Once you have observed something, once you have interviewed somebody, how do you get from this pile of data to a compelling research report? Today's blog sums up the gist of a lecture I recently gave on this issue as part of my field methods teaching at SIT Study Abroad. It looks at four stages in turn: explorative analysis, draft writing, confirmative analysis and editing. These stages are, of course, most likely circular activities, through which you go back and forth until you a) arrive at a decent report or b) simply run out of time. Which is the chief reason why it is advisable to start the circle as soon as possible, not letting the pile of data become so scaringly tall in the first place...

Writing & Analysis on Prezi

Explorative analysis: Your first steps to confront the pile of data assembled is to identify pattern in it, most importantly pattern across the main difference you wanted to explore in the first place (see here). If your research is based on narrative data, and especially interviews - as most qualitative research ends up being in the end - you first need to condense the vast amount of data this method generates to something more tangible, however. In a very practical article1 Coralie McCormack suggests to start this process by reading each narrative from four distinct angles (after one initial holistic reading) to come up with a compelling "interpretive story" which you could then compare and contrast across interviews (its worth reading her paper for more detail):

1. Immerse yourself in the transcript through a process of active listening
2. Identify the narrative process used by the storyteller
3. Pay attention to the language of the text
4. Acknowledge the context in which the text was produced and
5. Identify moments in the text where something unexpected is happening

Once you have transformed your raw data into such interpretive stories, you will already have a fairly good hunch of any emerging pattern among them - even though you can always resort to fancier methods of pattern detection than trusting your gut feeling. But lets assume you are set - how do you proceed to get these pattern on paper?

Draft writing: I have written about academic writing elsewhere on this blog, but the important point to remember for this stage in the research process is: keep it simple. You should have a reasonably well defined structure (under time pressure its perfectly fine to opt for Introduction - Literature Review - Methods - Findings - Analysis - Conclusion, though this might not be the most interesting of structures), but then the main task is to get ideas out of your head and on paper. Your project is already a huge mess - to balance this mess in your head until you reach a perfect solution, only to write it down at the very end, is likely to stretch beyond anybody's intellectual capacity. So don't attempt it - rather draft, re-draft, draft, re-draft. If you find it hard to get started, write "blind" for three minutes: switch of your screen and just type away your stream of consciousness. You can delete all of that nonsense afterwards, but it will trick your mind into writing mode.2 But remember to keep tabs on your references and sources throughout - nothing worse than to plagiarize by accident! As mentioned, this stage is meant to produce a very rough first draft and clear your mind - but most likely the story you come up with at a first go is not very convincing. You need to go in circles for a little longer.

Confirmative analysis: Since you only have a first draft so far, it is important not to be carried away by the emerging analytical narrative, even if it is so exciting to come up with it after all the messy fieldwork. But most likely the story to be told needs to become a bit more complicated still. You should thus actively try to disprove yourself now - if only to build up the validity and reliability of your argument. A good "trick of the trade"3 to start this process of confirmative analysis is to confront whatever you have written so far with the null hypothesis of "why should it be this, and not rather the outcome of pure chance?" - a trick which draws out the reasoning in your arguments more clearly, and ensures that you don't overdo it with your social scientist's passion for pattern in explaining a world in which many things are indeed fairly random. In this stage, you also need to revisit the two conversations your research takes part in: that with your interviewees, and that with the academic literature. Which parts of your data dropped under the carpet, and how does your narrative fit into existing work? Some more good questions to test your argument can be found here - and then you are ready to circle further.

Editing: While you will also go back to some raw data, it makes sense to do much of this confirmatory "thickening of the soup" (the soup being your argument) through writing. Or rather: through editing. I have written before about writing and editing as a kind of thinking, so let me reiterate just one aspect here: editing is not the same as proofreading. Rather than just correcting spelling mistakes (which you should do, too, ultimately, but not now), you need to check the micro-level soundness of your narrative: when I write "because", do I really mean "because"? And if so, is the reason given convincing? How many assertions do I make without proof (they should be few and far in between)? Do I argue in circles, or just confirm whatever stereotype was hidden in my categories in the first place? What did I overlook, and did I mean to overlook that for a good reason? And if you feel that your report at this stage still reads like a descriptive data dump rather than an argument, ask yourself another of Howard Becker's trick questions: which question are my facts the answer to?4

In the end, you need to provide a compelling account, based on data, with which your examiner can agree or disagree. Most likely that means: you will now go back to stage one, do some more explorative analysis, and enter the circle for a couple more rounds. Till you end up with a compelling narrative - or run out of time. Good luck!