It's common to reflect on the past year and anticipate the next as a new year dawns, and its no different for me. 2022 in many ways was about steadying the ship after the turbulence of the previous couple of years, which involved settling in to providing CAQDAS-related capacity-building events and opportunities to communities with increasingly diverse needs and expectations.
Online or in-person...
There is less demand for in-person events from some quarters, whilst from others a yearning to fully return to the pre-pandemic world. We're receiving fewer requests for in-person training and coaching than for online sessions at the moment, but the balance seems to be beginning to tip and many want a discussion about the pros and cons of online versus in-person events before deciding which way to go, so watch out for a post on that topic coming soon (spoiler: it depends!).
In fact, one of the things I've enjoyed most about the past 3 years is how many students and researchers we've been able to connect with online; I've met and worked with so many people that I probably never would have otherwise. Our open-registration workshops are attended by participants around the globe, and we mix up the timings to satisfy time zones as best we can. We frequently have attendees get up incredibly early or stay up into the depths of the night to attend, which is pretty inspiring. Most cool was one session last year which was attended by someone on the US west coast (8 hours behind UK time) and another based in Saudi Arabia (11 hours ahead of UK time). Kudos to both of them for staying awake! It's a privilege to not only be able to facilitate events attended by people around the globe, but to thereby be given a window into the work they're doing.
I learn so much from those I teach, and those attending our online sessions have enriched my mind as much as I hope to have been able to facilitate their research.
The webinar series we started in September 2020 at the CAQDAS Networking Project (CNP) was designed to keep the momentum going in terms of CAQDAS awareness and engagement whilst in-person events were not possible, and not only did we achieve that, our series has resulted in a far greater reach than we imagined. The four streams are equally well-attended and received and I'm delighted we are able to continue with them for the foreseeable.
At last, a CAQDAS podcast...
My new podcast #CAQDASchat with Christina I very much hope will contribute to this. I'd been thinking about doing this for ages, in fact, at least for the last two years, but only managed to get around to it in 2022. Why? For a couple of reasons, first because I've been reflecting on my career recently, which has made me think about the history of the field of computer assisted qualitative analysis, and the many stories that I've heard from various people along the way. I've been involved in this field since I was doing my master's back in 1997, and I'm lucky enough to know lots of the software developers, lots of qualitative methodologists, and teachers. And so my podcast really is a way of capturing some of those stories and sharing some of my own thoughts on CAQDAS; to explore it in more detail, and provide a space to talk about topics that I'm particularly interested in, and to continue my own learning. Second, because the discussions at the end of the webinars that Sarah Bulloch and I facilitate, where our invited presenters answer questions are full of nuggets of interest, and I wanted to be able to do more of that. The episodes I've already recorded are informative and engaging in equal measure, and I hope everyone enjoys listening to them as much as I've enjoyed recording them.
The first episode is with Professors Nigel Fielding and Raymond Lee, who set up the CAQDAS Networking Project, that I now manage, back in 1994. And there are also episodes coming up from developers of qualitative software tools, some of the pioneers in the field, and also some of the more recent technologies that have developed and I hope to have a lot more of those episodes in the future.
I'll also be talking with other evangelists of qualitative methods, teachers of CAQDAS and qualitative methods, and teaching's really one of my key passions - I'm really interested in how technology changes not only methods but how technology changes the way that we can think about teaching the next generation of researchers. So those topics are featured quite strongly along the way.
New short-format workshops...
We've also got some new short-format workshops up our sleeves at the CNP after the success of first two we ran in autumn 2022, and some new open-registration workshops run by Sarah Bulloch and I via QDAS, including one on Mixed Methods.
I'm also pleased to be continuing the collaboration with the Social research Association, and have two workshops coming up soon hosted by them - one on Doing Evidence Reviews using Qualitative Software (February 9th & 10th - 2 half day sessions) and another on Using Digital Tools for Analysis in Evaluation (March 6th & 7th - 2 half day sessions).
A big passion of mine is developing effective and creative teaching and learning encounters and tools so these are exciting intentions I've set for 2023. Keep an eye out here and on our social media channels for when these are scheduled.
What about AI...
Another of my passions is observing and reflecting on the relationship between technology and methodology, and there is much change on the horizon in this regard too... Back in 2016 Nick Woolf and I presented a paper at the Kwalon conference in Rotterdam called "Smart or Dumb? The need for middle-level tools in next-generation CAQDAS". We returned to this paper during 2022 as its message seems as important today as then, not least in relation to the recent release of OpenAI's ChatGPT, the latest AI offering to the public which can write finished text in seconds given only the most minimal prompt. In our paper we argued there is a tug-of-war between technical possibilities, economic imperatives and methodological ideals in the continuing evolution of software packages for computer-assisted qualitative data analysis, and reaching the 'sweet-spot' between all three requires continuing attention.
Historically CAQDAS-packages offered only 'low-level' tools, meaning tools that do not do anything all by themselves, leaving the researcher with the full responsibility to select and put them together for analytic purposes. More recently some programs have developed tools, such as content analysis and text mining features, which are more 'active' (see Friese 2016 for discussion of 'active' versus 'passive' CAQDAS tools). When implemented with minimal user input or no possibility for the user to adjust (or even in some cases, be aware of) the algorithms used to retrieve textual content, we call these 'high-level' tools and caution their use, instead advocating for 'middle-level' tools, which offer researchers partial or full control over automated features.
This relates to ChatGPT because of the issues that AI technology raises for academia more generally - for example the opportunity a ‘high-level’ tool like ChatGPT offers to plagiarize (and, conversely, to detect plagiarism) - how long before it becomes possible to feed a bunch of interview transcripts into a machine and an analysis of them related to a specified research question comes out? ChatGPT is not (yet) known for the profundity or subtlety of its text. In the qualitative research world it would be considered to produce basic description rather than interpretation, perhaps adequate for some uses but not adequate for producing new knowledge, which is the whole idea isn’t it?
Fortunately, 'middle-level' tools are available in some CAQDAS-packages and have been for some time now - most notably Discovertext and also WordStat (either used as a standalone text mining tool or in conjunction with QDA Miner). Discovertext is an online application that provides collaborative text analytics for human and machine-learning and includes a unique adjudication tool which enables the machine to learn from the judgement of human qualitative coding and creates training datasets for machine-learning by ranking human coders over time. Wordstat includes dictionary building and topic modeling tools which are fully adjustable by researchers meaning that for example, subject-matter
Both are examples of what we think of as 'middle-level' CAQDAS-tools, namely those that not only are a productive balance between human and machine, but make use of what humans and computers can each do better than the other. Such tools illustrate that it is possible to harness the power of technology without imposing the risks of lowering the quality of qualitative analysis.
These topics are ripe for much more in-depth discussion than the CAQDAS community of practice has hitherto engaged in and I look forward to many more of these discussions in 2023.
Woolf NH & Silver C (2016) Smart of Dumb? The need for middle-level tools in next generation CAQDAS. Paper presentation at KWALON conference, August, 25-26, 2016, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands Reflecting on the future of QDA Software: Chances and Challenges for Humanities, Social Sciences and beyond
Friese, S. (2016). Qualitative data analysis software: The state of the art. KWALON 21(1), 34-45.
Silver C (2019) Discovertext – Distinguishing Features. Review published by the CAQDAS Networking Project https://www.surrey.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2019-12/discovertext-distinguishing-features.pdf
Silver C & Lewins A (2020) QDA Miner – Distinguishing Features. Review published by the CAQDAS Networking Project https://www.surrey.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2020-11/qda-miner-distinguishing-features.pdf