Making visible the coding process: Using qualitative data software in a post-structural study
Queensland University of Technology
Qualitative research methods require transparency to ensure the 'trustworthiness' of the data analysis. The intricate processes of organising, coding and analysing the data are often rendered invisible in the presentation of the research findings, which requires a 'leap of faith' for the reader. Computer assisted data analysis software can be used to make the research process more transparent, without sacrificing rich, interpretive analysis by the researcher. This article describes in detail how one software package was used in a post-structural study to link and code multiple forms of data to four research questions for fine grained analysis. This description will be useful for researchers seeking to use qualitative data analysis software as an analytic tool.
This article outlines how qualitative software packages such as NVivo (version 7 used here) can be utilised to make the research process visible to the reader. First, I discuss key issues related to the use of such software, then I illustrate its use by explaining in detail the processes facilitated by the software in a post-structural study about the civic participation of youth. The use of software to aid the analysis of qualitative data can not be seen as a mechanical process which is separate from the research methodology (Cousins & McIntosh, 2005). Rather, the software must be used in ways which support and enhance the methodological concerns of the study. Much of the existing literature examining the impact of software on the research process has been written by software developers or trainers (Johnston, 2006). Thus, this detailed description of the coding methods employed to address four research questions will be useful for other researchers seeking to use the software as an analytic tool.
Early criticisms of the use of computer technology to manage qualitative data suggested that the very nature of qualitative research would be lost as the researcher would be alienated from the data, and analytic strategies would be enforced to reduce the context-relatedness of interactions (Fielding & Lee, 2002; Lee & Fielding, 1991; Seidel & Kelle, 1995). Such binary constructions that suggest either using software and saving time or coding the data manually to enable rich, interpretive analysis need to be problematised. Kelle (2004) argues that such criticisms are overemphasised, as the coding, indexing, cross referencing and comparison techniques of these software programs are simply different versions of the 'age-old' techniques of data management used implicitly in social science research. The problems associated with such techniques are not new. Rather, they have become more visible by the requirement to explicitly code the data in these types of software programs. Similarly, Johnston (2006) suggests that the transparency afforded by the use of such programs may simply highlight (potential) problems that already exist in qualitative research. Making decisions about the types and numbers of coded categories is difficult with or without the use of computer software. However, one of the benefits of using such software is the flexibility of being able to define and easily alter the coding scheme during the coding process (Kelle, 2004).
Another criticism, related to the precise, inflexible, context-free, unambiguous requirements for coding using computer technology (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986; Glaser, 2003), is one that needs to be addressed in a post-structural study. I suggest that, while decisions about codes may need to be precise, they do not necessarily need to be inflexible, context-free, nor indeed removed from the methodology of the study or the data itself. In fact Johnston (2006) suggests that researchers must discuss the impact that the software has on their methods for its use to be beneficial for rigorous analysis. Recording key decisions, reflections, variations and emergent ideas ensures 'analytical distance' (Johnston, 2006 p.387) to ensure coding is not superficial. The codes are not generated by the software program without regard for the discursive practices and macro discourses surrounding the data as the term 'context-free' might suggest. The researcher must still decide upon ways to code the data based upon the theoretical framework, the research questions, and the initial sense of the data, which is quite context specific. Computers "cannot resolve essential dilemmas of inquiry, nor eliminate the important role of creativity... and will not ultimately make the work less challenging" (Cousins & McIntosh, 2005 p.597).
In coding the data for the study outlined below, I used a 'top down' approach consistent with post-structural theory as outlined by Miller and Fox (2004) to impose my research questions upon the data and to locate social and institutional discourses. I oscillated between this approach and the 'bottom up' approach (Miller & Fox, 2004) whereby social realities are built up from ordinary interactions, as I developed the detailed coding topics or nodes from the talk of the participants in the study. Miller and Fox argued that these approaches need not be disparate; rather they suggested that building analytic bridges can be mutually informative particularly in cases where social realities are analysed as embodied performances of broader social discourses.
Qualitative data analysis programs provide considerable potential to bring transparency to the research process (Cousins & McIntosh, 2005; Johnston, 2006; Thompson, 2002). In this study, I developed four overarching code categories (tree nodes) directly from my research questions (top down), yet the sub-categories were developed directly from the topics raised in the data (bottom up). I took a non-linear approach, whereby I moved between the raw (audio and transcribed) data and the coded data categories that I managed within the software, to locate the major discourses or themes within the data. I used the software not as a way to analyse the data, but rather as a way to organise and link it. For example, NVivo 7 only allows hierarchical coding whereby sub-categories can only be included under one parent node. During my analysis however, I included some sub-categories under more than one of my major discourses or themes to explain the data. The software enabled comparison using the categories that I developed (and could change or add to at any time) based on further analysis of the data. I was still able to highlight inconsistencies and contradictions within the data using the software package as my theoretical framework demanded that I approach the data with such ambiguities in mind. Within this study I subscribed to the notion that codes are not 'factual' or pre-determined structures. Rather, I formulated the codes as "signposts that support the identification of relevant text passages and help to make them available for further interpretation and analysis" (Seidel & Kelle, 1995 p.484).
The specific research questions were:
After an initial broad sweep analysis of the data from the participants, I decided to weave 'macro' texts through my analysis to illustrate the conflicting discourses that were emerging. I chose a pastiche of texts for this purpose, which illustrated some of the competing macro discourses of contemporary society within which the youth participants, and this study, were a part. Some of the texts were discussed by the participants, for example, Xbox games and associated websites or SMS chat material. Some were 'official' documents such as syllabus and policy documents and others were public texts such as high profile newspaper articles of significance at the time. This hybridised approach was taken so that the multi-faceted influences on the youth participants could be reflected. I created links between linguistic elements, contexts and surrounding discourses of these data from the youth participants and those of the macro texts.
Another useful feature of software programs such as the one outlined here, is the quick retrieval feature. The program enabled me to efficiently locate particular sections of data which were related in different ways. I could retrieve print text, as well as using the external data files within the program to retrieve other data which I entered as (re)presentations of the lived experiences of the participants. The facility to develop visual models to enhance understanding of my coding categories was also beneficial in my aim to provide a 'pastiche of (re)presentation' of these participants. To create the pastiche (see sample analysis later in this paper), I used text boxes containing the analysis of the 'macro' texts; visual texts produced by the participants; photographs of important artefacts chosen by the participants; and snapshots of data woven through my analysis, much like a hypermedia environment, where the reader can choose multiple pathways (Landow, 2006; Snyder, 2002). I was able to draw upon the multiple designs of text using the linking facility within the software to assemble my pastiche in more efficient ways than would be possible manually.
Multiple dimensions of meaning (MDM)
This is related specifically to research question 1: What are the embodied multiliterate practices of these young people, and how are they accounted for in their talk?
To investigate this question I looked to the data for transitive representations of the various designs of meaning that these young people used in their lived practices. I explored the assigned importance of some literate practices over others, the instances of physicality associated with the various designs of meaning which they indicated, and the descriptors of participants which they associated with such practices. Research on new social practices, texts and technology (Kellner, 2002; Lankshear & Knobel, 1997; Luke, 2000) along with Klein's (2000) work on logos and brand names, and Giroux's (2000) notion of corporate pedagogues were useful to describe these designs of meaning for the coding process in terms of broader power and influence on youth. For example, I looked for value assigned to particular bodily practices such as using technology, performing drama, playing music, and having or talking about sex. I also looked for ascribed importance by self and others of particular brand names, technology devices, school practices and life world activities.
This node was designed to pinpoint sections of data that would highlight the multiliterate practices accounted for by the youth participants. I use the term 'multiple dimensions of meaning' in keeping with the multimodal and multi-dimensional nature of our changing world as described in multiliteracies theory (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000) to reflect the multiliterate practices of the youth participants. I found both direct and indirect references to three broad topics within the data, therefore I constructed three child nodes (see Figure 1) to sit under the parent node of MDM.
Figure 1: NVivo visual model of tree node 'MDM'
These child nodes are:
As with Research Question 1, I explored the attributes or descriptors used to represent the various designs of meaning (including visual or gestural text), to give an indication of the intellectualisation of such texts (Education Queensland, 2006). Briefly, this included the use of metalanguage, substantive conversation and deep understanding and knowledge of such practices. The analysis of visual and multimodal text (Emmison & Smith, 2000; Kress & van Leeuwen, 1995, 2001; Tomlinson & Lynch-Brown, 1996) provided useful frameworks for the intellectualisation of such texts, and therefore to the critical analysis of attributes assigned to them.
I was interested in the ways that bodily practices were intellectualised. This included problematising the valuing of particular activities over others, or questioning the ways in which particular actions, speech or dress elicit dominant ideological responses or reinforce particular dichotomies of thought. I also explored the ways in which texts and practices were accepted at face value and described superficially, and the context or parameters within which this happened. For example, I invited the participants to analyse their own multimodal texts so that I could determine the extent to which they could intellectualise their own texts as opposed to others' texts. I also invited them to analyse their own practices and values, to determine the extent that they were willing to interrogate self, and to account for such practices and values in the context of broader discourses.
I developed three child nodes to sit under the parent node of intellectualisation (see Figure 2), which reflect and encompass evidence of this node in the data.
The child nodes are:
Figure 2: NVivo visual model of tree node 'Intellectualisation'
This is related specifically to research question 3: How are the participants' embodied subjectivities seen to be shaped through bodily practices of multiliteracies, and through positioning of self and others?
My focus here was on the ways in which the participants represented themselves, their practices and others through their language. I particularly identified how hegemonic discourses were evident through binary thought categories and traces of dominant cultural maps in their accounts. This included the ways that the participants perceived their positioning by others. I looked for instances of textual collusion (Fuller & Lee, 1997) in their accounts and how they used successful collusions as forms of power in their lived experiences or how unsuccessful collusions shaped their lived practices. I explored multiple personae in their interactions with me as researcher, with other texts and contexts, and with each other to get some sense of the diverse subject positions which they took up at different times for different reasons (including solidarity and power). I was interested in what types of students were constructed and validated, what types of teachers or other adults were constructed and what types of discourses were legitimated through language and performance. I looked for ways in which social and corporate institutions shaped the subjectivities of these young people and shaped their lived practices, and how multiliterate practices may have been used to perpetuate hegemonic discourses. For example, I was interested in looking at how these participants 'do school' (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in terms of valuing what the school values, behaving in regulated ways, talking about school, peers and social issues in certain ways, and how they negotiate their ways through the complex discourses of youth, schooling and society (Kenway & Bullen, 2001; Lesko, 2001; Pais, 2003; White & Wyn, 2004).
This node was the most complex of all the nodes, and the complexity is represented in Figure 3. The node was devised to indicate within the data, how the embodied subjectivities of the youth participants are shaped through the positioning of self and others in accounts of both life-world and school-world practices and perceived beliefs.
Figure 3: NVivo visual model of tree node 'Positioning'
There are a number of layers within this node, which begin with three child nodes which were developed as major topics within the data - school, school performance and social issues. For ease of reading, I take each of these child nodes in the first layer in turn, and describe the layers which sit beneath it.
School (see child node on left of model in Figure 3) - this child node includes three subsequent child nodes which sit beneath it. These nodes are:
Social issues (see child node on right of model in Figure 3) - this child node includes seven subsequent child nodes which sit beneath it. These nodes are:
In addressing this question, I looked to the data for instances of resistance to hegemonic discourses in the participants' accounts of self and others. I explored ways in which multiliterate practices were used to break down dominant structures of binary thought or hegemonic assumptions about the subject of student or teenager or the discourses of school. I looked for accounts of how resistance was perceived and played out. I explored instances of resistant readings of self, whereby participants challenged their subjectification processes and began to re-account for themselves. For example, some of the participants were unwilling to interrogate self in any critical way, nor to criticise the discourses of schooling at play in their lives, yet they were able to readily resist discourses in popular media such as magazines, which they found inappropriate and stereotypical.
This node has two child nodes which sit beneath it (see Figure 4). It was developed to track evidence of resistance to hegemonic discourses in society, including institutional discourses of schooling.
Figure 4: NVivo visual model of tree node 'Resistance'
The two child nodes are:
During my analysis, I looked at each organising principle in turn by generating 'coding reports' using the facility within the software, whereby any chunks of data that I had coded under a particular node could be included in a report which indicated information about the node, the participant, the interview number and the location of the data chunk itself. See Figure 5 below for an example of this information.
Once I had these reports, I began my fine grained analysis of the data using critical discourse analysis (CDA). My linguistic point of reference is Hallidayan (1978) systemic functional linguistics. My analysis specifically focused upon the linguistic transitivity processes and their participant realisations within the clause (who or what is involved, and what are they doing, saying, being etc), as well as the use of modal adverbs, so to determine how the participants accounted for their practices, which practices were afforded value or were criticised in this interactional context, and how this fits with broader macro discourses of youth culture, schooling and society as the spheres within which these participants live their lives. This ideational function of language is also interested in the meaning relationship between text and context (lexis). I analysed the lexical choices made in the data to indicate how the participants described themselves and others in certain contexts through language, particularly how attributes were ascribed and explained. These lexical choices provided insight into views about issues such as race and gender roles. The interpersonal function of language was also interrogated to identify the roles and relationships which played out within the text. Positions of power were evident through such analyses. This function was particularly important in the interactional interview context. Analysis of the specificities of the texts in this way, allowed me to explore how the participants' language was used to position themselves and others in this interaction, and to legitimise their dominant cultural maps (Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clark, & Roberts, 1978).
My analysis then, using Threadgold's (2003) and Butler's (1993) bodily performance and performativity, and Fairclough's (2001) three levels of analysis in CDA, was cognizant of particular micro elements of the data through detailed linguistic and embodied description. These were an interpretation of such descriptions in relation to the specific discursive events and performative contexts in which they were collected and an explanation of how such descriptions and interpretations are related to broader socio-historical discourses of youth, schooling and society (see Ryan, 2007a; 2007b; 2008 for examples of detailed CDA analysis and findings). I consciously moved in, out of and through these various levels of analysis as I made sense of the data and identified the most prevalent discourses emerging from them. This multi-linear approach to data analysis whereby I oscillated between the data and the contexts and texts which influence the participants and the research, was an attempt to maintain relevance, transparency, trustworthiness and consistency (Silverman, 2000) across these various facets of the research. The NVivo 7 software enabled this multi-linear approach with its linking facility for different types and modes (photos, scanned texts, written documents, transcripts) of data. I include a snapshot of the data analysis below to illustrate how the complex organisation and linking of the data sources were drawn together for analysis.
Matt immediately responds on the defensive with strong modality as though such a question calls his moral character into question. Paul is quite able to detect stereotypical images of gender in Xbox games and other popular culture texts, and he suggests that marginalised groups may "have to have a bit more talent to be equal, than other groups do". He knows the language of critical analysis and he uses it in this interview situation to ensure that I have a good impression of him as a 'good' boy who believes in the 'right' things, for example, "I believe in equality for everyone, pretty much". The adverbial 'pretty much' is important here, as later it becomes apparent that these beliefs are very much a sliding scale. For example, alongside such unprejudicial claims in these accounts, there are contradictory instances where these participants dismiss racial, gender, class and sexuality issues as overblown and not worth the amount of attention they get in society. In the focus group interview, these participants seem to use the support of their peers to vocalise their views about race, gender and at other times, sexuality. Similarly, popular media reports such as the one represented in Figure 7, use narrative and linguistic tools such as sarcasm, irony and metaphor to 'rally together' support for 'common-sense' views.
|"The rise and fall of One Nation and the emergence of so-called dog-whistle politics around asylum seekers and boatpeople have revealed, so the story goes, a nation stricken with racism in its very heart. All it takes is the provocations of a few shock jocks, and the national unconscious is unleashed, like a baying wolfhound" (Burchell, 2006).
In this article, Burchell uses emotive (often sarcastic) language and metaphor to describe one viewpoint that arose from the Cronulla riots. His 'so the story goes' as a modifier for 'have revealed' places him outside of such a viewpoint, yet his prose which magnifies the notion of a 'racist core' in Australia is much more sensational and effective for publicity in a newspaper article, than a dry report which discounts such a view.
Matt introduces the attribute 'whole' up front to emphasise that this kid needs to get over the fact that he's black. When I interject, he justifies his view using the figurative material process 'he plays on it'. This suggests that 'the kid' is metaphorically 'playing the race game' - a visible discourse in society where if you identify as Indigenous you can get anything you want, including handouts. Matt's low modality (probably) indicates his dilemma of wanting to be seen as a 'good' student who is politically correct and in synch with school values (Lesko, 2001), while at the same time colluding with his peers about unfair monetary claims by certain groups. He doesn't want to offend, yet he normalises gender terms without interrogation.
Elements of peer collusion are evident as Paul steps in to support and embellish Matt's argument (pitting youth against adult). 'Us' against 'them' is a familiar discourse in generational debates, and as the adult interviewer, I am positioned in this context as the 'them' or the 'other' who is questioning their beliefs and ideals. So even though Matt does not mention 'the kid's' name, Paul actively takes up the story as though it is a familiar and therefore tellable tale. He uses it as a way to explicate his 'theory' about black people. Paul minimises the importance of race issues and the disempowerment of Indigenous people by showing outrage that 'black people can get money' just by complaining. His use of the mood adjunct 'just' indicates his vocalised position on Indigenous issues. He reinforces this argument through his use of the comparative 'like' to draw parallels with other participant groups that are also posited as financial drains on society, such as 'women's lib groups'. His use of the attribute 'ridiculous' to describe the claims that such groups make, indicates his lack of sympathy, or at least unwillingness to financially support, disempowered groups in society.
It is accepted in these accounts that one can dismiss race and gender issues as money-spinners, a reductionist account (Young, 1990) that is shaped by institutions such as the family and the school (Blackman, 1998). Matt interjects to state that he cares about such issues (politically correct), yet his language indicates he is positioning women as a homogenous group (they) who want and need to be accepted but won't ever gain such acceptance. Paul seems to accept some women (the ones who don't complain), yet not those who are outspoken about 'ridiculous' claims - a sliding scale of acceptance. Ellen dutifully plays the game when asked to comment, by not offending anyone, not complaining, and identifying with the boys through her behavioural process 'feel like' (one of the guys). Ellen's response is consistent with findings from other research studies which suggest that a belief in individual agency means that the impact of gender is downplayed in her life (see Dwyer & Wyn, 2001; Roberts & Sachdev, 1996; Willis, 1998).
Because subjectivities are formed within discourses, they "remain subject to the complex discursive interplay, strategic repositioning and repetitive regulations" (Nayak & Kehily, 2006 p.467). These students can be seen as positioning self in relation to raced and gendered 'otherness' which they disavow. They implicitly suggest through these accounts that they would never be claiming money for no reason, nor would they complain about historical issues which are not relevant in post-feminist and enlightened contemporary society.
The discourses drawn out of the news article (Figure 7) and the participants' interview transcripts would not be possible just by using qualitative data analysis software. The references to racism are obvious, and can be coded in that way in the software, however the nuances of language use made visible using CDA suggest particular ideologies and purposes are at play in these texts. So too, the use of CDA illuminates socio-historical discourses from the literature that inform the analysis, which would not be evident in a straight coding approach using NVivo. The software was useful to link this news article to relevant sections of transcript and scanned data, and it enabled multiple overlapping nodes (for example, race, gender, textual collusion) to be drawn into the analysis. However a rich, interpretive analysis is necessary to analyse these data in relation to the broader discourses of the study.
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|Author: Dr Mary Ryan is a senior lecturer in literacy in the School of Cultural and Language Studies in Education at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Her main interests lie in the areas of multiliteracies, youth culture and civic participation, critical pedagogy, multimodal design repertoires, post-structural inquiry and critical discourse analysis. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as:Ryan, M. (2009). Making visible the coding process: Using qualitative data software in a post-structural study. Issues In Educational Research, 19(2), 142-161. http://www.iier.org.au/iier19/ryan.html