Turning qualitative coding on its head
For the first time in ages I attended a workshop on qualitative methods, run by the wonderful Johnny Saldaña. Developing software has become a full time (and then some) occupation for me, which means I have little scope for my own professional development as a qualitative researcher
For the first time in ages I attended a workshop on qualitative methods, run by the wonderful Johnny Saldaña. Developing software has become a full time (and then some) occupation for me, which means I have little scope for my own professional development as a qualitative researcher. This session was not only a welcome change, but also an eye-opening critique to the way that many in the room (myself included) approach coding qualitative data.
Professor Saldaña has written an excellent Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers, and the workshop really brought to life some of the lessons and techniques in the book. Fundamental to all the approaches was a direct challenge to researchers doing qualitative coding: code different.
Like many researchers, I am guilty of taking coding as a reductive, mechanical exercise. My codes tend to be very basic and descriptive – what is often called index coding. My codes are often a summary word of what the sentence or section of text is literally about. From this, I will later take a more ‘grand-stand’ view of the text and codes themselves, looking at connections between themes to create categories that are closer to theory and insight.
However, Professor Saldaña gave (to my count) at least 12 different coding frameworks and strategies that were completely unique to me. While I am not going to go into them all here (that’s what the textbook, courses and the companion website is for!) it was not one particular strategy that stuck with me, but the diversity of approaches.
It’s easy when you start out with qualitative data analysis to try a simple strategy – after all it can be a time consuming and daunting conceptual process. And when you have worked with a particular approach for many years (and are surrounded by colleagues who have a similar outlook) it is difficult to challenge yourself. But as I have said before, to prevent coding being merely a reductive and descriptive act, it needs to be continuous and iterative. To truly be analysis and interrogate not just the data, but the researcher’s conceptualisation of the data, it must challenge and encourage different readings of the data.
For example, Professor Saldaña actually has a background in performance and theatre, and brings some common approaches from that sphere to the coding process: exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary inspiration I love! When an actor or actress is approaching a scene or character, they may engage with the script (which is much like a qualitative transcript) looking at the character's objectives, conflicts, tactics, attitudes, emotions and subtexts. The question is: what is the character trying to do or communicate, and how? This sort of actor-centred approach works really well in qualitative analysis, in which people, narratives and stories are often central to the research question.
So if you have an interview with someone, for example on their experience with the adoption process, imagine you are a writer dissecting the motivations of a character in a novel. What are they trying to do? Justify how they would be a good parent (objectives)? Ok, so how are they doing this (tactics)? And what does this reveal about their attitudes and emotions? Is there a subtext here – are they hurt because of a previous rejection?
Other techniques talked about the importance of creating codes which were based around emotions, participant’s values, or even actions: for example, can you make all your codes gerunds (words that end in –ing)? While there was a distinct message that researchers can mix and match these different coding categories, it felt to me a really good challenge to try and view the whole data set from one particular view point (for example conflicts) and then step to one side and look again with a different lens.
It’s a little like trying to understand a piece of contemporary sculpture: you need to see it up close, far away, and then from different angles to appreciate the different forms and meaning. Looking at qualitative data can be similar – sometimes the whole picture looks so abstract or baffling, that you have to dissect it in different ways. But often the simplest methods of analysis are not going to provide real insight. Analysing a Henry Moore sculpture by the simplest categories (what is the material, size, setting) may not give much more understanding. Cutting up a work into sections like head, torso or leg does little to explore the overall intention or meaning. And certain data or research questions suit particular analytical approaches. If a sculpture is purely abstract, it is not useful to try and look for aspects of human form - even if the eye is constantly looking for such associations.
Here, context is everything. Can you get a sense of what the artist wanted to say? Was it an emotion, a political statement, a subtle treatise on conventional beauty? And much like impressionist painting, sometimes a very close reading stops the viewer from being able to see the brush strokes from the trees.
Another talk I went to on how researchers use qualitative analysis software, noted that some users assumed that the software and the coding process was either a replacement or better activity than a close reading of the text. While I don’t think that coding qualitative data can ever replace a detailed reading or familiarity with the source text, coding exercises can help read in different ways, and hence allow new interpretations to come to light. Use them to read your data sideways, backwards, and though someone else’s eyes.
But software can help manage and make sense of these different readings. If you have different coding categories from different interpretations, you can store these together, and use different bits from each interpretation. But it can also make it easier to experiment, and look at different stages of the process at any time. In Quirkos you can use the Levels feature to group different categories of coding together, and look at any one (or several) of those lenses at a time.
Whatever approach you take to coding, try to really challenge yourself, so that you are forced to categorise and thus interpret the data in different ways. And don't be suprsied if the first approach isn't the one that reveals the most insight!
There is a lot more on our blog about coding, for example populating a coding framework and coding your codes. There will also be more articles on coding qualitative data to come, so make sure to follow us on Twitter, and if you are looking for simple, unobtrusive software for qualitative analysis check out Quirkos!