Qualitative methods: data analysis

It’s fall.  The white, wet blanket of last weekend’s unseasonable snowstorm has melted;  the sky is an unblemished, brassy blue; streaky orange, red, and yellow leaves spiral off and skitter underfoot, and the markets overflow with pumpkins of all varieties: long neck, sugar, Autumn Gold’s and miniatures.  (How many ways are there to prepare pumpkin?)

Recently, I was asked to analyze and write a narrative for a qualitative interview data set.    I hadn’t done the interviews myself, although I was familiar with the purpose, participants, and interview questions.  So I started by reading, and re-reading the interview transcripts.  While walking to the local grocer to get the ingredients for pumpkin muffins, and also to clear my head, I thought about making meaning from pages of qualitative data.  It’s one thing to read about data analysis and quite another thing to actually do it.  Which is probably why my advisor thought that it would be such good pre-proposal practice.

It seemed to make intuitive sense to start by simply reading the transcripts to get a feel for the whole data set.  On the second read through, I took up my trusty highlighter and started searching for the most succinct expressions of often rambling, yet related, ideas.   The third read-through was quasi-statistical.  With what frequency were certain themes expressed?  Annotating the transcripts helped.  Categories began to emerge, and the introduction to the narrative began to write itself.  However, the first draft of the body of the narrative sent me back to the transcripts for another read through.  The data, in all it’s complexity, remained.   Quotes illustrating major themes surfaced; however, anomalies and outlier comments stubbornly refused to neatly categorize.  I walked away.  The narrative’s second draft did not write itself.  It was pulled painstakingly, word by word, out of the data.  I slept on it.  Read the data again.  Made a few tweaks, sent it out to the interviewers for a member check, and shared my frustrations with an experienced qualitative researcher. Yup, we agreed: it’s an iterative process.

While waiting for feedback I’ve made pork and pumpkin stew and cranberry pumpkin muffins.  There are recipes for  fall harvest foods, comforting when  you’re trying to weave a narrative that’s whole – one that does justice to the rich complexity of disparate stories of real people.  In the meantime, pumpkin brûlée, anyone?

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