Analytical memos and notes in qualitative data analysis and coding

Image adapted from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Male_forehead-01_ies.jpg - Frank Vincentz

There is a lot more to qualitative coding than just deciding which sections of text belong in which theme. It is a continuing, iterative and often subjective process, which can take weeks or even months. During this time, it’s almost essential to be recording your thoughts, reflecting on the process, and keeping yourself writing and thinking about the bigger picture. Writing doesn’t start after the analysis process, in qualitative research it often should precede, follow and run in parallel to a iterative interpretation.


The standard way to do this is either through a research journal (which is also vital during the data collection process) or through analytic memos. Memos create an important extra level of narrative: an interface between the participant’s data, the researcher’s interpretation and wider theory.


You can also use memos as part of a summary process, to articulate your interpretations of the data in a more concise format, or even throw the data wider and larger by drawing from larger theory.


It’s also a good cognitive exercise: regularly make yourself write what you are thinking, and keep yourself articulating yourself. It will make writing up at the end a lot easier in the end! Memos can be a very flexible tool, and qualitative software can help keep these notes organised. Here are 9 different ways you might use memos as part of your work-flow for qualitative data analysis:

 

Surprises and intrigue
This is probably the most obvious way to use memos: note during your reading and coding things that are especially interesting, challenging or significant in the data. It’s important to do more than just ‘tag’ these sections, reflect to yourself (and others) why these sections or statements stand out.

 

Points where you are not sure
Another common use of memos is to record sections of the data that are ambiguous, could be interpreted in different ways, or just plain don’t fit neatly in to existing codes or interpretations. But again, this should be more than just ‘flagging’ bits that need to be looked at again later, it’s important to record why the section is different: sometimes the act of having to describe the section can help comprehension and illuminate the underlying causation.

 

Discussion with other researchers
Large qualitative research projects will often have multiple people coding and analysing the data. This can help to spread the workload, but also allows for a plurality of interpretations, and peer-checking of assumptions and interpretations. Thus memos are very important in a team project, as they can be used to explain why one researcher interpreted or coded sources in a certain way, and flag up ambiguous or interesting sections for discussion.

 

Paper-trail
Even if you are not working as part of a team, it can be useful to keep memos to explain your coding and analytical choices. This may be important to your supervisors (or viva panel) as part of a research thesis, and can be seen as good practice for sharing findings in which you are transparent about your interpretations. There are also some people with a positivist/quantitative outlook who find qualitative research difficult to trust because of the large amount of seemingly subjective interpretation. Memos which detail your decision making process can help ‘show your working out’ and justify your choices to others.

 

Challenging or confirming theory
This is another common use of memos, to discuss how the data either supports or challenges theory. It is unusual for respondents to neatly say something like “I don’t think my life fits with the classical structure of an Aeschylean tragedy” should this happen to be your theoretical approach! This means you need to make these observations and higher interpretation, and note how particular statements will influence your interpretations and conclusions. If someone says something that turns your theoretical framework on its head, note it, but also use the memos as a space to record context that might be used later to explain this outlier. Memos like this might also help you identify patterns in the data that weren’t immediately obvious.

 

Questioning and critiquing the data/sources
Respondents will not always say what they mean, and sometimes there is an unspoken agenda below the surface. Depending on the analytical approach, an important role of the researcher is often to draw deeper inferences which may be implied or hinted at by the discourse. Sometimes, participants will outright contradict themselves, or suggest answers which seem to be at odds with the rest of what they have shared. It’s also a great place to note the unsaid. You can’t code data that isn’t there, but sometimes it’s really obvious that a respondent is avoiding discussing a particular issue (or person). Memos can note this observation, and discuss why topics might be uncomfrotable or left out in the narrative.


Part of an iterative process
Most qualitative research does not follow a linear structure, it is iterative and researchers go back and re-examine the data at different stages in the process. Memos should be no different, they can be analysed themselves, and should be revisited and reviewed as you go along to show changes in thought, or wider patterns that are emerging.


Record your prejudices and assumptions
There is a lot of discussion in the literature about the importance of reflexivity in qualitative research, and recognising the influence of the non-neutral researcher voice. Too often, this does not go further than a short reflexivity/positionality statement, but should really be a constantly reconsidered part of the analytical process. Memos can be used as a prompt and record of your reflexive process, how the data is challenges your prejudices, or how you might be introducing bias in the interpretation of the data.


Personal thoughts and future directions
As you go through the data, you may be noticing interesting observations which are tangential, but might form the basis of a follow-on research project or reinterpretation of the data. Keeping memos as you go along will allow you to draw from this again and remember what excited you about the data in the first place.

 

 

Qualitative analysis software can help with the memo process, keeping them all in the same place, and allowing you to see all your memos together, or connected to the relevant section of data. However, most of the major software packages (Quirkos included) don’t exactly forefront the memo tools, so it is important to remember they are there and use them consistently through the analytical process.

 

Memos in Quirkos are best done using a separate source which you edit and write your memos in. Keeping your notes like this allows you to code your memos in the same way you would with your other data, and use the source properties to include or exclude your memos in reports and outputs as needed. However, it can be a little awkward to flip between the memo and active source, and there is currently no way to attach memos to a particular coding event. However, this is something we are working on for the next major release, and this should help researchers to keep better notes of their process as they go along. More detail on qualitative memos in Quirkos can be found in this blog post article.

 

 

There is a one-month free trial of Quirkos, and it is so simple to use that you should be able to get going just by watching one of our short intro videos, or the built-in guide. We are also here to help at any stage of your process, with advice about the best way to record your analytical memos, coding frameworks or anything else. Don’t be shy, and get in touch!

 


References and further reading:


Chapman, Y., Francis, K., 2008. Memoing in qualitative research, Journal of Research in Nursing, 13(1). http://jrn.sagepub.com/content/13/1/68.short?rss=1&ssource=mfc

 

Gibbs, G., 2002, Writing as Analysis, http://onlineqda.hud.ac.uk/Intro_QDA/writing_analysis.php

Saldana, J., 2015, The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers, Writing Analytic Memos about Narritative and Visual Data, Sage, London. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ZhxiCgAAQBAJ

 

 

Reflections on qualitative software from KWALON 2016

rotterdam centraal station

Last week saw a wonderful conference held by the the Dutch network for qualitative research KWALON, based at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam. The theme was no less than the future of Qualitative Data Analysis (QDA) software.

 

Chair Jeanine Evers opened the session by outlining 8 important themes the group had identified on qualitative analysis software.

 

The first was the challenge of adding features to software that is requested by users or present in competitors software, without breaking the underlying design of the software. Quirkos really connects to this theme, because we have always tried to have a very simple tool-set, based on a philosophy that the software should be very easy to use. While we obviously take heed of suggestions made by our users, we actually have a comprehensive and limited set of features which we have always planned to introduce, and will continue delivering these over the next few years.

 

However, it is not the intention of Quirkos to become a large software package with lots of features, something Jeanine described as a ‘obese software’ that needs to be put on a diet. It was noted that many software providers have released ‘lite’ versions of their software, and another discussion point was if this fragmented approach can benefit universities and users.

 

User friendliness was another theme of the session, and by keeping Quirkos simple we hope to always have this at the fore of our design philosophy. In my talk (you can now get the slides here) I discussed these themes as mostly being about improving accessibility. To this end, we have tried to make Quirkos not just easier to use, but also to teach and own, with permanent licences and discounts for researchers from  countries that can’t usually afford this type of software. For us, the long-term goal is not just increasing the number of people that use software for qualitative analysis, but the number that are able to take up qualitative research in general.

 

There was also some good discussion at the end of our talk about the risks of making software easy to use: especially that it also makes it easy to use badly. As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, software in general can make it very satisfying to code, and this can appear to be more productive than stepping back and thinking about themes or a undertaking deep readings of the data. These problems can apply to all software packages, so it is important that students and educators work together to learn about the whole analysis procedure, and what part CAQDAS can play.

 

Comments also touched on how memo making is a critical part of a good iterative and reflexive qualitative analysis process: which at the moment Quirkos doesn’t forefront (see for example how F4analyse and a future version of Cassandre will operate). Although it is possible to record memos by typing in a source, which gives you the ability to tag and code your memos, as well as writing notes as source properties, this is currently not highlighted enough and we plan on revamping the memo features in a future update.

 


The final theme of the conference, and a major push, was to promote a standard way to exchange software between qualitative software. At the moment it is very difficult for users to move their coded data from one software package to the other. Although most major packages provide options to export their data to other formats (such as spreadsheet CSV data like Quirkos), there is currently no single standard for how should be formatted, so it is very difficult to bring this data – complete with themes and coding - into another package.

 

There was strong support from the software developers to develop and support such a standard, as well as discussions about existing initiatives such as CATA-XML and QuDEx.


This is very important: but not just for users of different of qualitative analysis software, who want to be able to collaborate with universities and colleagues who use different packages. It’s also important for archival purposes, so that qualitative coded data can be universally shared and stored for secondary analysis, and to make it easier for data to be brought in for analysis from the huge number of digital sources in the digital humanities, such as history, journalism, and social media. Such a standard could also be important for formatting data so that machine learning and natural language processing can automate some of the simpler analysis processes on very large ‘big-data’ datasets.


So there is a lot to be done, but a lot of interest in the area in the next few years, with major and minor players all taking different approaches, and seeking common ground. Quirkos is honoured to be a small part of this, and will do whatever we can to improve the world of qualitative analysis for this and the next generation of researchers.

 

 

How to organise notes and memos in Quirkos

EraserGirl post-it-notes

 

Many people have asked how they can integrate notes or memos into their project in Quirkos. At the moment, there isn’t a dedicated memo feature in the current version of Quirkos (v1.0), but this is planned for a free upgrade later in the year.


However, there are actually two ways in which users can integrate notes and memos into their project already using methods that give a great deal of flexibility.


The first, and most obvious ‘workaround’ is to create a separate source for notes and memos. First, create a blank source by pressing the (+) button on the bottom right of the screen, and select ‘New Source’. In the source properties view (Top right) you can change the name of this to ‘Memos’ or ‘Thoughts’ or something appropriate. You can then edit this source by long-clicking or right clicking in the source and selecting ‘Edit Source Text’. Now you have a dialogue box into which you can keep track of all your thoughts or memos during the coding process, and keep coming back to add more.


The advantage to having your memo as a source is that you can code with it in exactly the same way you would with any of your other sources. So you can write a note ‘I’m not sure about grouping Fear and Anxiety as separate codes’ and actually drag and drop that text onto the Anxiety and Fear bubbles – assigning that section of your note as being about those categories. When running queries or reports, you can easily see your comments together with the coding for that source, or just look at all your notes together.


This approach is most useful if you want to record your thoughts on the coding process or on developing your analysis framework. You can also have a series of note sources – for example if you had several people coding on a project. Don’t forget that you can export a source as a Word file with all the annotations, should you want to print or share just your notes on a project. One further tip is to create a Yes/No source property called ‘Memo’ or ‘Note’ so you can record which source(s) contain memos. Then when running queries or reports you can quickly choose whether to include coded memos or not.


However, if you want to record specific notes about each source, the second method is to actually create a source property for comments and notes. So for example, you might want to record some details of the interview that might have contextual importance. You can create a source property for ‘Interview conditions’ and note things like ‘Noisy room’ and ‘Respondent scared by Dictaphone’. By changing this property to be multiple choice, you can record several notes here, which of course can be used again across all the sources. This would let you quickly mark which interviewees were nervous about being recorded, and even see if responses from these people differed in a query comparison view.


However, you can also have a source category for more general notes, and add as many values to this property as you like. At the moment you can have very long values for source properties, but more than the first few words will not be shown. We are going to change this in an update in the next few weeks that will allow you to view much longer notes stored as property values.


These two different approaches should allow you plenty of ways to record notes, memos and musings as you go through and analyse your project. They also give you a lot of ways to sort and explore those notes – useful once you get to the stage of having lots of them! In future releases we will add a specific memo feature which will allow you to also have the option to add a note to a specific coding event, and will be implemented in unique but intuitive way. Watch this space!