Thursday, 28 March 2013

From data to draft: got to have a process

It started with this Tweet.

That quick comment got me thinking about something that is simple, but I have realised is so important to my research: having a process to follow. You might remember that I recently blogged about (my) secret to success in a PhD. It got the most number of hits of any of my posts. everyone knows they need to do this, but struggles with it. I suspect that is because 'making progress' is not simple, we have multiple tasks, and defining 'important' can be tricky. We need to reflect, read and talk to find a way forward. Here's an example.

In this case, I had the rather dubious task of taking my 'next steps' now that I had worked with my data (interpreted, rather than analysed feels a better fit). I had six key insights that I could audit trail back to a process of looking at the data in multiple ways. I was advised to maintain some of the momentum I had and to draft a findings and discussion chapter, knowing I'd come back to it as other chapters took shape. I had to think carefully about how to start.

In this case, in order to begin writing, I felt I needed some of the data to hand. Specifically, I wanted to group quotes in such a way that I could write thematically. I'm working with narratives, and I want to keep those voices close. Given my topic (how talk about self and talk about practices relate) I can get fairly philosophical fairly quickly, but I want to do that whilst (re) representing participants voices. My first step was to code all of my data again against those six insights. It gave me 60 pages of 11pt text. After about ten minutes of trying to put the right quotes together, I realised that it was going to be impossible. That would be 'cut and paste' from hell. No, I wanted to see them all laid out; after all, I'd used interactive 'sorting' and positioning methods in my research, and that worked so well.

The first thing I did was to print off those sixty pages. Then get my scissors out and cut them up. I'd didn't feel very intellectual. I then grouped them into clear plastic 'pockets' so the quotes relating to each key insight were together. I quickly realised that an initial 'sort through' was required, so I went through each 'pocket' and looked at each one in terms of it's ability to 'speak' about that particular theme. I pretty much reduced each pocket by half.

I then needed to find a way of grouping quotes within these six themes. By now, I am very familiar with all of them and their contexts, so that helped. Hours of coding, then re-coding for other things had paid off. Practically, I found that getting my highlighter pen out helped here - I could group common quotes much more quickly. Then I laid them out, and fought off the cat who became very interested in them.

Despite the process feeling a bit mechanical and 'painting by numbers' what I did next was to staple groups of quotes together. These were the potential raw materials for sub sections. When I thought about it, I realised that as I reviewed my 'data analysis' plan I had been on a multi layered and 'back and forth' process of hermeneutic discovery (see previous posts on this). I was looking at patterns. Even at this rather mechanistic stage, I realised that I was doing rather sophisticated work in judging the extent that quotes illustrated the insights I had arrived at by going through a previous process of coding, reviewing, memoing and so on. I was going back along that process, and in a way it was testing out the strength (or not) of the insights I felt I had come to. The process was mind numbing, but reassuring and illuminating at times.

I realised that there are some things you should not rush or skip. I could have pulled (from memory) some quotes to say something about the insights I'd come to - which came from a thorough process of analysis. You could say that selecting quotes was decorative, but not in this study - this is a study of narratives, and I needed that dynamic relationship between the emerging thesis and the data. This activity - going back through the process - was exactly the movement back and forth along the hermeneutic 'arc' from explanation to understanding (and back) that Ricoeur talks about in his work.

I now have a work document with quotes grouped into the six insights, and into sections within that. I will start writing and will then begin to draw on the theoretical material which will feature elsewhere. I have a process in other words, and that helps.