Practice in the Making: Memoranda
Working with data – starting to prepare for analysis at an early stage in the energy biographies project
by Karen Henwood, 2 May 2012
This memorandum is concerned with making transparent the processes of working with data, and why it is often discussed as a valuable feature of qualitative inquiry.
In methodological terms, attempting to do this can help to promote reflexivity among analysts. More practically, it can demystify what is involved in qualitative analysis and promote shared methodological awareness and understanding among researchers. Memoranda can be written about how data sets are organised, ways of handling and representing data (e.g. as coded fragments/segments, textual meanings, holistic or episodic narratives), how insights are generated, and the conditions for creating knowledge. These memoranda create a useful, ready-made resource for writing up the methods and data analysis sections of research reports, and can be a useful way of promoting collaborative work. Potentially, such memoranda, along with the explanations of the ways of working they encourage, can be used to engage readers of qualitative studies in the inquiry process.
Writing about qualitative analysis in this way is helpful for highlighting its many craft skills. Although textbook menus of methods and methodological approaches abound, arguably this makes it more important to find ways of depicting how qualitative analysis may involve developing bespoke methods for utilising both theory and data. A useful epithet “theory guides but does not determine analysis: data informs but does not limit theorising” derived from the work of Derek Layder, cautions against simplified accounts of qualitative analysis in this regard. It also points to the need for more bespoke analysis methods. In the case of our own energy biographies project we were well aware that we needed to avoid falling into ways of working with our data that would foster analysis of a kind that would be either too theory led or naively data driven.
At the very early stages of our energy biographies project, when we met for the first time about how to set about analysing our data as a research team, we decided to generate a set of tentative codes or labels. Afterwards, we would each attempt to (selectively) apply the codes to one or two interview transcripts before reconvening as a research team to reflect further on their usefulness and probable further development of the scheme. Developing a coding scheme is one of the most commonplace methods for starting to organise qualitative data sets, but coding as an activity can take many forms and the processes involved are not uniform either. In our case, we were concerned in a practical way that we should not produce codes at too fine grained a level, on the understanding that this would risk early expenditure of time and effort without producing usefully coded data for the purpose of analysis. At the same time we saw broad brush coding as potentially helpful for data mapping, navigation and retrieval but as failing to generate coding at a level that would facilitate anticipated lines of analysis (it would leave work of pre-analysis through coding underspecified).
Taking these issues into account, our initial and provisional set of just over twenty codes represented a diverse mix of categories. It included broad labels (which we knew we would have to develop through mining the data assigned to them) and terms conveying more specific ideas for analysis in embryo. The first code in the list, community, is a broad heading about a topic we asked questions about directly in the interviews. We discussed the possibility of setting out to code the data for instances of diverse theoretical notions of community (brand, interest, configuration, identity, practice, geographic location, place, space), and how this might have been useful to test out the relevance of different theories. However, in the event we decided on a strategy that would enable us to mine the data both for the ways in which participants understood community (its emic meanings) and how we as researchers came to interpret data as related to community (which would involve our theoretical or etic awareness of different types of community and the issues opened up about this within theoretical debates). The code physical energy was chosen in the knowledge that it was a highly specific code. It would focus our attention on those occasions when lack of personal energy to engage in work or energy saving activity was expressed and, e.g., how potentially that could confer ideas of laziness. Another possible line of analytic interest could be to explore its relation to ideas considered important in the research literature about uses of energy (such as the importance of convenience).
This memorandum is a record of some of our earliest efforts to start up the process of analysis. While it gives only partial insights restricted to a particular moment in time, nonetheless, it is intended to fuel further methodological reflection and to enable the development of cumulative insights.
This memorandum is a record of some of our earliest efforts to start up the process of analysis. While it gives only partial insights restricted to a particular moment in time, nonetheless, it is intended to fuel further methodological reflection and to enable the development of cumulative insights.”
Professor Karen Henwood