On 17th October 2018 I had the privilege of opening the Digital Tools day at the World Conference on Qualitative Research (#WCQR2018) in Lisbon, Portugal.
My talk was called “Mindsets for harnessing digital tools in qualitative and mixed-methods analysis: The Five-Level QDA method”. My main message was that we need to be more explicit about the way we think about the role of digital tools in the research process and our engagement with them.
THE CAQDAS LANDSCAPE
I started off briefly describing the CAQDAS landscape, which included:
a little history (these are not new technologies, folks!)
some reflections on the periods of convergence and divergence we’ve seen between programs over the years (we’re now in a period of increasing divergence)
a discussion about ways of differentiating between CAQDAS programs (something that is fraught with problems – but more about this in another post), and
There are currently many dedicated CAQDAS programs to choose from (see CAQDAS Networking Project website for reviews). I believe this to be a good thing, and am glad that no one program has emerged as the industry standard.
The field of qualitative and mixed-methods analysis is so diverse that to expect one product to be able to do all that we each need for each and every project that we each do, is unrealistic. Software that attempts to be all things for all types of qualitative analysis will, I believe, likely fail.
GENESIS AND PRINCIPLES OF THE FIVE-LEVEL QDA METHOD
I then described the work Nick Woolf and I have done, over the past 5 years or so, to develop the Five-level QDA method, discussing its genesis and principles and giving a high-level overview.
The Five-Level QDA method encapsulates a way of thinking - a mindset for thinking about the role of digital tools in the research process, and how to get what we need out of them for our idiosyncratic analyses.
The central principle concerns the necessity to distinguish between analytic strategies – what we plan to do – and software tactics – how we plan to do it. The reason it's important in terms of mindsets for harnessing digital tools, is because these terms are often conflated in the methodological literature. It's absolutely crucial, however, in harnessing these programs powerfully, to be clear that strategies and tactics are not the same. Why? because in our field of work they’re not only different but analytic strategies and software tactics are contradictory by nature.
Analytic strategies are to varying degrees iterative and emergent, whereas software tactics are cut-and-dried and pre-determined. In our books where we explain the theory in detail, we discuss different ways this contradiction is unconsciously managed, and we argue that avoidance and compromise are two common ways - but that both are problematic.
MAKING THE UNCONSCIOUS EXPLICIT
The Five-Level QDA method enables the contradiction to be transcended - such that it’s not problematic. This involves translating from analytic strategies to software tactics, and we’ve unpacked the unconscious process that experts undertake when they harness CAQDAS programs powerfully.
In order to unpack the 'black box' of expert's processes - or in other words, to make the unconscious explicit - we teach the skill of translation. Translation isn't a new or different way of doing qualitative data analysis, but a separate skill from planning an analysis or operating the software, that needs to be made explicit and learned. The process involves 5 steps which are fully detailed in our books.
MIND-SETS AT THE STRATEGIES, TACTICS AND TRANSLATION LEVELS
Working at the strategy levels involves thinking with an emergent mind-set - once a task is completed the outcome suggests or leads to the next task without it being anticipated in detail in advance. In contrast, at the tactics levels of operating the software, we think with a step-by-step or algorithmic mind-set in which each operation, such as pressing a button or accessing a menu, has a predetermined and reliable outcome.
Between the two, at the level of translation, we think with a heuristic mind-set, because translation is more of an art than a science. A heuristic is like a rule of thumb, a practical or common sense approach to solving a problem based on experience with similar problems. A heuristic has guidelines rather than a precise set of rules. That describes the translation process quite well.
A heuristic mind-set is a different way of thinking from the emergent mind-set at the strategy levels. At the strategy levels we allow the data in our projects to determine the emergence of each new step of strategy, rather than take examples of other projects as a means for making analytic choices of our own. A heuristic mind-set is also a different way of thinking from the algorithmic mind-set we adopt when learning about and operating the software, which is a rules-based domain, with each action having a predetermined outcome.
When harnessing CAQDAS packages researchers oscillate between these three mind-sets, so one way of describing expertise in the Five-Level QDA method is the ability to naturally move among these three mind-sets without thinking too much about it.
Being explicit about these mind-sets, consciously recognising they are different is at the root of the 5LQDA way of thinking about the nature, role and use of CAQDAS programs.
FOCUS ON SOFTWARE COMPONENTS NOT FEATURES
I then described at a high-level how we teach the Five-Level QDA method, which involves focusing on software components and the actions that can be taken on them in order to accomplish analytic tasks, rather than focussing on the features of the program.
A software feature is something that the program can do - and typically there are dozens of things each program can do. Features are what the developers focus on in order to describe to potential users how the program may be useful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in our way of thinking, it’s not productive to focus on features when teaching a program. This is because doing so is overwhelming - learners get an overview of all of the things that could be done, but do not get very close to knowing what they are actually going to do.
Instead we focus on tangible components within the software - the things that can be acted upon in the service of analytic tasks. The number of components varies according to each program, but there are typically between 12 and 15. Familiarising with the software by focusing on components, and what can be done with them - the actions that can be taken on them - provides a high-level overview of the entirety of the software, enabling learners to understand how flexible these software programs are, and crucially, enabling them to concretely think about which components they need to use to represent the units in their analysis and accomplish their iteratively generated tasks.
We’ve developed various tools to teach translation, the most important of which are what we call Analytic Planning Worksheets, which scaffold the translation process. There are videos on our website that illustrate their use and a template can be downloaded in order for others to use or adapt.
The 5LQDA method is not prescriptive but is an adaptable framework for teaching and learning these digital tools. Our ultimate aim was to enable researchers to gain the expertise they need for their own analysis projects as quickly and easily as possible - without going through years of trial and error like we did!
Just like there is no one process for undertaking a qualitative data analysis, there is no one way of adopting the 5LQDA method. We’re therefore currently working on developing a community area on our website where teachers can share their experiences and the teaching tools they develop.
In developing the 5LQDA method, we took account of a variety of different CAQDAS programs, but were only able to write textbooks for three at one time! We’re currently talking about writing books for other CAQDAS programs, but we also believe the method is applicable to other digital tools - for qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods analysis.
What I personally hope to see is the teaching of CAQDAS programs fully integrated into university curricula - rather than students only being provided with short overview sessions or intensive workshop-based learning. Although there are some examples of this happening around the world, they are few and far between, and this, I believe illustrates that there is still not a mind-set that the theory of qualitative methodology - the strategies - and the practicalities of undertaking analysis using digital tools - the tactics - be taught together. This is something that I believe is no longer justifiable.
Which brought me back round to the CAQDAS landscape, and its future. As a community of practice we all have responsibilities to the current and next generations of researchers. My personal focus in these terms relates to how we can most effectively teach appropriate and powerful use of dedicated digital tools.
But it's also important to consider how our use of digital tools can contribute to illustrating the quality in our process. Historically our community hasn't been very good at concretely illustrating how we get from a body of qualitative materials to an authoritative account or interpretation. This is partly because it's difficult to show our process when working manually or using general-purpose tools. But as soon as we use dedicated tools designed for analytic purposes, we can concretely show what we did - for me this is one of the key benefits of using digital tools.
As we know, technological developments are fast-paced, and I also think it's important that as a community of practice of researchers, teachers and developers, that we together anticipate and react to these inevitable changes. In some contexts experts are no longer valued in the way we once were, and this, together with the ever increasing availability of digital tools for qualitative analysis has potential implications on our role and practice.
It’s important that we all reflect on how we think about digital tools, what their place in our practice is, and what we can do to enable appropriate and powerful use of them.
References and further reading
Jackson, K., Paulus, T., & Woolf, N. H. (2018). The Walking Dead Genealogy: Unsubstantiated Criticisms of Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS) and the Failure to Put Them to Rest. The Qualitative Report, 23(13),74-91
Trena M. Paulus, Elizabeth M. Pope, Nicholas Woolf & Christina Silver (2018) "It will be very helpful once I understand ATLAS.ti”: Teaching ATLAS.ti using the Five-Level QDA method, International Journal of Social Research Methodology