Analysis of Textual Data

To understand society you have to -

  • gain access to the way people attribute meaning to what goes on around them,
  • and find out how they react to action or lack of action
    • events and/or nothing happening,
    • people or the absence of people.

One way of gaining access to people’s understanding is to capture their talk. This can literally mean their spoken words turned into text, or it may mean their words that were written down by them for themselves [e.g. diaries] or for others to read [e.g. letters].

Prefiguring the field
Analysis of qualitative data begins before it is collected. Sounds a little strange, but

  1. by framing and posing a research question or problem
  2. and being aware of the theoretical positions available on the topic researchers' are 'pre-figuring the field' [Malinowski 1922] i.e. anticipating what they may find.

Pre-figuring the field runs the risk of researchers only finding out what they want to find by only looking for a specific phenomena, or by being blind to other issues that arise.

Rigour - the checks and balances built into qualitative research to make sure it is believable, trustworthy and credible [Sandelowski 1986].

Forewarned is forearmed. By being aware of the pitfalls of pre-figuring the field, researchers can maintain an openess to the situation they are investigating. They can be attentive to issues that are not expected or do not conform to existing accounts or theories of society. This idea of being aware of your own values, ideas and pre-judgements as a researcher is known as reflexivity [Hammersley & Atkinson 1995].

Iteration means moving back and forth. In qualitative research it is difficult to cleanly separate out data collection or generation from data analysis because there is movement back and forth between generation and analysis.

Researchers usually generate data at a point in time and also write analytical notes to themselves about that data. These notes are then processed into memos or guiding notes to inform the next bout of data collection. And so leads the merry dance.

Analytical memos
The sorts of things included are –

  1. The identification of patterns;
  2. Working out the limitations, exceptions and variations present in whatever is being investigated;
  3. Generating tentative explanations for the patterns and seeing if they are present or absent in other settings or situations;
  4. Working explanations into a theoretical model;
  5. Confirming or modifying the theoretical model;

The way this is presented here sounds like it is an inevitable process that follows a straight line and does not deviate. Of course life is not like that, and these stages are an ideal type [Weber] meant to help you get a handle on the topic. What makes qualitative data analysis dynamic, exciting and intellectually challenging is the iteration between generation and analysis and within the different types of analytical work.

Triangulation of analysis
It is very rare for qualitative data to be collected all in one go, then processed and analysed. If this happened we might criticise the project for not being true to the context in which it was generalised, which would make it a weak piece of work.

One way of producing believable, credible and trustworthy work is to use triangulation. This is a term 'borrowed' from geography - and in qualitative analysis means more than one perspective on a situation e.g. patients or service users, their families and friends, and service providers.

To analyse texts for their meaning, researchers have to be fluent in the language which the research participants use.

Not just the formal language, but also the colloquialisms used in every day talk. Listen carefully next time you are in a public place to the richness of everyday language that bears little resemblance to standard English - check with a friend their interpretation of phrase or word against your own. An inability to understand what is said will restrict researchers' abilities to gain an understanding of participants' motives, meanings and behaviours.

Capturing talk
The act of capturing talk may shape what is said and in turn influence how it is analysed. Using tape recorders to capture talk means that researchers' may attend to the interviewee without having to focus on writing down their talk verbatim. However, the recording will have to be clear to allow an accurate transcription so attention to equipment and environment will have a direct affect on the quality of the analysis.

Processing texts and archiving
The most common way of processing texts is to transcribe taped talk into word processed documents. These may then be read and re-read to identify meaning, patterns and models.

Analytical notes and memos will be made, and all of these need to stored carefully -

  1. to protect the integrity of the original document,
  2. to allow the various components of the current analysis to be identified,
  3. to locate the source of the comments made.

There are software programmes which provide an orderly and rigourous framework for data archival and administrative tasks. Each programme has built in assumptions about data and how it should be handled. Researchers need to choose with care a programme that is similar to their own perspective and to the characteristics of their data.

Ensuring the voice of the researched is heard
The way in which qualitative research is presented to us as readers is crucial for us to have confidence in the rigour of the work. A good way to show that theories come from the understanding of the research participants is to allow their voices to be heard. This means including representative quotations from peoples' talk to illustrate points.

This is where qualitative data analysis software programmes come into their own because they allow researchers to earmark segments of text, apply tags or descriptive lables to the segments, and build up categories and themes of analysis. When it comes to writing the definitive research document these segments can then be found easily in the archive, and directly inserted into the text.

Sock bag
Life is rarely neatly packaged up into tidy bundles. There are always cul-de-sacs, themes which peter out or are inconsistent with one another. The temptation in qualitative research is to ignore the odd categories that do not fit neatly into the emerging theory. These oddments are like the solo socks you find in your drawers, hence the sock bag phenomenon. All qualitative research projects will have oddments that defy characterisation, rather than air brush them from the picture they need to be acknowledged as part of the whole.