The Ultimate Guide to Qualitative Research - Part 2: Handling Qualitative Data

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Get hands-on guidance for working with qualitative data: discover how to transcribe, organize, code, and analyze.
Jörg Hecker
Neringa Kalpokas
Director, Training & Partnership Development
  1. Handling qualitative data
    1. Introduction
    2. Collecting and analyzing qualitative data
    3. How do you manage qualitative data?
    4. What is the process of organizing and sorting qualitative data?
    5. Table of contents
  2. Transcripts
  3. Field notes
  4. Memos
  5. Survey data and responses
  6. Visual and audio data
  7. Data organization
  8. Data coding
  9. Coding frame
  10. Auto and smart coding
  11. Organizing codes
  12. Qualitative data analysis
  13. Content analysis
  14. Thematic analysis
  15. Thematic analysis vs. content analysis
  16. Narrative research
  17. Phenomenological research
  18. Discourse analysis
  19. Grounded theory
  20. Deductive reasoning
  21. Inductive reasoning
  22. Inductive vs. deductive reasoning
  23. Qualitative data interpretation
  24. Qualitative analysis software

Handling qualitative data

Qualitative research deals with all types of data, with the biggest challenge being that most qualitative data collection generates unstructured data that requires organization prior to data analysis. Perhaps making this task more cumbersome is that it is arguably one of the less attractive or exciting parts of qualitative research. After all, qualitative researchers are often itching to engage in collecting qualitative data and finding key insights through qualitative data analysis.

Qualitative research provides a tangle of data that researchers are required to organize prior to qualitative analysis.

This section explores the concept of organizing qualitative data as a precursor to analysis. Without this organization, you will find data analysis and reporting of research findings difficult, if not impossible.

Collecting and analyzing qualitative data

Quantitative data naturally comes with a value attached and a structure for organizing values. When we look up the population of New York and the population of Tokyo, we likely have a table visualized in our minds lining up the cities with their associated population counts. Elements on the periodic table are organized by atomic weight, while reviewer scores and total box office receipts measure the "quality" of movies.

For this and other reasons, quantitative data is easier to collect and analyze since the use of numerical values allows us to determine whether one movie is "better" than another or which cities are growing the fastest. Numbers are intuitive; even as quantitative approaches become more complicated, the fundamental assumption that numerical values can provide a sense of measurement means that quantitative research can yield easily accessible data.

Qualitative data, on the other hand, can be more challenging to measure and organize. Notice that scores provided by movie critics and movie theater profits can provide a numerical sense of which movies are considered better or more popular than others. This sense carries the assumption that bad movies are rated poorly by reviewers and don't draw a big enough audience of moviegoers. Neither measurement, however, gets to the core essence of what is a substantively good movie, if it can be defined at all.

Imagine focus groups or qualitative research methods that involve dynamic interaction among multiple research participants. In all but the most structured contexts, there is seldom a predictable order of speakers or actors. As a result, the resulting transcript or set of field notes may initially only be ordered by time (i.e., chronological order of events captured by data collection). They may not be ordered in a way that allows for various forms of qualitative data analysis. In a nutshell, any research data collected from qualitative methods will often require some reorganization or restructuring.
As mentioned earlier, this part of the research process may not be as glamorous as collecting or analyzing data. However, extracting useful insights from analyzed data is a significant challenge without providing some order to the data.

How do you manage qualitative data?

Managing qualitative data is a matter of sorting all the data you collect in a qualitative study so that organization and qualitative analysis is feasible and even easy. The goal of effective qualitative data management is to make useful data segments for actionable insights easily understandable and searchable for data analysis and presentation to your research audience.

Qualitative data management starts with a mess. You can throw all your research data into one folder representing your research project. Even if each interview transcript, each set of field notes, and each memo is its own file, does your project have the necessary structure for making sense of the information coming from the data?

This part will offer advice about managing qualitative data that may seem self-evident but will nonetheless prove essential to the more substantive stages of data organization leading up to data analysis. By providing the foundational structure for the collected data from your study, you can set up your project for the efficient identification of themes and insights that can inform your research inquiry.

Developing a coding system for organizing data

A critical part of managing qualitative data involves creating a system of 'codes' or 'labels' to assign to segments of the data. These codes can be based on themes, concepts, ideas, or phrases that emerge from the data. The coding process facilitates a higher level of organization, enabling researchers to categorize and segment their data for more in-depth analysis. Researchers can follow various strategies for developing a coding system, such as creating a priori codes based on literature or existing theories and in vivo codes that emerge directly from the data itself. Furthermore, researchers can consider various coding techniques, such as open coding, thematic coding, or discourse-based coding, depending on the methodology and research question being pursued.

Creating a data management plan

Before even beginning data collection, researchers can benefit significantly from developing a comprehensive management plan for all their data files. This plan should address how data will be collected, how data confidentiality will be ensured, how data will be organized during the research (e.g., whether by data collection method or data type), how data will be stored and backed up to prevent loss, and how data will be disposed of after the project, if necessary. This plan acts as a roadmap for the research process, ensuring that researchers remain consistent and efficient in their data management.

What is the process of organizing and sorting qualitative data?

Another way to think about the need for qualitative data management is to remember that your freshly collected data is raw data. Qualitative methods typically produce raw data that, by itself, cannot be systematically analyzed and turned into rigorous research findings. An audio recording of a focus group, for example, needs to be turned into a transcript so the text can be marked up and coded for analysis.

Data reduction

In the sphere of qualitative research, the process of data reduction plays a pivotal role in shaping the raw qualitative data into a more manageable and concentrated form. It's essentially about making vast amounts of data more comprehensible without losing the essence of the information.
Data reduction begins as soon as data starts being collected. As the researcher gets immersed in the data, they start to identify and highlight critical information, extract meaningful segments, and discard data that may not contribute significantly to their research objectives. This is an iterative process that evolves throughout the research project, from the initial stages of data collection to the final stages of data analysis.

Typical data reduction methods include paraphrasing lengthy narratives, abstracting main ideas, or creating short summaries of long transcripts. This process also involves classifying and categorizing data into themes, topics, or patterns that begin to emerge. Essentially, it's about filtering and condensing the data into key points that are representative of the larger dataset.

However, researchers must exercise caution during data reduction to ensure they're not oversimplifying or misrepresenting the data. Despite the need for a condensed dataset, it's important to maintain the richness and depth of the qualitative data. For this reason, researchers should frequently revisit their raw data to cross-check and ensure the reduced data retains its original meaning and context.

The end result of the data reduction process is a curated dataset that is not only less voluminous but also structured in a way that facilitates further analysis. This curated dataset then becomes the basis for deriving meaningful insights, conclusions, and recommendations from the qualitative research study.

Coding qualitative data

A fundamental step in organizing qualitative data for analysis is the process of coding. At its core, coding involves categorizing and tagging segments of data with labels that represent their meaning and content. This not only condenses the data but also gives it a conceptual handle, thereby transforming the raw data into analyzable units.

Although many coding methods exist, many qualitative researchers often begin with open coding, where the researcher reads through the data and assigns codes based on the content of each segment. These codes could be a word, a phrase, or a sentence that accurately captures the essence of that data piece. During this stage, the researcher usually allows the data to dictate the codes, rather than imposing pre-existing categories. This ensures the authenticity and richness of the data are preserved.

As coding progresses, similar codes may be grouped into themes or categories. This helps to structure the data further and allows for relationships between different codes and themes to start emerging. Throughout the coding process, researchers may find it beneficial to create a codebook, which is a list of all the codes and their definitions. This ensures consistency in coding, especially when there are multiple coders involved in the research project.

It is important to remember that coding is an iterative process that often requires multiple rounds of going through the data and refining the codes. As the researcher becomes more familiar with the data, their understanding may deepen, leading to revisions and refinements in the coding structure. The end product of coding can be a set of themes, categories, and subcategories that can be used for further analysis and interpretation. Ultimately, coding is the critical link between data collection and meaningful analysis in qualitative research.

Table of contents

This section is part of an entire guide. Use this table of contents to jump to any page in the guide.

Part 1: The Basics

Part 2: Handling Qualitative Data

Part 3: Presenting Qualitative Data