Since the mid-1980s numerous software packages have been available to facilitate the analysis of qualitative data (see the CAQDAS Networking Project for reviews1). Many researchers have successfully adopted these technologies but new users often experience challenges. Nick Woolf and I have reflected long and hard on how to teach these packages so that researchers can harness their power without needing a lengthy process of trial and error. The result is the Five-Level QDA (R) method – a CAQDAS pedagogy that we developed to span methodologies, software programs and teaching modes2, 3. It unpacks experts’ unconscious processes so that new users can quickly develop the expertise they need for their varied and idiosyncratic analyses.
The key principle is to clearly separate strategies from tactics. Strategies are what you plan to do to answer your research question, and tactics are how you plan to do it – which could be using manual methods, general-purpose software such as MS Word or Excel or dedicated CAQDAS programs. Qualitative analytic strategies are to varying degrees iterative and emergent, whereas computer software is predetermined and step-by-step. This contradiction leaves beginning researchers struggling to harness software for specific analytic purposes. There are different ways to manage the contradiction. Avoiding it can lead to giving up the software right when it could be most helpful. Compromising muddies the distinction between strategies and tactics, resulting in the features of the software driving the analytic process. Neither leads to powerful use. However the contradiction can be transcended through a process of translating between strategies and tactics. The translation process is effected in a different way in every project by going back and forth between strategies and tactics without having to compromise either to match the nature of the other.
We have broken down the expert’s unconscious skill of translation into a five step process. It is in no way complex. It is simply a separate skill from research or analytical skill that has to be recognized, learned, and put into practice. It is the skill of harnessing the software rather than simply operating it. In a nutshell, translation involves identifying the units and purposes of specific analytic tasks, and representing them by components of the software. The Five-Level QDA method focusses on software components and the actions that can be taken on them, rather than software features. A feature is something the software can do, and there are dozens in each program. A component is something that can be acted upon in the service of analytic tasks. Programs vary, but typically there are 12-15 components, which we identify in each of our textbooks. Thinking of CAQDAS packages in terms of components and actions rather than features is initially unfamiliar, but once learned the process is both simpler and more powerful. Once learned the translation process quickly becomes unconscious and it then becomes unnecessary to explicitly undertake each of the steps for translating each individual analytic task. Even so, we have discovered that many of our students prefer to continue to follow the steps of translation as a helpful way to manage, document, and communicate a qualitative analysis.
Find out more at the ESRC Research Methods Festival4. Our session at the Methods Festival discusses the development and application of the Five-Level QDA method using examples from different research contexts in three leading CAQDAS packages (ATLAS.ti, MAXQDA and NVivo). The session, chaired by Sarah Bulloch of the CAQDAS Networking Project is in three parts:
First, I outline the genesis, principles and application of the method, describing a) why developing such a CAQDAS pedagogy was necessary, b) the principles of the method, and c) the core skill of translation.
Second, Steve Wright, an experienced user and teacher of ATLAS.ti and NVivo, discusses his experiences of integrating the Five-Level QDA method into his teaching practice. He discusses a) the extent to which the principles of the method resonate with his existing practices, b) the adaptability of the method in the context of different modes of teaching, and c) the challenges involved in adopting the method.
Third, Jacqueline Priego, an experienced user and teacher of MAXQDA, illustrates an example of applying the Five-Level QDA method in a real-world qualitative analysis. This involves demonstrating the translation of a specific analytic task into software tools using the five steps of translation and our Analytic Planning Worksheets to illustrate how the analytic task could be accomplished in different ways using the software.
For more information see www.fivelevelqda.com
Submitted by Christina Silver, CAQDAS Networking Project, University of Surrey on Friday, 6th April 2018