Image via WikipediaThe Journal Project (where I am analyzing two years of my private journal entries 2006-2008 using NVivo Software) is a place where I am challenging myself to use the two sides of my brain, so to speak: 1) the side that appreciates qualitative data analysis software (QDAS); and 2) the side that loves the humanistic, arts-based research, autoethnographic side of qualitative research.
Many people think these are diametrically opposed--that QDAS represents a scientific style of social science analysis...and that non-QDAS represents the other side of qualitative research. I'm exploring this assumption in the journal project. I know that for some people in my field, the use of precious, personal, private materials like your own journals...well, it just doesn't belong in that hard, scientific container known as QDAS.
Now that I am getting toward the end of the first stage of analysis in this project and have done basic coding (in NVivo) for most of my materials, I come back to the question: What difference does it make to use QDAS to examine any text, but, in particular, what difference has it made to me in analyzing these deeply, personal, totally autobiographical texts? Has it improved the analysis? Does it add objectivity to what is flagrantly subjective? Did I learn more by the use of these tools than I could learn without them?
I think yes, but the reason isn't very fancy--it goes back to the most basic ways that led people to take up technologies in the first place--it expands the finite power of our bodies, muscles, brains, and senses. My brain is finite. My memory spotty and kind of soft at this point. I can remember the big ideas and patterns and some of the particulars, but I only hold on to what I think is most important. Without technical aids I would simply relegate the other stuff to the big black bin in the brain.
QDAS is first a foremost for me a visualization tool. It is a place where I can build a structure that allows me to connect all of the bits and pieces of experience in containers and limbs that have a relationship to the larger world of ideas. Coding, tagging, hyperlinking, modeling, relationship building--all of these things that you can do with efficiency in QDAS are tools for visualization.
Using these tools I create a structure that I impose on the materials/data I have collected. This structure is different than the natural context of the text. The structure I impose relates to structures, arguments, disciplines that have evolved in human intellectual history. "Discernment", a key concept to my journal work is a word that comes with a history and cultural experiences. I took this term and imposed it on my material--using QDAS to create a bin where I could stuff things that I would make 'speak' to this notion.
Analyis then is kind of violent-it is an imposition. I thought about the other terms that have floated to the top as I developed a coding tree. Meltdowns/flashbacks/post-traumatic stress...now that's a fat, juicy category. Then there is Japan (lived there from 1974-76). Ohh...Family of Origin...we won't unpack that yet. You get my drift. A term like "Family of Origin" didn't occur in my journal (I don't think). I impose it...and as I impose it, it allows the intellectual ideas associated with the term to intermingle with my real life experience with people.
QDAS makes the structure visible, and it does a better job at this than manual methods. It is more efficient at allowing me to create categories...organize, mix them, remix them, separate them, rebuild them. I imagine what I am doing when I analyze with this tool is to create a kind of skeleton--an animal that has a backbone, ribs, skull (these are the codes and my theories)...my texts are the flesh, hair, blood that are stretched around and over the skeleton. I create organs and link them with vessels.
This reminded me of a video I saw of artist Barbara Moody creating a painting, one of a series in which she had drawn a goat. She drew it over and over and over again, adding to it, shading it, unshading it--the time lapse of the video made the picture change quickly and jerkily, but it seemed like a long recursive process. This feels to me like the interpretive process in action, trying to find the structure for the emerging piece.
This also reminds me of my many visits to Natural History Museums--and time spent pondering the skeletons of dinosaurs, amphibians, and early mammals. I look at them and recognize them as beasts with locamotion and common functions...yet they are strange. Not really things of my world. The structures created from analysis have that same sense of recognition and strangeness.
So--was QDAS important to this effort? Yes.
Would I have gotten the same thing with manual analysis? I don't know.
Which was better? QDAS has to be better. Don't even talk to me about xeroxing, cutting up papers and the rest.
Can QDAS be used for non-evaluative qualitative research studies that are really squarely in the middle of autoethnography and self study? Absolutely.