Living with your data: the writing is on the wall

DSCN0613For anyone new to qualitative research one of the enduring mysteries of data analysis is how to make sense of the pages and pages of data generated. Those amazing interviews which generated a wealth of information evolve into mountains of mind boggling possibility once they are neatly transcribed. If you print them off they sit enticingly on your desk waiting to be mined for golden gems. If only someone would explain what to do.

The process of managing data by allocating codes, fragmenting it and restructuring it  is fairly well explained by the majority of research methods textbooks and probably for most of us an OK process to learn at the start of our research journey. Once reorganised the ability to describe what is contained within each theme or code may prove a little more challenging but again is generally still manageable but the process of interpretation is the point at which the challenge becomes greater and often the point at which people are tempted to bailout.

Evidence of this untimely exit is there to be seen in numerous posters, presentations and papers which report that x number of themes were identified with y number of sub-headings and then go on to describe what is in each heading. When you come across such work you maybe left asking yourself the, “so what” question, what does it all mean and how are the different aspects of the data related to each other.  This is because the analysis has left you hanging by a thread.

The process and art of interpreting data takes time, requires constant questioning and challenge by yourself and others and, I would suggest, takes you into the realms of thinking creatively. It is a left brain right brain thing and time to engage your right brain.

Palgrave study skills is a good resource to explore which provides an introduction into critical, analytical and creative thinking and also explores a little of the interface between critical and creative thinking. Some of the creative thinking techniques suggested include

  • Brainstorming ideas onto a large piece of paper
  • Drawing or painting a theory on paper.
  • Letting your mind be influenced by new stimuli such as music you do not usually listen to.
  • Being open to new ideas: look for ways of making things work and pushing the idea to its limits.
  • Asking questions such as ‘what if….?’ Or ‘supposing….?’.

I know that many people use computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) such as ATLAS:ti and NVivo to support their analysis and I love the way such software helps me to manage, sort and reorder my data but when it comes to the point of interpretation, especially the early stages, I always revert to pencils, crayons and a very large piece of paper. The act of drawing, doodling and creating somehow makes me feel more connected to the data.

When I undertook my PhD we lived in a victorian terraced house. The kind of house with a long high entrance hall that ran from the front door to the kitchen at the back of the house. When we moved in it had psychedelic 1960s wallpaper which we started to remove and then somehow got distracted and stopped mid task.

So when it came to trying to make sense of my data it became the perfect backdrop for a long length of lining paper, many doodles, diagrams and post-it notes. This not only became my thinking out loud space but it also did a very good job at covering up our failed attempts at decorating.

If I had a massive revelation or eureka moment I didn’t have to fire up the computer I just wrote on the wall or moved something around. I could see a very big picture at one easy glance and make changes with ease. I guess the downside was that I literally lived with my data for a while but then again when you are at the stage of being immersed in your data I think you do anyway.

I know you can generate similar working models using CAQDAS, add notes and reminders, explore connections etc but for me there was something fundamental about physically drawing, doodling and manually rearranging that somehow a software package just couldn’t replace.

Diagrams on a computer screen seem more formal and lines connecting things can take on a more permanent feel before they are meant to. My drawings not only felt like but were a living evolving creation.

We all have our own way of approaching the task of interpreting data but if you are feeling in a stuck place with your analysis and haven’t already tried it why not break out the coloured pencils, find a big piece of paper and just start to doodle and draw. Engage your right brain and it may just give you the stimulus and insights to move your thinking into a different place, to explore different perspectives and challenge some of the assumptions you have made. Is anyone else a doodler?

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