13.5 Analyzing qualitative data

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how to transcribe qualitative data
  • Identify and describe the two types of coding in qualitative research

 

Analysis of qualitative data typically begins with a set of transcripts of the interviews or focus groups conducted. Obtaining these transcripts requires having either taken exceptionally good notes or, preferably, having recorded the interview or focus group and then transcribed it. Transcribing audio recordings is usually the first step toward analyzing qualitative data. Researchers create a complete, written copy, or transcript, of the recording by playing it back and typing in each word that is spoken, noting who spoke which words. In general, it is best to aim for a verbatim transcript, one that reports word for word exactly what was said in the recording. If possible, it is also best to include nonverbals in a transcript. Gestures made by participants should be noted, as should the tone of voice and notes about when, where, and how spoken words may have been emphasized by participants. These are difficult to capture via audio, so it is important to have a note-taker in focus groups and to write useful field notes during interviews.

 

a tape cassette

If you have the time (or if you lack the resources to hire others), I think it is best to transcribe your qualitative data yourself. I never cease to be amazed by the things I recall from an interview or focus group when I transcribe it myself. If the researcher who conducted the interview or focus group transcribes it themselves, then they will also be able to make a note of nonverbal behaviors and interactions that may be relevant to analysis but that could not be picked up by audio recording. Participants might roll their eyes, wipe tears from their face, and even make obscene gestures. These nonverbals speak volumes about participants’ feelings. Unless you write them down in your field notes or include them in your transcript, those details cannot inform your analysis.

The goal of qualitative data analysis is to reach some inferences, lessons, or conclusions by condensing large amounts of data into relatively smaller, more manageable bits of understandable information. Analysis of qualitative data often works inductively (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Charmaz, 2006). [1] To move from the specific observations a researcher collects to identifying patterns across those observations, qualitative researchers will often begin by reading through transcripts and trying to identify codes. A code is a shorthand representation of some more complex set of issues or ideas. In this usage, the word code is a noun but it can also be a verb. The process of identifying codes in one’s qualitative data is often referred to as coding. Coding involves identifying themes across qualitative data by reading and rereading (and rereading again) transcripts until the researcher has a clear idea about what themes emerge.

Qualitative researcher and textbook author Kristin Esterberg (2002) [2] describes coding as a multistage process. Esterberg suggests that there are two types of coding: open coding and focused coding. To analyze qualitative data, one can begin by open coding transcripts. This means that you read through each transcript, line by line, and make a note of whatever categories or themes jump out to you. At this stage, it is important to avoid allowing your original research question or tentative hypotheses to cloud your ability to see categories or themes. It’s called open coding because you must keep an open mind throughout the process. You may have even noted some ideas for coding in your field notes or journal entries.

Open coding will probably require multiple rounds, which means that you will probably read through all your transcripts multiple times. As you do, it is likely that you’ll begin to see some commonalities across the categories or themes that you’ve jotted down. Once you have completed a few passes and started noticing commonalities, you might begin focused coding. Focused coding is a multistage process. First, collapse or narrow down themes and categories identified in open coding by reading through the notes you made while conducting open coding. Then, identify themes or categories that seem to be related, perhaps merging some. Once you come up with a final list of codes, make sure each one has a definition that clearly spells out what the code means. Finally, you recode the dataset using the final list of codes, making sure to apply the definition of the code consistently throughout each transcript.

 

a person drawing a concept map on a clear surface with black ink

Defining codes adds meaning to your data and develops a way to talk about your findings. Researchers must ensure that codes are applied in a uniform way in the entire data set during focused coding. It is common for new codes to emerge and for definitions to shift during open coding. The researcher should keep an open mind and allow the definitions of codes to emerge from reading (and re-reading) the data. However, once focused coding begins, the definitions should not change for any reason. Any deviation will make the data analysis less trustworthy. If there are pieces of data that do not fit with your definition, then it is important to note those deviant cases in your final report.

Using multiple researchers to code the same dataset can be quite helpful. Another coder may catch the things that you miss, like something that a participant said. Similarly, another coder may notice if you unknowingly shift your understanding of what a code means. If multiple researchers are coding the dataset simultaneously, researchers must come to a consensus about the meaning of each code and ensure that codes are applied consistently by each researcher. We discussed this previously in Chapter 9 as inter-rater reliability. Even if only one person will code the dataset, it is important to work with other researchers. If other researchers have the time, you may be able to have them check your work for trustworthiness and authenticity. We discussed these standards for methodological rigor in Chapter 9. Remember that the researcher is the measurement instrument in qualitative data analysis: They determine what is true, what is connected, and what it all means.

As tedious and laborious as it might seem to read through hundreds of pages of transcripts multiple times, getting started with the coding process is the hardest part. If you find yourself struggling to identify themes at the open coding stage, ask yourself some questions about your data. The answers should give you a clue about what sorts of themes or categories you are reading. In their text on analyzing qualitative data, Lofland and Lofland (1995) [3] identify a set of questions I find very useful when coding qualitative data. They suggest asking the following:

  • Of what topic, unit, or aspect is this an instance?
  • What question about a topic does this item of data suggest?
  • What sort of answer to a question about a topic does this item of data suggest (i.e., what proposition is suggested)?

Asking yourself these questions about the passages of data that you’re reading can help you begin to identify and name potential themes and categories.

Still feeling uncertain about how this process works? Sometimes it helps to see how qualitative data translate into codes. In Table 13.2, I present two codes that emerged from an inductive analysis of transcripts from interviews with child-free adults. I also include a brief description of each code and a few (of many) interview excerpts from which each code was developed.

Table 13.2 Interview coding example
Code Code definition Interview excerpts
Reify gender Participants reinforce heteronormative ideals in two ways: (a) by calling up stereotypical images of gender and family and (b) by citing their own “failure” to achieve those ideals. “The woman is more involved with taking care of the child. [As a woman] I’d be the one waking up more often to feed the baby and more involved in the personal care of the child, much more involved. I would have more responsibilities than my partner. I know I would feel that burden more than if I were a man.”
“I don’t have that maternal instinct.”
“I look at all my high school friends on Facebook, and I’m the only one who isn’t married and doesn’t have kids. I question myself, like if there’s something wrong with me that I don’t have that.”
“I feel badly that I’m not providing my parents with grandchildren.”
Resist Gender Participants resist gender norms in two ways: (a) by pushing back against negative social responses and (b) by redefining family for themselves in a way that challenges normative notions of family. “Am I less of a woman because I don’t have kids? I don’t think so!”
“I think if they’re gonna put their thoughts on me, I’m putting it back on them. When they tell me, ‘Oh, Janet, you won’t have lived until you’ve had children. It’s the most fulfilling thing a woman can do!’ then I just name off the 10 fulfilling things I did in the past week that they didn’t get to do because they have kids.”
“Family is the group of people that you want to be with. That’s it.”

As you might imagine, wading through data is quite a process. Just as quantitative researchers rely on the assistance of special computer programs to help sort and analyze their data, so too do qualitative researchers. Where quantitative researchers have SPSS and MicroCase (and many others), qualitative researchers have programs such as NVivo (http://www.qsrinternational.com) and Atlas.ti (http://www.atlasti.com). These are programs specifically designed to assist qualitative researchers with organizing, managing, sorting, and analyzing large amounts of qualitative data. The programs allow researchers to import transcripts from electronic files and then label or code passages, cut and paste passages, search for various words or phrases, and organize complex interrelationships among passages and codes. They even include advanced features that allow researchers to code multimedia files, visualize relationships between a network of codes, and count the number of times a code was applied. Having completed a handwritten coding process as part of a class project with a rather old-school professor, I’m happy I can use qualitative data analysis software to save myself time and hassle.

The following excerpt from my paper analyzing the implementation of self-directed supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities summarizes how the process of analyzing qualitative data can work:

Transcribed interviews were analyzed using Atlas.ti 7.5 (2014) qualitative data analysis software, a commonly used program in qualitative social science. The researchers approached data analysis from an inductive perspective, allowing themes to emerge from the data. As described by Braun and Clarke (2006), the thematic analysis proceeded along six sequential phases: (a) familiarizing with the data set, (b) generating initial codes, (c) searching for themes, (d) reviewing themes, (e) defining and naming themes, (f) and reporting data. One member of the research team conducted the coding and thematic analysis, consulting with a peer reviewer at the end of each of the three passes of coding and the entire research team after the coding process was complete. The peer reviewer reviewed each phase of coding for consistency, and worked with the primary coder to identify, review, and name themes. At the end of coding, the entire research team reviewed the themes and established a shared meaning that best reflected the narratives of participants, based on a series of dialogues. The themes were organized into a thematic map which was refined through consultation with the research team to ensure homogeneity within each theme and heterogeneity between themes. The analysis contained within this paper used co-occurrence counts as a guideline for the prevalence of themes within the data set. Thus, the analysis is limited to the most prevalent themes that answer each research question, while attending to exceptional or divergent cases. Methodological journaling related to coding and peer review helped to ensure the dependability, confirmability, and trustworthiness of the final research product (DeCarlo, Bogenschutz, Hall-Lande, & Hewitt, in press). [4]

 

Key Takeaways

  • Open coding involves allowing codes to emerge from the dataset.
  • Codes must be clearly defined before focused coding can begin, so the researcher applies them in the same way to each unit of data.
  • NVivo and Atlas.ti are computer programs that qualitative researchers use to help with organizing, sorting, and analyzing their data.

 

Glossary

Code- a shorthand representation of some more complex set of issues or ideas

Coding- identifying themes across qualitative data by reading transcripts

Focused coding- collapsing or narrowing down codes, defining codes, and recoding each transcript using a final code list

Open coding- reading through each transcript, line by line, and noting any categories or themes that seem to jump out to you

Transcript- a complete, written copy of the recorded interview or focus group containing each word that is spoken on the recording, noting who spoke which words

 

Image attributions

Compact Cassette by Petr Kvashin CC-0

concept of learning by unknown CC-0

 


  1. If you would like to learn more about inductive qualitative data analysis, I recommend two titles: Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine; Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Lofland, J., & Lofland, L. H. (1995). Analyzing social settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis (3rd ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  4. DeCarlo, M., Bogenschutz, M., Hall-Lane, J., & Hewitt, A. (in press). Implementation of self-directed supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States. Journal of disability policy studies.

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