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MAXqda logo Text and code searches in MAXqda

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

Affiliation: University of Huddersfield

Date written: 30th June 2005





Symbols and Conventions


Searching is an important analytic technique and computers excel at. Two kinds of searching are supported by MAXqda: lexical searching and code searching. The former involves searching for text; the latter enables you to make analytic comparisons.

Searching is one of the most powerful tools available in MAXqda. It can be used for both an exploratory approach to the data, just to see what is there and for checking hunches. Text search, as I have described above is very good for exploration, but you can use code searching in this way too. For example it can be used to elaborate the dimensions of responses and you might use it as a way of developing a taxonomy and improving the content and structure of your code hierarchy. For example, in the Unemployed in Yorkshire project imagine you have done a code search to bring together all the text about the evaluation of various work finding services (e.g. an 'or' search). Reading through this text you might note that there are several different kinds of response to the services. Some respondents found them helpful, others found them inaccessible, others found them irrelevant to their needs. You can create new codes for these ideas (code to them from the text you have found) as a dimension of the concept of evaluation.

To undertake a simple lexical search

  1. click the Search button (MAXqda search button). The Search dialog opens.
  2. click New button and type in your search term or string.
  3. click the tick boxes to determine how you want to search.
  4. click Run Search button. A Search Results window opens. See Figure 1. This shows which search strings were found in which documents.
  5. click one of them to show the string, selected, in the Text Browser pane. The Search Results window is modeless, i.e. you can work on the document text while it remains open. Thus you can now code any appropriate text.


MAXqda Search Results Window

Figure 1 MAXqda Search Results window.

You can search for more than one word at a time and for variations of the words by using wildcards and special characters.

Search string Will find
[talk|talking|talks] 'talk' and/or 'talking' and/or 'talks' etc.
talk[a-z]* any of 'talk', 'talking', 'talks', 'talked' etc.

Searching for codes, attributes and text

MAXqda contains functions for searching and retrieving text that has already been coded searching for codes and/or attributes. This allows a very rich set of comparisons to be made.

When doing text search it is clear that what is being searched for is text and what is being searched in is text. This is less obvious when searching codes and/or attributes, but it is important to recognize that the same is true. In these cases what is compared in the search is the actual text coded at or linked to the code or variable. Thus in the simplest case, if you search for one code OR another, what is compared is the text coded with these codes. The search will find all the text coded at either code, if any (including that coded at both codes, if any).

MAXqda allows two or more codes (and sometimes attributes too) to be searched for in combination. Such combination is divided into two kinds, Boolean and proximity.

Boolean searches combine codes using the logical terms like 'and', 'or' and 'not'. This type of search is named after the mathematician, Boole, who first formalised them. Common Boolean searches are 'or' (also referred to as 'combination' or 'union') and 'and' (also called 'intersection').

Proximity searches rely on the coded text being near, after or perhaps overlapping some other coded text. Commonly used proximity searches are 'followed by' (also referred to as 'sequence' or 'preceding') and 'near' (also referred to as 'co-occurrence').

Table 1 explains how they work and gives some examples. Although both Boolean and proximity searches are useful for investigating the data and checking hunches, the Boolean searches are most useful in examining hypotheses or ideas about the data and rely on consistent and accurate coding, whereas proximity searches can be more used speculatively and to explore the data, often at an early stage of coding.

Table 1 Common Boolean and proximity searches using code A and code B


Will find:

Common use

A and B

only the text that is coded with both A and B and not any text that is coded with only one of the codes A or B or neither.

If A is 'gives account' and B is 'plays truant' then A and B will find all the places the respondent explains why they stay away from school.

A or B

any text that is coded with A or B or both. N.B. it is often useful to do an 'or' search on three or more codes at once. This will find text coded with any of the codes.

In a project on people who have separated from their partners, if A is 'abandoned', B is 'drifted apart', C is 'mutual agreement' then A or B or C will find and bring together all the ways the people describe their reasons for splitting up.

A followed by B

the text that is coded with code A where it is followed by some text coded with code B. You may have to specify how closely it is followed.

In the same experience of separation project, if A is 'turning point' and B is 'training' then A followed by B (retrieving B) will show where people talk about training they have had after their turning point.

A near B

only the text that is coded with one code that appears near text coded with the other (before or after or even overlapping). You will need to define what near means, for example 'within 2 paragraphs'.

In the homelessness project, if A is 'becoming homeless' and B is 'anger' then A near B (retrieving A) will show where people talk about becoming homeless that is associated with their expressing anger.

For example, imagine in a study of people looking for work, you have coded all talk about looking for work to the codes 'Routine', 'Haphazard' and 'Entrepreneurial'. If you wanted to compare how men talked in these ways with how women talked about the same then you could either do a search for text with the variable value 'male' and coded with the code 'Routine', and then text with value 'female' and coded with the code 'Routine'. Then repeat this for 'Haphazard' and 'Entrepreneurial'.

Searching for text coded 'Routine' AND with an attribute value of either 'male' or 'female'

  1. First you need to activate just the male texts. right click Text Groups in the Document System pane,
  2. click Activation by Variables. click New click Gender (or whatever you have called the variable). Type 'male' into the Value box, click Activate. (Assuming you have already assigned your documents to the variable value 'male' or to 'female'.)
  3. In the Code System pane, find and right click the code 'Routine',
  4. click Activate. The Retrieved Segments pane will now show those segments of text that are coded with 'Routine' in the male documents.

For the female texts,

  1. right click Text Groups in the Document System pane,
  2. click Activation by Variables. click Delete (to remove previous activation).
  3. click New click Gender.
  4. Type 'female' into the Value box,
  5. click Activate. Assuming that the code 'Routine' is still activated, those segments of text that are coded with 'Routine' in the female documents will now be displayed in the Retrieved segments pane.

There is a lot more to searching than just searching for text and searching for one code and another. MAXqda allows quite complex searches and complex combinations of codes and variables.