Writing as Analysis
Authors of this page: Graham R. Gibbs
Affiliation: University of Huddersfield
Date written: 30th June 2005
Updated 6th Oct 2010
Writing is a vital part of your analysis and is a continual process during your research. It is important to write down thoughts, ideas and further questions as they occur to you. This will also help when it comes to writing up the research project.
It is not a good idea to leave all your writing to what is often called a 'writing-up' stage. Start writing as early as you can. Writing as you work through data collection and analysis will encourage you to set down your ideas and hunches, even though, in all likelihood, these thoughts will get extensively altered as you proceed through your project. You may be tempted to write just notes because that is all you have time for, but try to avoid leaving the ideas as notes. Go back and 'write them up' into a narrative as soon as you can and preferably into a word processor or into your CAQDAS program. Do the same with any hand-written jottings. This is because:
- Notes that make sense to you as you jot them down may not when you come back to them months, if not years later.
- Writing is thinking. It is natural to believe that you need to be clear in your mind what you are trying to express first before you can write it down. However, most of the time the opposite is true. You may think you have a clear idea, but it is only when you write it down that you can be certain that you do (or sadly, sometimes, that you do not). Having to communicate your ideas is an excellent test of how far you have a clear understanding and how coherent your ideas are. Writing is an ideal way of doing this.
In a very real sense, writing up your notes and writing the final narrative account of your work are, especially in qualitative research, central parts of the analysis itself. A lot of qualitative analysis involves interpretation. You have to work out what is going on, what things mean and why they are happening. What you start with is a lot of words, pictures, sounds or video images. These are all meaningful, but you need to interpret them and re-express them in a way that is both faithful to the respondents, informants and settings you are investigating, and at the same time informs and explains things to the readers of your reports.
Writing should begin at the start of the project and be ongoing during the research process and not left till the end.
- Record ideas, thoughts and further questions (it is easy to forget things that are not written down)
- Keeps a record of your research process and why you made decisions
- Put your notes into context so they make sense (the meaning of notes is easy to forget)
- Writing helps you to think about the research and make sense of ideas and you can them redraft as you refine your thoughts and helps you re-evaluate your research process
- Little and often makes the task of writing up your analysis less daunting
- Once you have started to write it becomes easier to write more
(Adapted from Delamont, Atkinson and Parry 1997: 121)
For these reasons writing forms part of your analysis as it is a process of interpretation.
The three widely used forms of writing as part of analysis are:
- Research diary - involves a researcher recording what they are doing during the project. It complements the data collected by providing a history of how the project evolved (Hughes, 1996).
- Field notes - these are informal notes taken by the researcher about their thoughts and observations when they in the field 'environment' they are researching. These can be included in the data analysis process for instance coded along with the interview data.
- Memos - a document containing commentary on the primary data or nodes of the project
A research diary can take different forms depending on what is useful to individual researcher. It is used to keep a record of thoughts, ideas, further questions, meetings and discussions that occur throughout the research process. The researcher could choose to make the diary quite personal or to keep it formal. The format it is recorded in is a personal preference that suits you.
These are notes taken by the researcher about their thoughts and observations when they in the field 'environment' they are researching. They can also be notes you make immediately after leaving the field if it was not convenient to write while in the field. It is not unknown for researchers to head for the lavatory so they can temporarily leave the ‘field’ and be on their own to write up their field notes. Field notes are usually about the people you have been studying, their actions and the setting you have observed. For instance it could be details and impressions about an interview that would not be picked up by in an audio recording. It could be comments the informant made once the audio recorder had been switched off and they researcher records them as soon as they have left the interview. The notes can be quite unstructured and include things that seem to be significant to the people or topic you are researching. Field notes are an important form of data collection in ethnography and participant observation. But are useful in all approaches to qualitative research.
Writing up field notes
Whether field notes constitute primary data or are really a form of analytic description and interpretation of what is being studied is a matter of some debate. If they are the former, then the notes can be thematically analysed and coded just like interview transcripts and other primary data. If they are seen as the latter, then they may be treated more like analytic memos and always kept distinct from other, primary data.
Whichever you choose, there are a number of approaches to the use and write up of field notes.
- You can be open and candid, even critical. Your field notes are for you and will not be viewed by your participants.
- Include both descriptions of events (inscriptions) and notes about what people said (transcriptions).
- Order events by date, significance or interest. Try to pick out turning points.
- Write about events in a detailed way like a short story. Use what Geertz refers to as ‘thick description’ (Geertz, 1975).
- Record them in the first person or the third person (but be consistent) and decide if your attitude to your participants will be sympathetic or neutral.
- Record your emotions about events in the research or the project overall.
A document containing commentary on the primary data or nodes of the project. This way of writing originates from grounded theory who in order to remain grounded in the data keep their notes separate form the data. It involves writing your thoughts and comments as you code. This helps to remind you why you made the decisions you made during the coding process and is helpful for writing up final reports. As with field notes memos are written throughout the research project and do not have to be seen by anybody. Possible uses for memos
- "A new idea for a code. This may be sparked off by something a respondent says. Keep a list of codes handy to help cross-referencing.
- Just a quick hunch. Indicate what's just a hunch or conjecture and what is supported by evidence in the data. Otherwise you'll come back later and think that a mere hunch is actually supported by the evidence. (It may or may not be.)
- Integrative discussion (e.g. of previous reflective remarks). Often this brings together one or more memos and/or code definitions. A key activity here is to compare codes, settings or cases.
- As a dialogue amongst researchers. Memos are a good way of sharing analytic ideas with co-workers. Put your name and date on the memo so you know who wrote it and when.
- To question the quality of the data. You may feel that the respondent was not entirely open about something or that they are not qualified to tell you about an issue, i.e. the story is second or third hand.
- To question the original analytic framework. You might write a memo against an existing code to raise questions about whether it actually makes sense. Consider combining codes if memos on them look similar. This is often an indication that the codes are actually about the same thing.
- What is puzzling or surprising about a case? A key skill in examining qualitative documents is to be able to spot what is surprising. Sometimes we are too familiar with the context to find something surprising or more commonly we simply fail to spot it.
- As alternative hypotheses to another memo. This is a kind of internal dialogue between those involved on the project or to yourself if you are working alone.
- If you have no clear idea but are struggling to find one. You may think you are onto something, in that case writing it down may help sort out what the issues are. Remember you can always come back to what you have written later to see if, in the cold light of the next day, it still makes sense.
- To raise a general theme or metaphor. This is a more integrative or holistic activity. At some time in your analysis you will need to start trying to bring the manifold issues together.
(Adapted from Gibbs 2002: 88-9)
Sankaran (2000) has written a short account of the use of memos as part of a PhD study.
Geertz, C. (1975) Thick description, in C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. London: Hutchinson
Gibbs, G.R. (2002) Qualitative Data Analysis: Explorations with NVivo. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Gibbs, G.R. (2008) Analyzing qualitative data. London: Sage. Part of the Qualitative Research Kit, ed. U. Flick.
Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (1997) Supervising the PhD: A guide to success. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.
Hughes, I. (1996) How to keep a research diary http://www2.fhs.usyd.edu.au/arow/arer/005.html
Sankaran, S. (2000). Memos to myself: A Tool to Improve Reflection During an Action Research Project. Action Research E-Reports, 10. Available at: http://www.fhs.usyd.edu.au/arow/arer/010.htm
Stirling, P (no date) Turkish Village Fieldnotes 1949-1986
Available online at: http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/Stirling/
The resources on this site by Graham R Gibbs, Dawn Clarke, Celia Taylor, Christina Silver and Ann Lewins are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.