Tuesday, July 3, 2012
QR Archiving yes? But Qualitative Software no? What gives?
I am working on this concern with Joseph Fisher, digital archivist at UMass Lowell. We have been a great time talking to many people in many places about this issue. We will be discussing some of our findings at the upcoming QSR trainers conference in Boston in early August.
Archivists are concerned with the overall notion of qualitative research data, but as a qualitative researcher with interest in qualitative research software--I am concerned with the issues that this software raises for archiving, in particular. I have been surprised to find that many of the same prejudices researchers hold about qualitative research software sans archiving seem to be translating into the archiving issue. In other words, the archiving issue is yet another place where these prejudices can be voiced.
Louise Corti illustrates this concern (she is reporting the concern) in her fantastic article about digital archiving and qualitative research in FQS http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/498/1072, the 2011special issue on secondary use of qualitative research data. Some qualitative researchers, she found, have concerns about using qualitative research resources that are in the form of an e-project, the neat little digital package that qualitative research software creates for the user.
I have been thinking hard about this. It seems that such qualitative researchers are concerned that they need to approach the data afresh, look at it with clear eyes, and avoid being contaminated by the views of others. Some worry, I suppose, that the technical shaping of the software package will itself skew their understanding of the data. They seek freedom from the shackles of externally imposed standards of organization.
Here are some responses I would make to these arguments.
1. Qualitative research software does not force the researcher to look at the data in the manner that it was formatted by a previous researcher. You can simply choose to look at the sources themselves, and ignore the codes. You have the flexibility, if you wish (and have knowledge of how to read that software) to look at the codes, to study the memos, and hyperlinks, but that is up to you.
2. It is a fallacy to think that if you are using qualitative data sources outside of qualitative research software that you are free of standards and technical specifications. When you read an interview transcript, we expect it to have the question and the answer...right? Well, that's a technical specification. You are never free of those specifications--we need them because they help us make efficient senses of text. It is also true that these specifications are always evolving based upon new concerns re: genre and standards. It is the same in qualitative research as in other forms of literate endeavor.
3. If you were studying an English novel or novelist (as a specialist in the field), wouldn't you read the novel AND everything you could find related to its analysis and production? Why is it different in qualitative research? For some reason when it comes to our qualitative research data, it appears that it has to be in pristine condition--a fresh site. It's kind of like a perversion of the prime directive--now instead of leaving the field untouched, the people in their original state, now we have to enter the field in our own pristine mental condition.
BUT, it is not only the user side that has got to examine assumptions--there is a desperate need for software developers to step up to the plate. By that, I mean that they must accept standards for a meta-language that will allow flexible use of their packages across platforms and into the future. I know this implies added expenses. But if this is not done, they are adding yet another nail to the coffin. Stand alone software developers know that their days are numbered, and they must jump to the mother ship of the Internet at some time in the future. As they make this transition, it will add to their usefulness if they can also demonstrate their attentiveness to the needs of archiving qualitative research data for future generations.