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?

Losing words: writing qualitative research for publication.

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

Section of stained glass from Manchester Cathedral

There has been a theme running through the last few days of needing to loose words. I am working with a colleague to prepare a paper derived from a project we have just completed evaluating a dental outreach service for people from ‘hard to reach’ communities. Many of the service users are homeless and have complex needs and this service has evolved to try to address some of the challenges they face with dental care. So much to say.

There was a bit of a heart sink moment when we thought we had around 5,000 words to play with and then, looking at the author guidelines, we realised that, for this particular publication, the limit is actually 3,000. Two thousand words to cut, and we thought we were doing well to get it down to 5,000!

Writing within word limits is one of those things which for many of us challenges not only our language skills but our ability to ‘bottom line’ our research. Whether it is a 250 word abstract we are preparing to submit in response to a conference call or a 3,000 word limit for a paper word limits force us to make pretty fundamental decisions about how to piece together the key points, stay true to our findings and present a structured narrative which makes sense to the reader.

This is an even greater challenge, I think, when your world of research revolves around words. As a qualitative research my research is grounded in words: the stories people tell; how and where they tell them; the things they write about; the words I use to build the context, describe people, settings, emotions. If you then add to this the need to convey to the reader the credibility, trustworthiness and generalisability of your work – yet more words……..

We are walking a tightrope between providing enough information to assure reviewers and readers that our work is robust and trying hard to convey the depth of data we have gathered. Why is it that the quotes which eloquently convey a specific point are often the longest?

A while ago I wrote about bottom lining your research and the challenges of conveying a PhD in a tweet, well I guess we’re back in that territory again. Writing within any word constraint forces us to journey into the essence of our data. When push comes to shove what are THE most important things emerging from our data that we want to convey. It is a reductionist process and one that leaves me feeling frustrated about what has been left out. The colour is reduced to primary colours and the subtleties of shade and detail are missing.

The possibilities for communicating research are growing rapidly and a ground swell of researchers are exploring the potential of using multiple channels to talk about their research not only at the end of a project but across the whole trajectory.

A world of possibilities not only in terms of what we communicate but also how we communicate. Freedom to choose different styles of writing, to reach different audiences. If you are interested in exploring this world more then the LSE impact blog is a really great place to start; providing thought provoking posts and links to resources to take you on a journey of exploration.

Of course whatever form of communication we use we will always have to function within word limits, whether it is 140 characters or 3,000 words. So I’m off to loose some more words today.

Shifting perspectives and shaping questions

FullSizeRenderWe moved offices recently. Not far, just down the road. The same city, Manchester, arriving at the same train station, Oxford Road, exactly the same first few hundred meters but then a slight shift of a couple of street to the left.

What has struck me over the last week as I have taken a number of new routes to work is the difference this slight shift has brought in terms of my perspective of the city. I used to just come out of the station, walk over a busy foot bridge and arrive at the office. A journey of maybe 3 minutes full of the hustle and bustle of a lot of people heading over a small bridge, cross the tram line and there I was.

Now the same beginning but then a diversion, in a few short steps a completely different world opens up. Different architecture, incredibly grand and indicative of the industrial heyday of a thriving victorian industrial powerhouse. Juxtaposed with modern architecture and a new tram system. Little gunnels and backstreets going knows where, new shops waiting to be discovered as the go to place for lunch. A few meters one way or the other and everything changes and, as I was strolling along, I was reflecting on the relevance of perspective to research. A few weeks ago someone asked me, ‘what kinds of questions make researchers roll their eyes?’ Several thing came to mind and one of them was being asked, ‘what is your research question?’

This is the one that cuts to the chase and is the bane of the lives of many a researcher.  You know immediately when someone asks you this that you are required to come up with something short and pithy. There is no way you can waffle your way out of this one. The usual round the house explanation of your general topic, why is it important and roughly what you are interested in just won’t get you out of this one.

One word to the left or right can make all the difference, the addition or deletion of a verb or noun can shift the focus dramatically. Having been convinced that you were going to be undertaking a quantitative study you may suddenly find yourself heading towards something qualitative. Being certain that you wanted to avoid statistics like the plague you may find yourself contemplating the prospect of grappling with correlations and regressions. Oh those verbs and nouns, small words with great power.

And this brings me back to my walk to work. I am experimenting with different routes, seeing what’s involved in each, trying them out to explore the different perspectives brought by each. Which is right when it’s raining, which if I want a coffee? Which is quickest if I am late, which makes me smile and feel happy?

At the start of a research project this is exactly what we all need to do to craft a great research question. The nuance may not be immediately apparent, we may need to write several versions, explore several routes, speak them out loud to hear what they sound like. There is skill and expertise in crafting a clear research question which, at some point in all of our research careers, has had us rolling our eyes. If you think the first question is right treat it with caution, before committing to it explore a few more perspectives first, who knows where that might take you.