Using smart codes and smart groups in ATLAS.ti 9 Windows & Mac
By Dr. Neringa Kalpokas and Ivana Radivojevic
The foundation of qualitative data analysis in ATLAS.ti consists of coding the data: attaching “tags” to segments of selected data. Once the data has been coded, the researcher can query the coded data and examine overarching patterns to develop further insights regarding the data and, ultimately, answer their research question. ATLAS.ti has another feature that can facilitate analysis of coded data by allowing researchers to easily save different combinations of codes, code groups, and/or document groups: smart codes and smart groups. “Smart” entities in ATLAS.ti always refer to a query. In this best practices article, we share some practical advice on taking advantage of smart codes and smart groups to explore the coded data in different ways.
What are smart codes?
A smart code is simply a combination of two or more codes. In other words, smart codes offer a convenient way to store queries. While smart codes are very similar to normal codes, they have an important difference: rather than being a code with concrete connections to quotations, a smart code saves a query (i.e., combination of codes) and permits easy retrieval or examination of the quotations associated with the codes that form the smart code. Thus, a smart code cannot be used for coding (i.e., to directly link the smart code to quotations). Rather, the researcher can code the data with normal codes (or edit any the already existing codings), and the quotations under the smart code will be automatically updated.
How to create a smart code
Smart codes can be created in three different places inside ATLAS.ti: the code manager, the quotation manager, or the query tool. When creating a smart code, you can further choose whether you want to save a smart code that a) captures the quotations from the first code AND the second code (and third code, and so on), or b) captures the quotations from the first code OR the second code (or the third code, and so on).
• To create a smart code in the code manager, open the code manager, highlight the codes you are interested in, then right-click and select “Create Smart Code”. This will save a smart code that captures the quotations from any of the selected codes (i.e., the smart code is saved using the “OR” Boolean operator).
• To create a smart code in the quotation manager, open the quotation manager, and highlight the codes you are interested in from the left-hand panel. You can also choose whether you want to save the quotations from “any” of the selected codes (the “OR” Boolean operator) or to save the quotations from “all” of the selected codes (the “AND” Boolean operator).
• Once you have selected your desired combination of the codes, right-click and select “Create Smart Code”.
• To create a smart code in the query tool, open the query tool, and construct your query. You can create combinations of codes using the Boolean operators of your choice, and then click on the “Save Smart Code” button to save the results of your query. You can find more detailed information on the query tool in ATLAS.ti Windows here, and on the query tool in ATLAS.ti Mac here.
What are smart groups?
Smart groups are similar to smart codes – they serve to save a query or combination of objects – but in this case we are working with groups (of codes, documents, etc.). In other words, you may first create groups to organize your documents or codes, and then if you want to look at particular combinations of these groups, you can save smart groups. Just like with smart codes, you cannot directly add more objects to a smart group; rather, if you add or remove members from any of the constituent groups, the smart group will automatically update itself.
How to create a smart group
You can create smart groups from any of the managers. For example, you can open the document manager, highlight the document groups you are interested in from the left-hand panel, and then right-click and select “Save Smart Group”. Once again, you can also choose whether you want to save a smart group that captures the documents of “all” (i.e., the “AND” Boolean operator) or documents of “any” (i.e., the “OR” Boolean operator) of the selected groups.
Applied example: Using smart codes to query data
Creating a smart code is relatively straightforward, but we also want to illustrate why or when you may want to create a smart code with an applied example. For example, when you may also be asking yourself, “If I want to combine two or more codes, why wouldn’t I simply merge the codes?”. While merging codes is a great way to combine the quotations from multiple codes into one single code, merging codes also implies losing the constituent codes. Thus, if you do want to maintain the original codes (e.g., because they do capture meaningful and distinct information) but you also want to examine trends regarding combinations of these distinct codes, then a smart code will be your answer. This allows you to examine what data comes from the combination of these codes without losing the constituent codes (e.g., so that you can also still look at those codes in isolation).
For example, if we wanted to examine parents’ positive evaluations of the computer game Minecraft for different age groups of kids, we could create smart codes to save all of the quotations that involve positive evaluations and that refer to kids ages 9+, younger kids, teens, or all ages. With these four new smart codes, we can carry out a variety of additional analyses. For example, we could easily export reports of the resulting quotations (e.g., from the code manager or the query tool). Moreover, we could enter these smart codes into ATLAS.ti’s other analysis tools to examine their frequency or co-occurrence across the project. In the Minecraft sample project, the different descriptions of the game were also coded. We can now examine which kinds of game descriptions were mentioned in regard to positive evaluations for the different age groups by creating a code co-occurrence table with the smart codes in columns and the game description codes in rows. The following figure shows the resulting Sankey diagram (in ATLAS.ti 9 Windows) and the equivalent table (in ATLAS.ti 9 Mac) of what kinds of game descriptions appear together with positive evaluations for different age ranges.
We could also compare how often positive evaluations for different age groups were mentioned across participants. In the code-document table, we can select the four individual smart codes and then the documents or groups for which we want to see the frequencies. In the following figure, we are comparing the positive evaluations for different age groups between parents who play the game themselves and parents who do not play the game. Thus, we can see for example that positive evaluations for all ages come only from parents who play, while parents who do not play tend to positively evaluate the game more for ages 9+.
Applied example: Using smart groups to query data
Smart groups can likewise be helpful for examining the data in different ways. Once again, you could export reports or enter smart groups into the other analysis tools (such as the code-document table). Moreover, you could set a global filter on a smart document group if you want to focus only on data in that smart group. You could also examine the frequencies of codes of a smart group (e.g., to examine the benefits and drawbacks that were mentioned by parents who play the game and gave it a high educational rating).
Smart codes and groups can be extremely helpful for examining data in different ways as they allow us to create combinations of codes or groups while retaining the original codes or groups. In other words, smart codes and groups provide us with even greater flexibility for exploring our data. You can create smart codes to save queries or collect quotations from multiple codes into one code that can make it easier to export reports or further examine frequencies or co-occurrences. You can create smart groups to bring together documents (or codes, memos, etc.) to set global filters or compare frequencies across the data. You can also find more detailed information on smart codes and smart groups in the software manual for ATLAS.ti 9 Windows and ATLAS.ti 9 Mac. If you ever find yourself wanting to explore patterns based on different combinations of your codes or groups, you can count on ATLAS.ti!
Kalpokas, N., & Radivojevic, I. (2021). Using smart codes and smart groups in ATLAS.ti 9 Windows & Mac. Retrieved from https://atlasti.com/2021/03/09/35383/
About the authors:
Dr. Neringa Kalpokas has dedicated her professional career to qualitative methodology. From her doctoral thesis for which she received the cum laude award in the Complutense University of Madrid to working as a visiting researcher at Harvard University, all of her research projects have been qualitative and carried out with ATLAS.ti. During her 15 years of professional work, she has published numerous articles in a variety of high-impact journals, she has given over 450 trainings, and she has helped over 8,500 people carry out qualitative research. In addition to leading the Europe Team of ATLAS.ti and being the CEO of NkQualitas, she is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research and a professor at the international IE University. Following students’ demand for more rigorous training in qualitative research, she pioneered and taught the qualitative research and ATLAS.ti course at IE University. She continually participates in international conferences to continue sharing knowledge, and she is part of a team of reviewers of articles from high-impact journals. She has repeatedly received awards for excellent teaching in qualitative research. She has also received several research grants from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Government of Lithuania, and Harvard University. Her latest publications include “Demystifying Qualitative Data Analysis for Novice Qualitative Researchers“, “Teaching qualitative data analysis software online: A comparison of face-to-face and e-learning ATLAS.ti courses“, and “Leading a successful transition to democracy: A qualitative analysis of political leadership in Spain and Lithuania“.
Ivana Radivojevic, a former student of Dr. Neringa Kalpokas’ Qualitative Research course, is passionate about qualitative research and ATLAS.ti. After finishing her training, she was invited to join Neringa’s NkQualitas team and has been participating in numerous qualitative research projects since 2015, resulting in multiple publications in high-impact journals. She is currently the Project Coordinator of ATLAS.ti and is a Senior Professional Trainer. She has given numerous courses, including over 250 webinars, and she has helped over 3,000 people learn to use ATLAS.ti and conduct qualitative research. She continually participates in international conferences to learn and share knowledge with the scientific community. Her latest publications include “Demystifying Qualitative Data Analysis for Novice Qualitative Researchers“, “Teaching qualitative data analysis software online: A comparison of face-to-face and e-learning ATLAS.ti courses“, and “Leading a successful transition to democracy: A qualitative analysis of political leadership in Spain and Lithuania“.