Interview with Dr. Nicole Claasen, a leader in research on sustainable diets and food systems in South Africa

February 26, 2019

We have the pleasure of presenting our interview with Dr. Nicole Claasen, a senior lecturer at AUTHeR (Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research) at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She is involved as a Principal Investigator in numerous research project related to sustainable diets, food security and food systems in South Africa. Dr. Claasen is also a Certified ATLAS.ti Senior Professional Trainer, and she is an expert both in using and teaching the software.

Welcome, Dr. Nicole Claasen! Could you please tell our readers a bit about your professional background?

I successfully finished my studies of nutritional sciences with majors in international nutrition and pedagogy at the Jena University in 2006 and I completed my PhD study at the Giessen University in Germany in 2010 which included four years field research in South Africa on underlying social causes of household food and livelihood insecurity in farm communities. I also gained profound technical experience in implementing food security and nutrition programs with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in Italy and Timor-Leste from 2009 to 2011.

What work are you involved in now?

Currently, I work at the Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research (AUTHeR) at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. AUTHeR conducts multidisciplinary-, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in an effort to offer realistic solutions to real-life health and wellbeing challenges. Researchers are empowered to draw upon the concepts and methods of other disciplines to create new solutions to complex health issues. Although positioned within the Faculty of Health Sciences, AUTHeR functions across disciplinary boundaries and is therefore an ideal research environment when complex research problems cannot be solved within one discipline only. In addition, AUTHeR is known for community-based participatory action research, community engagement and integration, as well as a holistic approach to research. AUTHeR’s research focuses on three areas, namely 1) health promotion and wellbeing activation; 2) sustainable diets as an essential aspect in wellbeing activation; and 3) sustainable community development. These areas are synchronized with the strategic priorities of the broader South African  health arena.

AUTHeR also holds yearly a qualitative research workshop series, where different researchers present topics from qualitative designs, data collection strategies to analysis. I am part of the workshop series, presenting on qualitative analysis with ATLAS.ti.

What kind of research projects do you work on at the Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research (AUTHeR)?

In AUTHeR, I am leading the research focus on sustainable diets and food systems that entails multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary approaches across different disciplines, such as nutrition, public health, agriculture, economics, environmental science, consumer science, sociology and law. My research projects are concerned with food systems, food environments, sustainable food and nutrition security, local and traditional foods in the South African context.

One of my latest project was concerned with traditional food knowledge among Tswana women of different generations in South Africa. Traditional food is thought to play a key role in contributing to more healthy and sustainable diets. Yet, traditional knowledge transfer between generation and consequently the usage of traditional foods is gradually decreasing. The project applied a qualitative approach with focus groups and culinary practices which were carried out with Tswana women of three generations in the Vaalharts area, South Africa.

What kind of qualitative data do you work with?

In my research, I work mainly with transcripts from interviews with people, e.g. community members and professionals working in the agriculture or health domain. Most of the qualitative data that I work with derive from individual interviews or focus group discussions around food and nutrition. I also like to work with maps and photos that show the complexities of food systems in South Africa.

How do you use ATLAS.ti in your research?

For qualitative analysis of my research projects. I also teach my post-graduate students who work qualitatively to use ATLAS.ti as it simplifies not only their analysis but also the supervision from my site.

Why did you decide to use ATLAS.ti?

ATLAS.ti is a very intuitive software for qualitative data analysis. It supports the analysis of multiple data formats and is a great tool to organize your data, thoughts and analysis processed. Its flexibility supports any qualitative analysis and may also be useful for the merging stage in mixed methods approaches.

ATLAS.ti works like a charm in student supervision. Having my post-graduate students working with ATLAS.ti, enables transparency of their work progress by being only one click away from the original transcripts.

What are your favorite features of ATLAS.ti?

I really like the network function and word clouds to present my qualitative data during seminars or conferences. However, my absolute favorite features of ATLAS.ti are the analysis tools including the query tool, the code-document tables and code-concurrence explorer – I am intrigued by the possibilities given to move from descriptive analysis to a more conceptual, in-depth analysis.

I am also very excited about the Inter-Coder Agreement (ICA) function, enabling us to report on reliability of qualitative analysis in a more standardized way.

Do you have any advice about using ATLAS.ti in your particular area of research?

I encounter many qualitative researchers who are hesitant to use ATLAS.ti and prefer manual coding and data analysis. There seems to be an objection against the use of numbers in qualitative research. I do agree that in some domains ATLAS.ti bridges the qualitative-quantitative divide, but I see this as a big advantage. If used in the correct manner, it enables more in-depth and holistic analysis compared to manual coding and analysis.

Do you have any tips or suggestions about using ATLAS.ti for our readers?

Explore, explore and explore – and if you get stuck, get in touch with the support team. The ATLAS.ti support is extraordinary, making almost everything possible in qualitative data analysis with ATLAS.ti.

ATLAS.ti is very intuitive and it is possible to use for descriptive analysis without intensive training. If someone is, however, interested in using ATLAS.ti extending the descriptive to a more conceptual analysis, I strongly recommend attending a training session with a certified professional trainer or reading the book of Susanne Friese: Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti 8.

Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

In my ATLAS.ti trainings, I use the data of my project on traditional food knowledge to illustrate all beginner and advance functions in ATLAS.ti. I have simplified the transcripts and research questions in order to work with a manageable amount of data in a short period of time that can provide a real ATLAS.ti experience from uploading a document to conceptual analysis and reporting. Food has been an amazing topic to connect different people from all stages of life and from different disciplines – making it a great experience for my ATLAS.ti trainees.

If you are interested in a training workshop with me, these are the prospective dates for 2019:

5-6 March (NWU, Potchefstroom), 11-12 March (NWU, Vanderbijlpark), 5-6 June (NWU, Potchefstroom), 19-20 September (NWU, Potchefstroom).

Thank you very much, Dr. Nicole Claasen!

If you would like to contact Dr. Nicole Claasen, you can write to [email protected]

You can see more information about AUTHeR (Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research) here:


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