Developing an ATLAS.ti Relation Database for Social Research Projects

July 6, 2015

Author: Dr. Agnes Mühlmeyer-Mentzel


Subject of this paper is the ATLAS.ti Relation Database. I will present a list of relations, which are useful and suitable for social science research projects using Grounded Theory Methodology (GTM). My argumentation supports the strength of such a list: Researchers will save time, when they can rely on a good defined list of relations. Additionally a well prepared list of relations for GTM-Projects contributes to the idea of research data sharing, which is a topic of increasing importance for scientists who support and discuss sustainability in science.


During the last 10 years I was involved in counselling students in one special part of their thesis-writing, the drawing of diagrams that visualize the essentials of their findings. As they mainly used Grounded Theory Methodology (Strauss & Corbin, 1996; Corbin & Strauss, 2008) the diagrams visualized in a rather condensed form “their” developed “Grounded Theory”. Most of them used ATLAS.ti’s network editor to visualize their findings.

After some time I noticed that the relations that the students I supervised had added to the relation database of ATLAS.ti to link their concepts and categories, were rather similar to each other. Some of these relations were identical, some were synonym, specifications or variations of an often used and more general relational concept, or example “condition”. So I started to list the relations and after some collection only seldom a really new relation arose. This fact was the starting point of thinking about preparing a pre-defined relation-database, which fits more the special needs of social scientists (using GTM), than those pre-defined by ATLAS.ti.

A relation database with pre-defined relations especially for social scientists has benefits. First of all researchers rely on a good defined list of relations, which means, that they save time when working conceptually. Though it’s technically easy to add a new relation to the ATLAS.ti relation database, why should thousands of researchers all over the world, who are applying GTM, type in again and again the same relations, which means: thinking about the best relation-name (sometimes in a foreign language), speculating on the correct relation type, when not familiar with the theory of conceptual graphs, and writing a comment with an appropriate definition of the relation? Software-engineers naturally develop procedures and modules, which are used in more than one software project. In many working areas it is quite common to take care not to reinvent the wheel. Besides that pragmatic time-saving argument a well prepared list of relations for GTM-Projects contributes to the idea of research data sharing, which is a topic of increasing importance for scientists and politicians, to make best of research and research funding.

The relations

The list of relations includes (a) frequently used relations in Master theses of the Working Group “Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy” of the university “Freie Universität Berlin”, (b) relations presented in a Method Report for Concurrent Engineering (Knowledge Based Systems Inc., 1994), which deals with information integration and (c) relations discussed in the ATLAS.ti forum ( ).

The list contains:

  1. Condition Relations
  2. Process Relations
  3. Classifying Relations
  4. Paradigmatic Relations of GTM (Strauss & Corbin, 1996)
  5. Theory specific Relations
  6. Relations for Illustration

Condition Relations

One of the main data analyze strategies of GTM is specifying a phenomenon under investigation in terms of the conditions that give rise to it. This leads to the definition of a lot of different types of conditions. Figure 1 shows the condition relations, organized as taxonomy with broader and narrower types of conditions.

Figure 1. Condition Relations

Figure 1. Condition Relations

Process Relations

The second group, the Process Relations, contains relations to express sequences, results or cause-effect-chains: <leads to>, <results in>, <causes> and <changes>. The most general (or most unspecific) process relation is <leads to>, which represents a simple description of a sequence or sequential chain, for example “coping” <leads to> “feeling better”. If a researcher wants to stress on the result of a process, he/she uses the relation <results in>: “coping” <results in> “well-being”. When a process changes a property or dimension of a defined category, the relation <changes> fits best: “coping” <changes> “sentiment” (which means: from a “bad sentiment” to a “good sentiment”). However when a researcher wants to express a cause-effect-chain, the relation <causes> fits best: “coping” <causes> “well-being”.

List of Process Relations

  • leads to
  • results in
  • changes
  • causes

Classifying Relations

The third group contains relations for describing or classifying a category in more details, which means inclusions, parts, properties a.s.o. Well-known from the ATLAS.ti-Relation database are the relations <is a> and <is part of>. Specifications of <is part of> are the relations <is a component of> and <is a phase of>. <is a component of> is used, when concepts or categories are bundled to a more general category, which represents an integral whole and whose components fulfill a specific function within the integral whole. It is often used in GTM during the process of “open coding”. For example “motivation to help”, “being open minded”, “sensibility” “accept the patient”, “familiar atmosphere” are bundled via <is a component of> to the higher-order category “necessary attitudes of a therapist”.

When a category represents a process like the theoretical concept “trajectory”, the category may be further described by different phases, for example “coming back to normal life” <is phase of> “trajectory” (Corbin & Strauss, 1988).

List of Classifying Relations

  • is a
  • is part of
  • is a component of
  • is a phase of

Paradigmatic GTM relations

The fourth group contains the overall concepts of the paradigm of Strauss/Corbin: <Is causal condition of>, <is context of>, <is intervening condition of>, <is an action for>, <is strategy for>,<interacts with>, <is consequence of>, <property> and <dimensions>. In some aspects this group overlaps with the first group.

List of GTM Relations

  • is causal condition of
  • is context of
  • is intervening condition of
  • is an action for
  • is a strategy for
  • interacts with
  • is consequence of

Relations for Illustration

The relations <example of>, <explains> and <contrasts> are an absolutely different type of relation. We use them to illustrate our findings or to illustrate our argumentation by means of a network view. We use them to link codes but they can also be used for hyperlinking.

The relation <example of> is an alternate of the relation <is-a>. When one of the included codes especially good illustrates the (more general) category, we use this code as an example for the category.

The relation <explains> is used to illustrate an argumentation. When linking codes by the relation <explains> the researcher focusses on the explanation (or rationale) of his/her interpretation of the data. When hyperlinking data by the relation <explains> the researcher focusses on argumentation inside his/her data.

Developing categories in terms of their properties and dimensions result in sub-categories that may contrast in a specific way. When researchers want to highlight the contrast – often when visualizing findings – they link these sub-categories by the relation <contrast>.

List of Relations for Illustration

  • <example of>
  • <explains>
  • <contrasts>

In Table 1 and Table 2 (appendix) all suggested relations are summarized.

Implementation of the relations[1] in ATLAS.ti

Each relation of the predefined list is described in more detail in the comment-field of the relation. The description includes a clear definition of the relation, synonyms and at least one good example for a better understanding of the underlying relational concept. The fields “Label 1” and “Label 2” are used for alternative languages, here German and French.

Figure 2 shows– as an example – the screenshot of the code-code relation editor with the recently added relation <influence pos>.

Figure 2. ATLAS.ti code-code relation editor and the relation

Figure 2. ATLAS.ti code-code relation editor and the relation <INFLUENCES POS>

Looking for Cooperation

I am interested in discussing and further developing the prepared preliminary list. The result of the discussion should be a well prepared relation-database for GTM, which can be imported into ATLAS.ti. Further methodologies may follow, if researchers are interested in it. ATLAS.ti users are welcome to comment on the preliminary list or to propose further relations, which they use in their projects and which they find useful and suitable. Here (Link) you will find further information, how to contribute to the project.

Broader Context: Research Data Sharing

The idea of a pre-defined list for the ATLAS.ti Relation Database is embedded into a broader context: Research Data Sharing. Research data in this context are digital and electronically storable data, which researchers create within their research process during studying sources (literature), doing measurements, interviewing people a.s.o. The scientific community expects a notable increase of knowledge production by archiving, sharing and re-using these data, for research data are a valuable resource of knowledge.

An ATLAS.ti project file is full of information about a specific research project. All objects of this file are research data and potentially interesting for others, for example – Primary Data, coded or annotated Primary Data, Codes, etc. I am focusing here on a further sharing possibility: code-networks. Why should code-networks be interesting for others? When researchers use the network-tool of ATLAS.ti they express their thoughts and ideas using codes and the possibility to link them. The developed networks represent steps to the final result. Many of these networks are condensed versions of the final results, sometimes they are condensed versions of a developed “Grounded Theory”. These final code-networks are valuable research data, which can be very useful for others. Thus, in my view, the second benefit of a pre-defined list of relations is based on the following assumption: Pre-defined relations, which meet the needs of social scientists, ease sharing and re-using code-networks and thus a well-developed code networks can enrich further projects.


Corbin, Juliet M. & Strauss, Anselm L. (2008). Basics of QualitAtive Research. London: Sage.

IDEF5 Method Development Team (1994): Information Integration for Concurrent Engineering (IICE). IDEF5 Method Report. Hg. v. Inc Knowledge Based Systems. Online verfügbar unter , zuletzt geprüft am 28.10.2014.

Strauss, Anselm L. & Corbin, Juliet (1988): Unending work and care. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers.

Strauss, Anselm L. & Corbin, Juliet M. (1995): Basics of Qqualitative Research: Grounded theory, procedures and techniques. Newbury Park: Sage.

Grawe, K. & Grawe-Gerber, M. (1999).Ressourcenaktivierung. Ein primäres Wirkprinzip der Psychotherapie. Psychotherapeut. 2, S. 63-73.


Table 1: List of identified relations

Table 1. List of identified relations.

Table 1. List of identified relations.

Table 2. List of miscellaneous relations

Table 2. List of miscellaneous relations.

Table 2. List of miscellaneous relations.

Possibilities to collaborate with the project

If you want to comment on the preliminary list:

Please LEAVE A REPLY or send a comment to the author via email:

Instructions, if you want to send your relations:

  1. Open the Code-Code Relations Editor of ATLAS.ti
  • main menu: networks
  • option: Edit Relations
  • option: Code-Code Link Relations
  1. Export your relation database:
  • main menu: File
  • option: Save Relations
  1. Send the file “default.rel” to the author:

Thank you very much!


Dr. Agnes Mühlmeyer-Mentzel: Freie Universität Berlin. Division Qualitative Social and Education Research:

Habelschwerdter Allee 45


[1] The relations are equivalent to items of Glaser’s code-families (Glaser, 1978). So the proposed list of relations is not restricted to GTM according to Strauss and Corbin.

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