CAQDAS in Science and Technology Studies

March 13, 2016

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We interview Dr. Steve Wright, learning technologist from the Faculty of Health and Medicine at Lancaster University – a leading research-intensive institution in the North West of England.  Dr. Wright He has been using ATLAS.ti for more than three years and is proficient on the Windows and Mac versions of the software.

Could you tell us something about your professional background and research interests?

I work at Lancaster University in the across the Faculty of Health and Medicine where I develop materials and provide support on both learning and qualitative research technologies to staff and students both in the faculty and across the University.

I run blended-learning training sessions at Lancaster University which are both face-to-face and online (via a live stream and subsequent recording of the f2f session along with webinars and forums). These cover choosing and using a CAQDAS package, and then build on that through introductory, advanced and bring-your-own-data sessions for both ATLAS.ti and NVivo.  I am a certified ATLAS.ti professional trainer and have provided bespoke consultancy for teams using ATLAS.ti on a number of research council funded projects. I have recently established a consultancy business to work with ATLAS.ti across the UK building on these skills and this experience. As a learning technologist I work to ensure that the we deliver a quality program and support for our distance learning programs, I’m also keen to experiment with and assess the potential of new technologies and systems to support learning and research.

I completed my PhD in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning in 2014, and made extensive use of ATLAS.ti in my thesis research work [1]. I can honestly say I couldn’t possibly have worked with the data in the way I did without the unique features ATLAS.ti has (my forthcoming paper from the ATLAS.ti user conference explores that).  I am interested in mobile work, mobile methods and developing theory around the use of technologies in complex, fluid mobile environments and research methods for exploring these. I draw extensively on actor-network theory, ethnomethodology and ethnographic methods. I have undertaken small-scale research projects into mobile learning in informal learning communities.

Prior to working at Lancaster I worked during the boom as a web designer and user interface designer for an internet security startup and then contracting in the UK, South Africa and Australia for a diverse range of companies. With the burst of the bubble I moved into education – gaining an English Teaching qualification and then teaching English in Mexico at a private language school and then at Universidad Autónoma de la Mixteca. I studied for an MSc in Computer Applications for Language Learning at Stirling University in 2003-4 and then worked with at a BBC Learning Centre on developing sites and software for digital literacy and adult skills.

In what study are you using ATLAS.ti?  Tell us something about it.

My current project with Dr Ibrar Bhatt (in Educational Research at Lancaster): CAQDAS in Science and Technology Studies, seeks to explore how software affects, changes and mediates the way qualitative research is done. The capabilities of computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) have massively increased since the 1990s, usage is far more pervasive, and the costs and pressures for institutional licensing have grown. Concomitantly the approaches to researching social life have become more complex, digital and mobile. In this context the relative lack of systematic research on CAQDAS use since Fielding, 1998 [2] is striking – there has been a lot of published work, however, the data informing these publications is largely composed of single-person or single-project case-studies.

CAQDAS is often strongly associated with particular approaches to engaging with qualitative data such as coding data and retrieving the codes, abstracting and reducing data to themes and relating data to fixed locations. Books, training courses and marketing materials for these packages actively position and promote them as being supportive but largely transparent in the qualitative analysis process. Such simplistic positioning is challenged by scholarship in science and technology studies (STS) and practices in mobilities research that explore the mediating effects of software on work practices. The methodological concerns of these interdisciplinary research areas also pose significant challenges to conventional CAQDAS approaches – for example the idea of “following the actors” is different from identifying theme, as are explorations and concerns with movement and mobility. We believe that at their intersection there is substantial potential for exploring, reformulating and better understanding what CAQDAS does, can do, and could potentially do. Through exploring the experiences, practices, uses, and the theorization of the software by researchers working in STS and mobilities research we’re working to explore and intervene in that area.

The research proposal seeks to investigate the following research question:

How do social scientists studying science, technology and mobility in their research consider, engage with and account for the effects of using CAQDAS on their investigations and analysis?

Specific sub-questions then guide the methods and analysis:

  • What influences choice of software?
  • Which tools and options within CAQDAS are adopted, and how are they used?
  • How is the use of software accounted for in public research outputs?
  • How is the use of software accounted for in private research outputs?
  • How are breakdowns, limits and workarounds understood, drawn on, incorporated or theorized?

What methods are you using?

This project uses web-based screen-capture interviews of around an hour with 13 researchers working in STS or mobilities. We’ve tested several different webinar platforms (including testing Webex, Zoom, GoToMeeting and Adobe Connect) to engage with distributed researchers across the UK, Europe, Australasia and the Americas. These systems enable recording on-screen software use and an experiential, demonstrative interview approach to explore software use and issues. By using that method we’ve generated a rich view of the layering of research activity and interaction between the software, research work and writing practices. Of course, it’s also substantially reduced fieldwork travel costs and time. Additional data has been collected through participants sharing documents and notes they have made about software use in their written memos, notes, blog posts or similar reflective writing.

The reflexive, iterative, technology-mediated development of our data analysis procedures is also a significant part of the research project. How it is proceeding is being shaped by the practices, suggestions and approaches of the participants. Thematic analysis using code-and-retrieval is forming a one component of this, as are networked and hyperlinked explorations of the connections between elements of the interview accounts, documentary evidence and literature. How, precisely, this continues to develop is therefore a key part of the research process and project rather than just a means to a conclusion.

The transcripts have been synchronized with the screen recordings (with the processes of doing so documented – see Figure 1 below) and initial analysis of that data together with additional documents from participants and relevant literature are being analyzed using several software assemblages. These include the software used by participants – primarily ATLAS.ti on PC and NVivo on PC.

Figure 1. Synchronized transcript and screen recording

Figure 1. Synchronized transcript and screen recording.

The ATLAS.ti iPad app is also being used extensively for working with the literature for the project as well – enabling the development of a literature-informed coding system and working with literature for the project while mobile. See Figure 2 below.

Figure 2. A document on the ATLAS.ti iPad app.

Figure 2. A document on the ATLAS.ti iPad app.

For the project development analysis is also being undertaken in the Mac versions of these packages (Figure 3). Further possibilities and approaches to analysis are also being explored through other software packages that form part of participants practices such as the Actor-Network Text Analyser (ANTA), Gephi (seen in figure 3) and the AI-based document organization system DEVONthink.

Figure 3. The project in ATLAS.ti Mac.

Figure 3. The project in ATLAS.ti Mac.

A core principle of this research is that the data should be re-usable for secondary research and in the training of highly skilled researchers – with a shared dataset across several packages to support better comparison of software rather than a beauty contest between interfaces or disciplinary taste-test in response to the topic of discipline of example projects. By including data which discusses real world researchers’ experiences with software use selections from this should help build a useful and relevant dataset for those learning to use software.

The research is at an early stage but working comparatively between Mac and PC versions of ATLAS.ti and making live comparisons with the processes in NVivo is proving very enlightening. I am really excited about the new possibilities that will come with version 8 having seen an early beta at the ATLAS.ti user conference and building that into the project.

Would you like to add anything? 

I am particularly interested in the interactions and challenges of methods and their epistemological and ontological assumptions with software and how different traditions and approaches can challenge these. In my research work I draw extensively on ideas from Actor-Network Theory (which isn’t a theory) and ethnomethodology (which isn’t a methodology) and find these a productive set of ideas and tools with which to explore and unpack the agencies and effects of software use on the research process. The most influential book thus far in this is John Law’s “After Method: Mess in Social Science Research”[3] which I would highly recommend for those seeking to rethink and reimagine ways that the diverse and powerful tools in ATLAS.ti could be used to creatively explore and work with data outside of conventional approaches of identifying themes.

Thank you!               

 References Cited

[1] Wright, S. 2014. Accounting for taste: Conversation, Categorisation and Certification in the Sensory Assessment of Craft Brewing. PhD thesis in Educational Research – Lancaster University.

[2] Fielding, N. 1998. Computer Analysis and Qualitative Research, London: Sage

[3] Law, J., 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

About Dr. Wright

Learn about Dr. Wright at the Lancaster University Research Portal.  See here.

Steve Wright
Lancaster University
Faculty of Health and Medicine
Furness College
Lancaster, Lancashire
[email protected]
+44 1524 594492



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