For some months, one of my concerns has been what to do with my interview data. I have read lots of material on qualitative data analysis and many different articles, and even books, which have used qualitative approaches of one sort or another. Some of what I read resonated, but a great deal didn’t and I think I am only now beginning to understand where my personal sticking point is.
Some months back, I found the section on analysis in Merrill and West (2009) helpful. They pointed to a holistic approach and identified the danger in the use of computer-based analysis of fragmenting data. The tension between letting participants’ voices be heard and the abstraction necessary for theory building was clearly stated. Although they include a clear outline of their own approaches to analysis – and the two writers differ – I found what they were saying difficult to relate to relate to my own work. Perhaps there was a sense that I had to develop a coding structure and learn to use the available computer packages, or perhaps because I am ‘a techie’ there was a sense of there being another program here to play with – and I am never one to be defeated by technology.
Over the past few months I have attended training courses on using a much recommended computer package. I have installed it on my computer and worked through some of my interview data using it. I can understand the program. I can appreciate it is a very powerful program with lots of potentially interesting and possibly useful features. But I’ve found I am just not happy using it. The whole approach seemed to be moving me further away from the people who have shared their stories with me and from the real life impact having a child with Aspergers.
A few days ago, I came across an article which resonated with me. Savin-Baden (2004) discusses the problem of situating ourselves in relation to our data. She suggests that it can be easier to distance ourselves from the data through complex coding systems rather than engaging with the messiness inherent in people’s lived-in lives and goes on to say that using a computer package can “result in deconstruction rather than reconstruction of the data”. This was ringing bells for me.
In the course of her article, Savin-Baden mentioned that she encouraged her students to write a short biography of each participant following an interview. This could later be turned into an interpretative biographical account which could be shared with participants. One of the things I have been doing is writing summaries of each interview with a few biographical details of each participant. Was there perhaps a clue to a possible solution to my impasse in what I was reading?
Over the past couple of days, I have worked through one of my interviews. First, I read the summary and visualised the person and the setting in which we had met. I then listened to the interview while looking at the transcript on the screen. During this process, I was able to make some minor corrections to the transcript, but more importantly, I became aware of key phrases in the narrative and was able to highlight these. I was developing a sense of this person’s expressed feelings and concerns and understanding why she had done some of the things she had done out of a real concern for her son. She had come to life again rather than being reduced to coded fragments. With that sense of the person who was speaking, I then returned to the transcript and copied (by hand in a notebook) the words which I had highlighted, grouping them under broad headings. Finally, I returned to my original summary and reworked that by writing a series of short sections each focusing on a theme which had emerged from the interview. The resultant document is a mixture of description, summary, the participant’s expressed opinions, my observations and some personal reflection of my own.
Although the document is very rough round the edges at the moment, I can see the possibility of working with it further, linking some of the ideas emerging in it to theoretical perspectives. I can also see that taking a similar approach to other interviews will give me a collection of documents which I can use not only to identify commonalities and differences, but to do so in the context of the life and experience of the storytellers. I can also see that this kind of document is more likely to lead to further dialogue with participants than the transcripts I have been sending them. As a reconstruction which includes some interpretation, it provides scope for participants to correct and offer new insights in ways a transcript, as raw data, does not.
I’ve still got to see how this will all work out in practice and I’ve still got to see what my supervisors make of this approach, but I feel much more OK in myself about this approach at the moment.
It would be interesting to hear how others have approached data analysis in contexts where the person as well as the content is important.
Merrill, B., & West, L. (2009). Using Biographical Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.
Savin-Baden, M. (2004). Achieving Reflexivity: Moving Researchers from Analysis to Interpretation in Collaborative Inquiry. Journal of Social Work Practice, 18(3), 365-378.