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Witchcraft versus Rigour – the murky world of qualitative analysis

Qualitative researchers are notoriously bad at explaining what ‘analysis’ is: This is where it fits into the research process:

To be honest, I know little about how everyone else does this. I think that most decent qualies do have a method, and don’t just rely on instinct, recall or experience to magic together the findings. But it’s always been my suspicion that those who buy qualitative research don’t fully understand what’s involved. I say this because I routinely come across clients and stakeholders who think that once the groups are done, you sit down and put together a deck in a few hours. So, we’ll have the findings tomorrow?

And the truth is, I could probably do this and it would be mostly right. But it would lack a cohesive narrative. It would merely report the findings – here is what they said about this, and that. And although groups are usually designed to be homogeneous on some key criteria, people, their attitudes and their behaviours are not homogeneous. There is no ‘they’, there are many, many individuals. There is always a mixture of approaches, different ways of seeing things and doing things to report back on and it is important to come to grips with these differences.

Groups are amazing and fun and interesting and it can be tempting to recall the great quotes, the articulate people, the ones that you connected with. Or worse, there is a risk that you see the story that one of your stakeholders wants you to see.

So here is how I was trained to analyse qualitative data:

  • Transcribe the fieldwork
  • Create an analysis grid – with key headings that reflect the topics in your discussion guide along the top and with a list of each group’s specification down the side
  • Group by group, every comment in every group or interview needs to be copied across to the analysis grid. Every time a similar sentiment is expressed, this is noted together with who said it
  • And each comment needs to be attributed back to the source – usually with a combination of colours and codes so that you can go back to read the comment in context

What you end up with is a single source of truth for all of the fieldwork. So that when you go to report on an objective or topic you can reference what the overall themes were, but you can also confidently identify majority from minority opinions. And from there you can raise hypotheses – draw together your thinking and write up your deck.

You can quickly pull out some quotes to add colour and flavour to your presentation, and if you are working from videoes with timestamps, you can quickly pull out some key video snippets that support your overall narrative.

I consider this to be the gold standard for analysis.

Feel free to add your comments below.





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