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Complete Beginner

Authors of this page: Celia Taylor and Graham R. Gibbs

Affiliation: University of Huddersfield

Date written: 30th June 2005

 

 

 

Where do I start?

If you are new to qualitative data analysis and qualitative data analysis software there are five areas to think about. You need to plan how you think you could address these areas in the time you have available for your research project.

1. About your project

Firstly you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why are you researching this area? - The reasons you are researching a topic area could be because you have chosen an area that interests you or you have been employed to conduct a project chosen by someone else. Often funding is made available for a particular topic area to be investigated. The answer to this question will help you preserve your motivation at difficult times in the project and might even help you think about different ways the knowledge you discover could be used.
  • What are the gaps in current knowledge/research? - It is essential to be familiar with current research in order to identify an area that has not yet been explored or an area that needs further investigation. This will not only help you determine your research question(s) but will also focus your analysis so that you can pull out from you data what you have found but no-one else has - yet. Being aware of the research literature will also make you aware of how what you have discovered fits in with the existing knowledge about the topic. This background research will also help you to think about the kinds of philosophical and methodological approaches you need to adopt or that you will choose to take.
  • What are your research questions? - What questions are you trying to answer during your research project? You may also identify new questions as your research progresses. In a qualitative project it usually make most sense to have a broad research question or a small set of related research questions. This is a very important stage in developing your research as it is all to easy to set out to address a research question that is far too broad and vague. No-one ever failed their PhD by making their research question too narrow!
  • How much time do you have? - How long has been allocated to the research project? It could be anything from a number of months to a number of years. The amount of time you have available determines what you can realistically achieve. You need to plan your project within the constraints of the time you have available. You need to make sure that you leave appropriate and sufficient time for the planning and setting up stages, for data collection, for analysis and for writing up. Make sure you don't have to skimp on the later stages because you have spent too long on the earlier ones.
  • What papers and presentations could be produced from the research? - Identify what papers and presentations you could produce from your research and what conferences and journals would be suitable. It is immoral to undertake research and to take up the time and good will of your participants without making your results public. So plan from the outset the ways you can disseminate the outcomes of your research. Another important reason for this is that your presentations and publications are an important factor in ensuring that you will be able to continue doing research.

These questions are based on those raised by Jennifer Mason in her book, Qualitative researching (Mason, 1996).

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2. Methodological/theoretical approach in qualitative research

You need to investigate the different methodological/theoretical approaches available and identify which one or combination is most suitable for your project. It is best if you do this before you start collecting data or enter the field setting though this may not be possible. Becoming familiar with the field setting might help you decide on an approach. Even if you have given it some prior thought and identified a relevant approach, when you start collecting data you may well feel that other methodologies might be helpful. It is useful, indeed sometimes necessary to remain flexible about your approach. However, if you are going to broaden your methodologies or even completely change them, be aware that the later you leave this the more likely it is that you will have wasted time and effort doing background research that you won't use. On the other hand, despite the costs, it often makes sense to change to a methodology that will enable you to answer the research question you are addressing and to do so in a way that is novel and will yield new answers.

Realism vs constructionism

There is a major divide in methodologies in qualitative research. On the one hand there are those approaches that treat the data as a resource that can yield information about the behaviour and actions of the people investigated and the situations and settings within which they operate. Such approaches often adopt a realist ontology. Analytic methods commonly used are grounded theory, comparative analysis, framework analysis, symbolic interactionism, qualitative thematic analysis, objective hermeneutics and some forms of phenomenology such as template analysis and interpretative phenomenological analysis. On the other hand there are approaches that take an interpretive, naturalistic or relativistic approach and believe that qualitative data cannot reveal any single, objective truth about the world. Data collected in interviews and texts are of interest not because they give information about the objective world within which people live but rather because they reveal one of the multitude of ways people see and experience the world and one of the ways they use language to identify themselves, account for the world and convince others about it. Analytic methods that commonly take this approach are discourse analysis, conversation analysis, narrative and social constructionism.

Mixed methods

You can adopt a mixed method approach, though beware, some methodologies, especially those on either side of the divide just identified are incompatible or at least difficult to reconcile. Have look at the Methodologies section for some basic information about the different approaches and some links on to other resources.

If you have no previous training in qualitative research methods and its methodologies it is advisable to attend a course. Your institution may offer a suitable course or be willing to fund you to attend one elsewhere. You might also locate individuals in your institution or elsewhere who are knowledgeable in this area and willing to offer advice and support.

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3. Collecting the data

  • What type of data will you collect? - The most common way to collect qualitative data is by interviews. These can be conducted face to face, over the telephone or via email. Other methods of collecting qualitative data include case studies, observations, focus groups, field work and through the collection of documents, images, video and other cultural artefacts.
  • What format do you need the data to be in? - When you collect data it could be in the form of audio recordings, video, photographs, and hand-written notes. These data then need to be put into a format suitable for analysis, for example, by transcribing the audio or video recording. (More on transcription...) There are additional considerations if you are intending to use CAQDAS. More on this...
  • Will you be collecting alone or in a team? - Collecting data takes a considerable amount of time. You will probably need to contact individuals to take part in you research. If they agree you may need to travel to their location to conduct the research. Collecting data is quicker if the work is shared in a group. However, if you are working in a team you will need to get organised e.g. by agreeing what tasks each team member will conduct.
  • Ethical approval - All research projects involving people require ethical approval before they can commence. The nature of the project will determine the type of ethical approval required. Ethical procedures vary between institutions so it is important to find out what they are where you are working. You need to know how long the ethical approval takes (it can be a long time) and what you need to present to the Ethics Board. If you are working in the health area you will probably need to be approved by a Health Research Ethics Committee. In the UK there are Local Research Ethics Committees (LRECs) run by the National Health Service.
  • Ethical issues - This will include an assessment of the risk to participants and researchers (if any) and how you intend to deal with those risks. It is normal to protect the identity of participants, organisations and situations, usually by some form of anonymisations. You should also make arrangements to keep your data secure and confidential.
  • What information do you need to provide to volunteers? - Volunteers need to be provided with a Participant Information Sheet and Informed Consent Form. The Participant Information Sheet includes such things as details of the purpose of the study, why the individual has been invited to take part, and who is conducting the research. The Informed Consent Form is signed by individuals that agree to take part in the research stating they have understood the purpose of the study, how the information they provided will be used and have decided of their own free will to take part.
  • How will you sample? - You may not think this is an issue if you are undertaking participant observation or ethnographic work and you have already chosen or have no choice about your setting. You just keep field notes whenever you are in the field setting. However, even here you may have choices about when you go into the field, who you talk to and which part of the setting you will spend your time in. More commonly, qualitative research involves a number of interviews with participants. You will need to decide which participants and how many and the sampling method you will use to select them. In some qualitative research sampling is intended to produce a representative sample, but usually other sampling strategies are used, e.g. convenience sampling, purposive sampling, snowball sampling and theoretical sampling. Similar considerations will apply to the selection of settings, organisations, institutions etc. for your data collection.
  • How will you contact your sample? - You need to decide how you will contact individuals to invite them to take part in your research project e.g. by letter or telephone. You may need to approach people through a third party such as a company or institution. In these cases, the role of gatekeepers and inside contacts can be very important.
  • How are you going to collect the data? - It depends on the type of data needed for your project and the budget you have available. You can interview people face-to-face, over the telephone or via email. You will need to think about the technology needed for this, such as voice recorders (consider new technologies such as mini-disk  and MP3 recorders) and telephone recorders. Alternatively you might want to take field notes (again consider the technology you might need such as dictation machines, laptop computers etc.) or video sessions (best if you can use digital video recorders).
  • What will be your costs during the research?- Before you begin the research you need to have identified what your costs will be and how you will finance them. Check what is available at your institution before you buy items as you may be able to borrow them or buy them at a reduced rate. Types of costs you may incur are:
    • Travel to interview individuals or attend meetings
    • Equipment such as an audio recorder and tapes or disks to record on
    • Transcription costs if you hire someone to type up your interviews
    • Software you need to analyse or manipulate your data
    • Conference fees and accommodation
  • How long will it take to collect the data and then format it? - You need to estimate how long it will take to select your sample, undertake fieldwork and/or interview individuals and then transcribe your notes and interviews. This needs to be planned into the schedule of your research project. If you find you are over-running the time you had allocated you need to decide how this will affect the rest of the research project and therefore what action to take.
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4. Analysing the data

Analysing your data also needs to be planned into you project schedule. The time you have available dictates the depth of the analysis you can do to some degree. When deciding how you will analyse your data you can chose to do it manually, using traditional pen and paper, or supported by a software program. Factors that may influence which you choose are:

  • Time available for analysis
  • How long it will take you to learn and use a method
  • The amount of data you have collected
  • Training and support available in your institution or elsewhere
  • Availability of equipment or software in your institution
  • Budget to pay for equipment or software and training

There is a great range of approaches you can take, but some may be predetermined as a result of your choice of methodology. For instance, if you are using conversation analysis then there is a pretty fixed analytic approach and a pre-set list of phenomena that you would look for in your analysis. Other approaches, such as action theory or ethnography put less restriction on your analytic approach. The pages in the Introduction to QDA give some details of the more common approaches used by several methodologies. This includes coding the data, lexical searching, making comparisons, and moving to more analytic and theoretical codes.

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5. Presenting the findings

Depending on the type of research project you are conducting you are likely to have to report on the research in a specified format such as a research report, dissertation, or PhD thesis. Consider the structure of your final report and write it as you go along to help your thinking during the research. Also take into account the likely audience of your report to decide how much detail to include on various aspects. More..

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Getting started

You could get started by working through our Intro to Qualitative Data Analysis section which give an outline of what is involved. There is also a A-Z of methodologies which briefly explains what each approach is and the type of projects that might use . A list of resources provides references for further sources of information. You will require an understanding of how to use the software and what tools and functions are available in the software. Finally you will need to learn how to write up your findings.

Once you have gained an understanding of QDA and which approach you might use you can then decide whether you will analyse the data manually or using software, maybe even a combination of both. You can find out how software can help you at Introduction to CAQDAS. Learn more about that package in software overview and find tips on getting training and support. To be able to use the software you need to check you have certain computer skills although you may find you use many of them already.

References

Mason, J. (1996) Qualitative researching. London: Sage.