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
  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
    1. Introduction
    2. What is a coding frame?
    3. Examples of coding frames in action
    4. Unpacking the advantages of using a coding frame
    5. What are some disadvantages of the 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

Coding frame

Creating new codes through an inductive or grounded theory approach in qualitative data analysis is not aimless or arbitrary. A rigorous study that involves qualitative methods of coding often builds a coding frame, which can be a manifestation of the study's conceptual framework tailored to the researcher throughout coding.

Think of a coding frame as a roadmap to guide your coding.

What is a coding frame?

In qualitative research, a coding frame is an organized and systematic approach to categorizing and interpreting the collected data.

Think of it as a kind of roadmap, a coding framework that guides you through your data to find patterns, themes, and insights that are crucial to your research questions.

A helpful coding frame provides labels you can easily apply to the data. Photo by Patrick Perkins.

A coding frame helps give shape to the list of codes, which can inductively emerge from the data or be deductively applied from existing theory. These codes allow researchers to dissect complex data, transforming raw information into themes and categories that can be more easily understood and analyzed.

Conceptualizing a coding frame

Just as a frame outlines and gives structure to a picture, a coding frame outlines and structures your data. It allows you to devise new codes based on insights from your data or existing theory while guiding the development of more codes as you code your project.

It offers a consistent organization, allowing you to sort your data based on specific characteristics or patterns. This standardization makes it easier to compare and contrast different data segments and draw meaningful insights.

Yet, coding frames are not rigid; they evolve and adapt as you delve deeper into your data. You might begin with a preliminary frame, using codes represented by your conceptual framework for example, to facilitate the coding process.

However, as you immerse yourself in the data, you may find that some codes do not fit as you expected, and new ones emerge. The development of your frame thus mirrors the development of your theory arising from the data.

This ability to evolve and adapt is one of the unique strengths of a coding frame, accommodating the complexities and nuances that qualitative data often embody. Remember, the ultimate goal of a coding frame is to bring clarity and insight to your research.

Examples of coding frames in action

At this point, coding frames still might seem like an abstract concept. As a result, it might be helpful to see how research in various fields might employ a coding frame.

Let's examine a few practical examples to understand better how coding frames operate in qualitative research.

Lifestyle research

Consider a study exploring the motivations behind individuals' decisions to adopt a plant-based diet. After conducting several in-depth interviews, you might notice common themes: concern for animal welfare, environmental consciousness, health benefits, and taste preferences, among others.

In this scenario, a coding frame might look something like this:

  • Animal welfare: Comments expressing concern for animals' wellbeing
  • Environmental consciousness: Statements highlighting the environmental impact of dietary choices
  • Health benefits: Remarks associating a plant-based diet with improved health outcomes
  • Taste preferences: Observations about the flavor, texture, and overall enjoyment of plant-based foods
What factors should you code for when reading data on plant-based diets? Photo by Mike Von.

As the researcher, you would apply these codes to relevant sections of your interview transcripts, creating an organized set of data that can then be analyzed in depth. In this example, the codes emerged inductively from the data, and the researcher organized these into a coherent coding frame based on their understanding of the research topic and what participants brought up in their interviews.

Policy development

In another example, imagine you are conducting a qualitative study on public perception of a new policy initiative. You conduct focus groups and begin to see patterns in the participants' responses.

A coding framework for policy development might identify a number of useful factors regarding public perception and policy implementation. Photo by Gerda.

You might develop a coding frame that includes:

  • Policy understanding: Responses indicating a clear understanding of the policy
  • Policy support: Statements expressing approval or endorsement of the policy
  • Policy criticism: Comments criticizing or expressing disapproval of the policy
  • Suggestions for improvement: Ideas or recommendations for making the policy more effective

In this case, the coding frame reflects a mix of inductive concepts that emerged from the data and deductive concepts the researcher identified in published literature. For example, the researcher may have decided to code for policy support and criticisms after seeing that this is a commonly used framework in policy evaluation. Each of these codes would be applied to the corresponding statements within the focus group transcripts. This coding process enables you to quantify and compare different categories of response, offering valuable insights into public perception of the policy initiative.

Workplace management

Suppose you are investigating employee engagement in a corporate setting, where you are particularly interested in factors that influence job satisfaction. After several focus groups and interviews, your initial coding frame might include categories like 'Work environment,' 'Job role,' 'Management style,' and 'Career development opportunities.'

Workplace management requires a specific coding frame when coding data. Photo by Jason Goodman.

However, as you delve deeper into your data, you realize that these broad categories can be further divided into sub-themes. For example, 'Work environment' could include sub-categories like 'Physical space,' 'Company culture,' and 'Work-life balance.' Similarly, 'Management style' might encompass 'Communication,' 'Feedback,' and 'Recognition.'

The resulting hierarchical coding frame might look something like this:

  • Work environment

Physical space: Comments regarding the physical setup and conditions of the workplace

Company culture: Observations about the organizational values, norms, and interpersonal relationships

Work-life balance: Statements relating to the balance between professional responsibilities and personal life

Job role: Direct references to the tasks, obligations, and overall nature of the respondent's position

  • Management style

Communication: Statements about how information is shared and communicated by management

Feedback: Comments on how performance feedback is given

Recognition: Remarks about the acknowledgment of employee achievements and efforts

  • Career development opportunities: Statements concerning the availability and quality of opportunities for professional growth and advancement

This hierarchy allows you to see not only the broad themes but also the underlying nuances within each category. It provides a comprehensive and detailed overview of the data, further enhancing the depth and richness of your analysis. While this process can be more time-consuming, the added detail can often lead to more insightful and actionable conclusions. Moreover, this process allows researchers to iterate between relevant theory and their data as needed to develop a coding frame that captures the relevant information from the data.

These examples make coding frames indispensable tools for organizing and analyzing qualitative data. They give structure to the data and provide a consistent means of identifying and exploring key themes.

But like any tool, coding frames come with their advantages and disadvantages.

Unpacking the advantages of using a coding frame

The application of coding frames in qualitative research is integral, bringing a myriad of benefits to the table. Here are some key advantages:

1. Structured organization: Coding frames provide a systematic way to organize existing and new data, making it more manageable. They help in categorizing data into meaningful segments, which can then be systematically analyzed, compared, and contrasted.

2. Consistency in analysis: Coding frames offer consistency, which is particularly beneficial in larger projects or when multiple researchers are involved. By organizing a well-defined set of codes, you can ensure that different researchers "speak the same language," enhancing the rigor of the analysis.

3. Efficiency: Through coding, researchers can swiftly navigate vast amounts of data. Coding frames serve as an index, allowing researchers to find and revisit main themes or patterns quickly. A useful coding frame also prevents researchers from creating too many codes which might stray from the core of the research question and leave the researcher feeling overwhelmed.

4. Depth of analysis: Coding frames, particularly hierarchical ones, allow for nuanced thematic analysis. They facilitate the identification of sub-themes and patterns that might otherwise be overlooked, offering a richer understanding of the data.

5. Facilitates theory building: The systematic organization and analysis provided by coding frames can lead to theory development. Researchers can formulate new propositions or contribute to existing theoretical frameworks by identifying recurring patterns and relationships within the data.

6. Transparent methodology: A clear, defined coding frame can enhance the transparency of your research methodology. It allows others to understand how you've reached your conclusions, lending credibility and rigor to your findings.

However, it's important to note that the use of coding frames is not without potential drawbacks. Despite the various advantages, they must be used judiciously and with consideration of their limitations.

What are some disadvantages of the coding frame?

While coding frames are valuable in qualitative data analysis, they are not without potential disadvantages. Acknowledging these limitations is essential for a balanced understanding and effective application.

Here are some potential drawbacks:

1. Initial time investment: Creating a coding frame can be time-consuming, particularly in the early stages of a research project. It requires a detailed understanding of the data to determine appropriate codes and categories, which can be challenging when dealing with large data sets or complex subjects. However, becoming familiarized with the data and iterating between data and literature are key parts of the research process that make it possible to generate meaningful insights.

2. Risk of oversimplification: While coding frames help to make sense of complex data, there is a risk of oversimplification. Researchers might be tempted to force data into predefined categories, potentially overlooking subtleties or nuances that don't fit neatly into these boxes. It’s important to pay attention to what is in the data, and if some data segments truly don’t fit into any category but they are relevant to the research question, researchers can create an additional category to capture all the “uncategorized” or “miscellaneous” data segments to later review and determine how they can be accommodated into the coding frame.

3. Inflexibility: Once a coding frame has been established, it can be difficult to adapt or change it, especially in larger projects or when multiple researchers are involved. This could limit the scope of the research and potentially overlook emerging themes. It is important to adapt the coding frame to the data and research question, which requires keeping an open mind to potential changes.

4. Difficulty with ambiguous data: Coding frames work best with clear, defined data. However, qualitative data can often be ambiguous or contradictory. Determining how to code such data can be a challenging task. Carefully thinking through data segments that don’t neatly fit into a code or category is a great exercise to refine the coding frame and develop nuanced insights.

It's important to be aware of these potential limitations when using coding frames. Being cognizant of these issues allows researchers to mitigate them and enjoy a more efficient and robust analysis with the help of their coding frame.