extended Mind

(This blog post is based on a talk I gave at ICQI 2019, as part of a panel with the excellent Silvana di Gregorio, Paul Mihas, Johnny Saldana and Charles Vanover)

 Sometimes it can seem that our bodies are doing things without us knowing about it. I would struggle to tell someone the PIN number for my bank card, but my fingers know it – they just automatically type the right sequence!

In the traditional conceptualisation of the mind, the brain is responsible for all our thinking, and is the source of our consciousness, memory and awareness. This is known as the mind/body duality – the mind exists in the body as a in an inert vessel. However, modern thinking favours the ‘embodied mind’, noting that our whole bodies are an integral part of our distributed nervous system, and our experiences and understanding of the world is shaped by how we perceive it through our bodies.

 But this goes further! The end of our fingers does not necessarily mean the boundary of our thinking!

A seminal paper by the philosophers Andy Clark and David J Chalmers (1998) describes the concept of the ‘Extended Mind’. In essence this concept says not only that our ‘mind’ is part of our whole body, but that there is ‘extended cognition’ and that the environment in which we live and interact with is part of our mind and memory system. In their model, a diary, scribbled notes on a shopping list, or even other people we rely on to remember names are part of our ‘extended mind’ that we use everyday.

 So what does this have to do with qualitative coding systems? Well, I would argue that in this theory, your coding system is not only an integral part of your analysis, it’s also an integral part of how you think about and conceptualise your data.

 Qualitative data is rich and complex, and during the course of a typical research project it’s difficult to keep all the themes and findings in your head at once. We write reflexively to help this, keep a research journal (another type of extended mind), but qualitative analysis and coding itself provides a unique challenge. It’s rare that people will only create a few codes or themes to group and structure their data, many end up with hundreds. Remembering all the different things you are looking for in your data is a challenge, and recall of important parts is a challenge without some system for managing the data.

And it doesn’t matter if you are doing analysis using highlighters, Post-It notes, Word or qualitative software, each of these are systems that help you keep track of everything coming out of your deep rich qualitative data.

 All of these ways of helping you manage your codes are part of your extended mind and help you to structure your thinking. Colours for example, are one way to create structure, where certain colours can be used as a quick way to see and visualise coding. But you can also use them to group codes, with similar themes in one shade (say everything on individuality in different shades of green). This works in paper or qualitative software, although some tools like Quirkos make this more practical as there is no limit to the number of colours you can use.

Creating hierarchies of codes is another way to use an extended mind to group and structure your thinking. So you can have sub-categories as another way to group, and start to break down themes into more nuanced categories. You may also create groups of similar themes with a flat structure, without any parent-child relationship. Most people will decide which approach to take based on how their mind works, and how best to map how an individual prefers to do critical analysis – and this does effect how data will be interpreted.

 For others, the position of themes may help – a researcher may start to remember where codes are about a topic based on where they are on the screen or a flip-chart. This is a kind of physical aide-mémoire, remembering where we left things or commonly use them. You might experience the same thing with a spice rack, where you always know where the pepper is… until someone moves it and you suddenly notice your reliance on a spatial system of memory! Again, with the ability to move and order groups across a canvas, Quirkos is good at supporting this kind of mind-map layout for codes.

It’s sometimes argued that different tools for analysis impose a particular form of analysis on the researcher: some might be better for line-by-line or IPA approaches for example. However, it could also be argued that the opposite is true, ideally a researcher would choose a tool (software or otherwise) and an analytical approach that is the best fit between the research questions, and how their brain works – the way they see patterns, can create structure in their thinking. That way, their coding system becomes an efficient part of their Extended Mind.

 And that’s the way to see all of the different ways to do qualitative analysis, whether paper or software based they are tools to aid memory, recall and to help structure your thinking and interpretation. So choose a tool that works best for you, and matches your extended mind!

 It’s also worth giving Quirkos a try! We have a 2-week free trial of our qualitative analysis software which is designed to be quick and easy to use, and to maximise the visual elements like colour and layout that help you see the interesting things in your qualitative data. For thousands of qualitative researchers it has become their first choice for their extended mind!