In the last couple of weeks there has been a really interesting discussion on the Qualrs-L UGA e-mail discussion group about the use of software in qualitative analysis. Part of this was the question of whether qualitative software leads to the ‘homoginisation’ of qualitative research and analysis. As I understand it, this is the notion that the qualitative sphere is contracting from diverse beginnings, narrowing to a series of commonly used and accepted methods of collection and interpretation. For example, the most popular are probably semi-structured interview transcripts coupled with some type of framework based interpretation. Are more and more researchers using qualitative research churning out work using the same research? Is modern qualitative technology leading to a unified outputs like the introduction of the printing press, or helping increasing the accessibility of the discipline?
While I do see some evidence of trends emerging in the literature and research articles, I do not see them as inevitable, or feel that alternative approaches have been relegated, or that software need be a force for homogenisation.
Actually, I see a lot of similarities in this debate with a keynote talk on conformity in qualitative research by Professor Maggie MacLure at the ICQI conference last year. Referencing Deleuze, Nietzsche and the Greek Myths, she described the need to balance the dichotomy of two of the sons of Zeus in Greek legend: Apollo and Dionysus. Dionysus represents, chaos, emotion (and excess drinking of wine) while Apollo masters truth, rational thinking and prophecy. One can argue that following Apollo can lead to homogenisation, while too much Dionysus in your research can lead to chaos and a difficulty in drawing meaningful conclusions (especially with the wine drinking, although many researchers I know would disagree on this important point when writing up research).
However, a little creativity is important, especially at the point of choosing your methodology. In qualitative research, you can use arts-based research, using participant creation of drawings, games or even pottery as data. There are real challenges in keeping the richness of these creative methods alive through the analysis process: how do you analyse a drawing by a participant? Yet it’s rarely enough to just look at transcripts of respondents talking about their creations, and ignoring the art work itself. So take a pinch of the creative to ward against homogenisation: the excellent overview on Creative Research Methods by Helen Kara is a great place to start.
But what about the analysis and qualitative software? Can this be creative and unique as well?
I would argue that it can – especially with certain tools. I think there is a tendency for software to ‘lead’ users into particular behaviours and approaches, which is why users should look at the Five Level QDA approach advocated by Woolf and Silver and decide how they want to analyse their data before choosing a software package. But most software is very flexible. Even tools like Atlas.ti that was originally designed for grounded theory can be used for other theoretical approaches (Friese 2014). However you can still see this legacy in the design, for example the difficulty in creating a hierarchical coding structure in Atlas.ti remains today.
The design methodology for Quirkos was to create a very simple qualitative software tool that allowed people to use it in anyway they wanted. And in my experience from 3 years in running a qualitative software company, I can assure you that there is little risk of homogenisation in software users! Users occasionally share their projects with me to get advice on a problem, and I can see people using the features in ways we never envisaged! I also get lots of emails in my Inbox with suggestions on how we can make small tweaks to allow people to use Quirkos in different ways. The demand from the users is not to adopting the same approach over and over again, but being able to customise the software to their own needs and ways of working. And again, I can assure you these approaches are more diverse than I ever imagined.
And what about the argument that software creates mechanical and thought-less analysis? Well, I think this is a risk, and I’ve written about the discipline that users need to avoid this. But I think that any reductive analytical process risks becoming automatic, and thus removing the richness of the qualitative data. Even a pen and highlighters approach to analysis can become automatic and brainless if not done with care, and when re-reading data the eye can skip to the brightly coloured sections, sometimes missing vital context.
Ironically there is also some homogenisation in the software industry itself. Many scholars including Fielding and Lee (1998) have talked about ‘Creeping featurism’ and a trend of software packages to become more similar and (complex) as they add tools and functionality from each other. They tend to have similar interfaces, and function in ways that often seem very similar to the new user. Now, a fan of any one qualitative software package will quickly let you know how superior X is to Y because of a subtle aspect of the layout, and how easy it is to work in a particular way. Again this seems to evidence that software itself does not lead to homogenisation of approaches.
There are more than a dozen qualitative software packages actively developed at the moment, and between them they offer a fantastic variety of conceptual and practical approaches to data coding and management. For most people I speak to, the choice of software is bewildering, just like the variety of methods that can be used in qualitative research. I hope that new students are led so that, rather than being shoehorned into a particular approach, they are excited by the dizzying heights of possibility in qualitative research.
If you would like to give the unique Quirkos experience a try, we have a free trial you can download so you can see if the simple, visual and colourful approach is right for your qualitative research. And as ever, if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.