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Analyzing Qualitative Data
May 27, 2016
I was lucky enough to attend the ICQI 2016 conference last week in Champaign at the University of Illinois. We managed to speak to a lot of people about using Quirkos, but there were hundreds of other talks, and here are some pointers from just a few of them!
1. Qualitative research is like being at high school
Johnny Saldaña’s keynote described (with cutting accuracy) the research cliques that people tend to stick to. It's important for us to try and think outside these methodological or topic boxes, and learn from other people doing things in different ways. With so many varied sessions and hundreds of talks, conferences like ICQI 2016 are great places to do this.
We were also treated to clips from high school movies, and our own Qualitative High School song! The Digital Tools thread got their own theme song: a list of all the different qualitative analysis software packages sung to the tune of ‘ABC’ - the nursery rhyme, not the Jackson 5 hit!
2. There is a definite theoretical trend
The conference featured lots of talks on Butler, Foucault, but not one explicitly on Derrida! A philosophical bias perhaps? I’m always interested in the different philosophy that is drawn from between North American, British and Continental debates…
3. Qualitative research balances a divide between chaos and order
Maggie MacLure gave an intriguing keynote about how qualitative research needs to balance the intoxicating chaos and experimentation of Dionysus with the order and clarity of Apollo (channelling Deleuze). She argued that we must resist the tendency of method and neo-liberal positioned research to push for conformity, and go further in advocating for real ontological change. She also said that researchers should do more to challenge the primacy of language: surely why we need a little Derrida here and there?!
4. We should embrace doubt and uncertainty
This was definitely something that Maggie MacLure's keynote touched on, but a session chaired by Charles Vander talked about uncertainty in the coding process, and how this can be difficult (but ultimately beneficial). Referencing Locke, Golden-Biddle and Feldman (2008), Charles talked about the need to Embrace not knowing, nurture hurdles and disrupt order (while also engaging with the world and connecting with struggle). It's important for students that allowing doubt and uncertainty doesn't lead to fear – a difficult thing when there are set deadlines and things aren’t going the right way, and even true for most academics! We need to teach that qualitative analysis is not a fixed linear process, experimentation and failure is key part of it. Kathy Charmaz echoed this while talking about grounded theory, and noted that ‘coding should be magical, not just mechanical’.
5. We should challenge ourselves to think about codes and coding in completely different ways
Johnny Saldaña's coding workshop (which follows on from his excellent textbook) gave examples of the incredible variety of different coding categories one can create. Rather than just creating merely descriptive index coding, try and get to the actions and motivations in the text. Create code lists which are based around actions, emotions, conflicts or even dramaturgical concepts: in which you are exploring the motivations and tactics of those in your research data. More to follow on this...
6. We still have a lot to learn about how researchers use qualitative software
Two great talks from Ely Lieber and NYU/CUNY took the wonderful meta-step of doing qualitative (and mixed method) analysis on qualitative researchers, to see how they used qualitative software and what they wanted to do with it.
Katherine Gregory and Sarah DeMott looked at responses from hundreds of users of QDA software, and found a strong preference for getting to outputs as soon as possible, and saw people using qualitative data in very quantitative ways. Eli Lieber from Dedoose looked at what he called ‘Research and Evaluation Data Analysis Software’ and saw from 355 QDA users that there was a risk of playing with data rather than really learning from it, and that many were using coding in software as a replacement for deep reading of the data.
There was also a lot of talk about the digital humanities movement, and there was some great insight from Harriett Green on how this shift looks for librarians and curators of data, and how researchers are wanting to connect and explore diverse digital archives.
7. Qualitative research still feels like a fringe activity
The ‘march’ of neo-liberalism was a pervasive conference theme, but there were a lot of discussions around the marginalised place of qualitative research in academia. We heard stories of qualitative modules being removed or made online only, problems with getting papers submitted in mainstream journals, and the lack of engagement from evidence users and policy makers. Conferences like this are essential to reinforce connections between researchers working all over the world, but there is clearly still need for a lot of outreach to advance the position of qualitative research in the field.
There are dozens more fascination talks I could draw from, but these are just a few highlights from my own badly scribbled notes. It was wonderful to meet so many dedicated researchers, working on so many conceptual and social issues, and it always challenges me to think how Quirkos can better meet the needs of such a disparate group of users. So don’t forget to download the trial, and give us more feedback!
You should also connect with the Digital Tools for Qualitative Research group, who organised one of the conference Special Interest Groups, but has many more activities and learning events across the year. Hope to see many more of you next year!