Mastering Structural Coding for Qualitative Data Analysis

Structural coding methods are useful for understanding genres and textual practices. Read more about structural coding in this article.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is structural coding?
  3. When should I use structural coding?
  4. Examples of structural coding


In this article, we will look at structural coding. Rather than qualitative coding for meaning, coding for structure means labeling text segments by what they do or what role they play in a genre or textual practice, which can be useful for discourse-related research questions.

Structural coding looks at how written text or speech is constructed rather than what it means.

What is structural coding?

Researchers often employ thematic coding methods to interpret qualitative data. Consider the following text that might be seen in activist settings: "Solving climate change requires all of us to work together." Thematically, you can label this sentence with codes such as "climate change" or "problem-solving," which are useful when your research questions call for examining the substance of textual data.

Looking deeper at structure

However, if your research questions are aimed at examining how text is structured to achieve persuasion, you might consider using structural codes such as "call to action" or "collective change." These codes don't refer to the meaning of the text specifically, but they label specific parts of a larger text to identify how activists persuade their audiences.

When should I use structural coding?

The structural coding method is ideal for various reasons and research questions. We'll examine a few of these purposes in this section.

Discourse analysis

Consider studies with research questions that explore how people talk in an everyday setting. Structural coding for discourse analysis can look at features of discourse such as "open-ended questions," "disagreement," and "consensus building" so researchers can identify differences in the use of these features across cultures and contexts.

Exploratory analysis

Within certain features such as "open-ended questions" or "consensus building," there are bound to be variations. Research questions that call for an inductive approach may employ a structural coding method to identify different kinds of open-ended questions or strategies for building consensus.

Deductive analysis

If your research questions employ an existing theory with defined criteria (e.g., qualities of transformational leadership), you might consider applying structural codes to observational data (e.g., "motivation," "rapport") to affirm or challenge that theory.

Examples of structural coding

Structural coding has been applied in various fields, so it's worth looking at these fields to give you a sense of how structural methods of coding can be applied to your research.

Emails and text messages

If your research questions deal with how online communication differs from face-to-face or traditional, written communication like letters and memos, then your coding can focus on the differences in discursive features across different media.

Recipe blogs and recipe videos

The same research questions can be applied to other genres such as recipes. Think about how a recipe in a cookbook might differ from a recipe on a blog site or social media video, then consider how structural coding can explore these differences.


What makes a story funny or compelling? Structural codes can help address research questions relating to how people put together stories to achieve a persuasive effect on their audience.

Social interaction

How does everyday conversation differ across cultures? You might consider labeling parts of conversation with structural codes such as "small talk," "personal question," and "compliment" to compare differences across data sets.

News articles

Traditional media outlets might structure news articles differently from news blogs or alternative media, prompting researchers to employ structural coding to examine these differences.