Tag Archives: research

Session 8 reflections: Using qualitative data software

Gareth Harris

For a change, in Session 8 we were based not in our usual seminar room, but a computer lab in Birkbeck’s main Malet Street building. After all, one guiding theme of Session 8 was to provide an introduction to a qualitative data analysis software package – NVivo. So, as we waited for things to commence, amongst rows of PCs, facing Windows XP login boxes, we might have been forgiven for thinking this workshop session would be little more than an introductory overview of a software application.

And we would have been wrong. Before getting into anything of the kind, Gareth Harris instead took us on a highly interesting and thought-provoking journey through some of the epistemological issues and debates associated with the broader world of computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS – also, see the CAQDAS Networking Project). As it turns out, CAQDAS are much more than mundane research tools, but in many ways are at the fulcrum of contemporary debates about the interface of research and technology. Gareth kindly provided his slides used in this journey, which augment much of my reflections below, as well as provide some useful links.

Gareth began by pointing out the CAQDAS has proceeded through three fairly distinct generations:

1. Search and retrieval of text

2. The coding of multiple textual fragments, which can then be retrieved as coded themes or categories

3. Theory-building, in other words, looking at the relations between categories (e.g. though the use of visualisation tools) in order to build higher-order classifications and categories.

In the 1990s, there were quite a number of critiques of and debates about the uses of software for qualitative research, and Gareth pointed out that these were pitched almost completely in relation to the second generation – using software for simple data coding. As a result, there has been little debate, at least so far (Gareth estimates they may indeed kick off soon), about the emergence of third generation CAQDAS – using software for more complex theory-building. What is so interesting about this third generation, Gareth noted, is that it aligns software like NVivo ever closer to the inductive approaches of Grounded Theory. This, of course, it not necessarily a bad thing, but it does highlight the implicit incorporation of a fairly specific inductive methodology into a software package. This at least potentially raises rather more sticky issues than the second generation, which is little more than a faster and more secure way to code data. As in, it did little more than computerise that which one would otherwise have achieved through the use of such materials (technologies?) as a stack printed photocopies, multi-coloured highlighters, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick.

In this context, Gareth highlighted a very important question, harking back to the overall themes of the workshop, and particularly our introductory session. Does CAQDAS have its own ‘effects’ (positive and negative) on our research?  In other words, is a CAQDAS package like NVivo a neutral tool of our autonomous methodological actions, or does it have agency and channel our research in some ways? On the one hand, one response is that it is indeed primarily a tool for our research practices and decisions. This is a response often made to counter critiques of CAQDAS – which suggest that it is mechanistic, decontextualising, a fetishisation of coding even (see Gareth’s slides for more) – with an argument that all this really depends on how CAQDAS is actually used. On the other hand, however, perhaps it is naïve to take this claim too far. After all, CAQDAS must channel research, in the same way that writing an essay using word processing software entails a fundamentally different process than writing by hand (e.g. one continuously edits, rather than in more fixed stages). So, it might be seen as technologies with certain capacities and constraints, but which also comes into contact with a researchers’ know-how, practical work and ethics in doing research. And in this process of contact, Gareth seemed to suggest, we find a tool which allows for research practice to potentially be much more transparent and  accountable than that based on paper (rather different, Gareth emphasised, than any erroneous claim that CAQDAS makes qualitative research ‘reliable’, a concept with strong connections to positivism)

It’s worth mentioning an interesting tidbit Gareth pointed out early on in the workshop: there is a rather good chance that we might see a situation in 5 or 10 years time where the more extensive and thorough literature reviews are being conducted using CAQDAS. Assuming one has a library of electronic materials, this is easy to see. It would not only provide a very effective way to code, organise and retrieve text fragments of interest across several sources, but would provide interesting ways to compare how authors have dealt with similar concepts, to visualise connections between groups of scholarly communities and their ideas, and much more. Like any technological change, there would be drawbacks; but the advantages for large-scale literature reviews, on complex subjects, seem quite clear.

Now, you’ll remember of course, we were in the lab, ready for ‘training’. And we did spent some time taking NVivo 9 through its paces. Certainly, participants had a chance to gain some initial exposure to the software, see its overall architecture. But in having had such a good and intellectually interesting overview, I’d expect most participants likely left thinking about their exposure to NVivo within a much bigger picture of research practice and technology.

By Scott Rodgers


Session 1 reflections: What is research amongst technologies?

Jake Strickland

What counts as ‘technologies’? This might sound like an unbelievably broad or overly foundational question to ask. Yet it is where Jake Strickland and I (Scott Rodgers) felt that we ought to begin if we were going to ask the almost-equally broad question of this workshop series’ first session: What is research amongst technologies? Our participants’ response to the question of what counts as technologies was interesting. Sure, we had some very interesting technological criteria debated, around such things as clothes washers and rice cookers. But the wild and crazy were also forwarded as potential technologies: clothes, alcohol, even sex. For both the more typical and the more wild, however, some common themes emerged. Few were interested in committing to a definition of technologies as necessarily electronic, machinic, or even material in a narrow sense. It seemed that, in these group discussions, the common criteria was less these things than technologies as referring, simultaneously, to things which have some sort of agency upon humans, yet which nearly always become recognisable, as one technology or another, through human agency (i.e. use).

Now, Jake and I had partly contrived things to head in this direction, as we wanted to move from this central question of what technology is, on to the specificity of the digital, and finally on to how we might interweave these general matters into thinking about research practice. So, we were interested to discuss – and did discuss – such things as technogenesis, the idea that the evolution of Homo sapiens is not simply a result of a transmuting human body or mental capacity, but stems from our co-evolution alongside ‘technics’ (i.e. tools, artefacts, etc). The point of such a concept is that technologies can be thought of, on the one hand, as agents, both in small ways (such as the playful door closer example of Bruno Latour) but also in grandly historical ways, such as Marshall McLuhan’s controversial claims about the transformative power of new mediums (e.g. print, television). On the other hand, it also reminds us of critiques of technological determinism (such as Raymond Williams of McLuhan), which question abstract assertions that there is a cause-and-effect relation between or technology and society. As such critiques would argue, not only do we need to think about the design and distribution of technologies, but also their uses and users.

We tried to introduce the idea of specifically digital technology with these points in mind: yes, the rise of digital technologies has fundamental social and cultural implications; but the potentials and limits of such technologies ultimately comes down how we use them, and the conditions in which we do so. So, we first acknowledged a very basic feature about the ‘digital’: information, texts, still/moving images, sounds, etc can all be rendered into the same basic binary data format – ultimately 1’s and 0’s. Digitalisation is a fundamental shift because all information can now be subjected to various procedures of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication – a point well described by cultural theorists like Lev Manovich, and others in software studies. When one considers the exponential increase in computing capacity (e.g. see Moore’s law), the implications for research are potentially huge (see for example, the recent visualisation projects by Manovich, not to mention Dell Zhang’s forthcoming workshop within this series).

However, there is another implication of digitalisation. While previously one might have used many different technological mediums in pursuing different tasks, different mediums are today increasingly converging. “Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface” (as Friedrich Kittler remarked in opening his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter). In other words, we increasingly conduct many tasks in front of some sort of digital screen. This was an apt opening point for Jake to outline perhaps the most important overall message of the workshop: more important than the technological capacities of the computers is digital ergonomics. In other words, the real revolution is not in computing capacity but in new developments in how we interface with digital technologies.

What does this have to do with issues of research design, collection, storage, sharing and dissemination? It suggests that researchers don’t start with technologies as such, but instead think first and foremost about what their research interests/objectives really are, how these will be pursued or performed, and then plan and design carefully. For example, to think about the nitty-gritty logistical opportunities and constraints ‘in the field’. This means not only asking what sort of technological solutions might help in that highly situated context, and what are the drawbacks of introducing the same technologies into that milieu. It also meanings asking questions about one’s audiences: not just who the audience is, but quite literally what will be the ergonomics of their accessing your research in whatever form it is presented.

The above only provides a glimpse of the wide ranging discussions. For instance, participants also became quite engaged around how one might use technologies to attend to elusive or implicit (unspoken) phenomena (a problem suggested by one participant’s research in particular, and highly reminiscent of John Law’s After Method). It was, we think, a rather good start to the workshop series.

By Scott Rodgers

Look out for our poster around campus…

Posters for the seminar series will be appearing at various places around campus from today onwards. Do check them out! 

Click here to see our poster!

A workshop series is born…

This web space has been designed to run alongside and provide information about Doing research amongst technologies, a workshop series hosted by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice at Birkbeck, University of London, and funded through Birkbeck’s 2010/11 allocation of Roberts Funding from Research Councils UK (RCUK). Please visit our about page to read more about this workshop series and its aims.

In addition to providing information about registration, workshop dates, and contacts, you will also find occasional blog posts (such as this one) on this website which provide summaries or reflections on some of the workshops, often pointing to related online resources.