Is qualitative data analysis fracturing?

Having been to several international conferences on qualitative research recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the future of qualitative research, and the changes happening in the discipline and society as a whole. A lot of people have been saying that acceptance for qualitative research is growing in general: not only are there a large number of well-established specialist journals, but mainstream publications are accepting more papers based on qualitative approaches.


At the same time, there are more students in the UK at all levels, but especially starting Masters and PhD studies as I’ve noted before. While some of these students will focus solely on qualitative methods, many more will adopt mixed methods approaches, and want to integrate a smaller amount of qualitative data. Thus there is a strong need, especially at the Masters by research level, for software that’s quicker to learn, and can be well integrated into the rest of a project.


There is also the increasing necessity for academic researchers to demonstrate impact for their research, especially as part of the REF. There are challenges involved with doing this with qualitative research, especially summarising large bodies of data, and making them accessible for the general public or for targeted end users such as policy makers or clinicians. Quirkos has been designed to create graphical outputs for these situations, as well as interactive reports that end-users can explore in their own time.


But another common theme has emerged is the possibility of the qualitative field fracturing as it grows. It seems that there are at least three distinct user groups emerging: firstly there are the traditional users of in-depth qualitative research, the general focus of CAQDAS software. They are experts in the field, are experienced with a particular software package, and run projects collecting data with a variety of methods, such as ethnography, interviews, focus groups and document review.


Recently there has been increased interest in text analytics: the application of ‘big data’ to quantify qualitative sources of data. This is especially popular in social media, looking at millions of Tweets, texts, Facebook posts, or blogs on a particular topic. While commonly used in market research, there are also applications in social and political analysis, for example looking at thousands of newspaper articles for portrayal of social trends. This ‘bid data’ quantitative approach has never been a focus of Quirkos’ approach, although there are many tools out there that work in this way.
Finally, there is increasing interest in qualitative analysis from more mainstream users, people who want to do small qualitative research projects as part of their own organisation or business. Increasingly, people working in public sector organisations, HR or legal have text documents they need to manage and gain a deep understanding of.
Increasingly it seems that a one-size-fits-all solution to training and software for qualitative data analysis is not going to be viable. It may even be the case that different factions of approaches and outcomes will emerge. In some ways this may not be too dissimilar to the different methodologies already used within academic research (ie grounded / emergent / framework analysis), but the numbers of ‘researchers’ and the variety of paradigms and fields of inquiry looks to be increasing rapidly.


These are definitely interesting times to be working in qualitative research and qualitative data analysis. My only hope is that if such ‘splintering’ does occur, we keep learning from each other, and we keep challenging ourselves by exposure to alternative ways of working.

 

 

Getting a foot in the door with qualitative research

A foot in a doorA quick look at the British Library thesis catalogue suggests that around 800 theses are completed every year in the UK using qualitative methods*. This suggests that 7% of the roughly 10,000 annual British PhDs completed use qualitative methods. There are likely to be many more masters theses, and even undergraduate dissertations that use some qualitative methods, so the student demand for qualitative training is considerable.

 

Usually, while PhD Research Training Programmes will include good coverage of different qualitative methods and ethical issues, using software for qualitative analysis is often not covered. In my experience it is either left to summer school sessions, annual one-off internal training sessions, but usually training at an external full or two day session at organisations like the University of Surrey CAQDAS programme. Most PhD students (especially in the UK) are at considerable time and financial pressures, so accessing this training is often difficult. Again, it's sometimes difficult to get a foot in the door with qualitative analysis software.

 

Yet there are some good opportunities for qualitative researchers, even outside academia. Obviously market research is a huge employer, and can provide very varied work, changing with every project. Increasingly it seems that the public sector, at both the local and national level are hiring researchers with qualitative experience, especially in organisations like the NHS, where patient satisfaction is becoming an increasingly important metric.

 

Quirkos has been designed with my own experiences in mind, to provide an easy way to get started with qualitative analysis. In fact, I've jokingly referred to it before as a 'gateway' product, easy to start, and hopefully leading to a good experience and a desire to progress to advanced ways of working! We are also going to offer PhD students a discounted 'PhD Pack', which will include a student licence, on-line training, and two academic licences for their supervisors, so that the whole team can see the progress and comment on ongoing analysis.

 

Researching the numbers of students in the UK, I was stunned to find out that the number of full-time PhD students has nearly doubled, from 9,990 in 1997 to 18,075 in 2010 – the last year for which statistics are available. Now, clearly the number of academic positions has not increased at the same rate, (although it has increased over that time period) so the number of available academic jobs has not kept up with supply. Of course, a PhD can lead to many more opportunities, but it is clear that there is great competition for post-doctorate posts. This has been noted by many other commentators, but also in my own experience. Many of my post-doc friends and colleagues are ridiculously intelligent and capable people, but are still in jobs that chronically undervalue their abilities. Between ourselves, we often joke that for academic jobs, it has become a game of 'dead-man's-boots', waiting for a senior academic to retire, starting a chain of departmental promotions that create a new junior position. These posts are also only available after doing several temporary post-doc positions: it is a long process to get your foot in the door, and you often find yourself competing with good friends.

 

It seems to me that many university departments are now scaling back the number of PhD and Masters students they accept, acknowledging the pressure that large student numbers put on supervisors, despite the large amounts of income they bring to the department (especially Masters programmes). However, if widespread, this change is not yet visible in the latest HEFCE data, which dates back to 2010-11, and shows higher numbers of starters, and an increase in (projected) completion rates. Yet there is a huge and growing pool of very bright critical thinkers on the market, and even if academic opportunities are limited, a good number of other doors to get a foot-hold into.

 

* To get these figures, I have only used search terms qualitative AND either interview or “focus group” across titles and abstracts, to make sure that no other uses of the phrase were included: for example genetic qualitative research. Other methods such as ethnography and diaries added only a dozen or so results each. Frustratingly, the EThOS search doesn't let you specify a date range, but including a year (2012) as a search term mostly returns submissions from that year. It's also interesting to note that the number of PhDs mentioning qualitative methods has doubled since 2007, although it's difficult to tell how much of this is due to any increased popularity of qualitative research, or the increase in total submissions noted above, and the increase in digital submissions to the BL system.