Best Practice

Make the best of codes in ATLAS.ti

In this article, you learn about various ways of starting your coding process and how to move on from there.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
  1. Introduction
  2. Initial Coding
  3. Second round of coding
  4. Further exploration of the code system


Codes are labels that usually are linked to selected pieces of data. You may also want to think of them as tags. How you name them and on which level of abstraction you apply them is up to you. ATLAS. ti does not give further help in this matter, nor is there an intention to prescribe a particular way of coding. This is where methodological knowledge comes in, or at least some thoughts about how one wants to approach analysis.

Do you want to code inductively or deductively, or is your intent to apply a mixture of both? Is your aim to describe the data, retrieve code frequencies and coded segments per code, and perhaps run a few group comparisons? Are you interested in how the discourse enfolds in your data? Do you want to apply a grounded theory approach? Is your study about people’s life stories, or do you want to conduct an actor-network analysis? The choices are plenty. Important is that you make an informed decision and do not simply let software features guide your analysis.

Initial coding

You begin the coding process by reading the data and assigning codes to data segments you think are relevant. This step is fast and loose. See the video below. Don’t worry about creating the perfect codes since you’ll be iterating and evolving the codes as you go onto the second pass at coding. You can code data in different ways and for different things.

You probably have heard people talking about "open coding." This term originates from the Grounded Theory approach. You can think of it as breaking down the qualitative data into discrete segments more generally applied. The codes represent a label, description, definition, or category name. The codes produced in a round of open coding are meant to be loose and tentative and subject to evolve and change as you code in further rounds.

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Another way of approaching coding is to attached descriptive labels. Descriptive coding means you summarize the content of the text into a description. The code name is a word or a noun that encapsulates the contents of the qualitative data.

Yet another possibility is structural coding. You do this often parallel to open or descriptive coding.  When applying structural codes, you categorize sections of your text according to a specific structure with the intent to continue analyzing within these structures. These could be speaker units, comments in a social media network conversations, the various open-ended questions from a survey, etc. It’s a way to break your qualitative data into smaller increments.

Second round of coding

After your first round pass at coding qualitative data, you can begin to group your codes into categories. These categories can be organized in a variety of ways. Within each category, you can group codes that are similar to each other or pertain to the same topics or general concepts. Iterate on these categories and move the codes around until you find a structure that makes sense for your analysis. In general, you should be reducing the number of codes from your initial round of coding and actively reflecting on how to categorize best the codes you have.

Figure 1: Creating categories and sub codes in the second round of coding

Further exploration of the code system

Next,  re-examine the codes and categories you’ve created. In this phase, you may re-name, re-code, merge codes and re-categorize the work you’ve done so far. While the first round pass at coding data was fast and loose, these rounds of coding are about re-analyzing, finding patterns, and getting closer to developing theories and concepts.

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