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Three Methods Of Qualitative Data Analysis Using ATLAS.ti: ‘A Posse Ad Esse’

Komalsingh Rambaree


This article appraises the possibilities, limitations and challenges in undertaking three different methods of qualitative

data analysis using ATLAS.ti. The discussion is based on three different research projects carried out from 2004 to

2012. In the first project, a grounded theory analysis of data collected in 2004 was carried out using an inductive ap­ proach to make a theoretical proposition on Mauritian early adolescents’ internet-mediated dating pattern. In the second project, an abductive thematic network analysis was carried out using qualitative data collected in 2006 from Kenya and Zambia on adolescent sexual and reproductive health. In the third project, a deductive critical discourse analysis was carried out using an eco-social work research from Mauritius, undertaken in 2012. This article concludes that ATLAS.ti presents numerous possibilities for researchers to carry out different methods of qualitative data ana­ lysis. However, there are certain limitations and challenges that need to be considered by the researchers when un ­ dertaking computer assisted qualitative data analysis.

Acknowledgements The author's participation in this conference has been funded by the Department of Social Work and Psychology, Faculty of Health and Occupational Studies, University of Gävle, Sweden.

Keywords ATLAS.ti, qualitative analysis method, grounded theory, abductive, thematic network analysis, inductive, deductive, critical discourse analysis, computer-assisted analysis, challenges, limitations, possibilities Introduction ATLAS.ti has been rightly acknowledged as an essential tool that facilitates researchers’ ability to under­ take well-organized, systematic, effective and efficient data analysis in many studies (Lewis, 2004; Lu & Shulman, 2008; Konopásek, 2008; Friese, 2012; Rambaree & Faxelid, 2013; Rambaree, Forthcoming, to name a few). The software renders qualitative data more visual, portable, and it also eases the process of analytical discussion in between two or more researchers. For some researchers, ATLAS.ti is not only a tool for supporting qualitative data analysis; it is also a companion that accompanies them from the con ­ ception to the end of a project. When researchers begin to think about a project, they can start using AT ­ LAS.ti to make preliminary reflections on ideas and the knowledge construction from the very beginning of the research process. For instance, they can create free memos, which focus on reflexivity related to the setting up of the research process. Reflexivity basically means making reflections on and accounting for how decisions are made and influenced within the research process. For instance, researchers can re ­ flect and note in memos, why theory X is preferred rather than theory Y for framing the research. Reflex­ ivity is carried out through procedural memos, where researchers start describing the phenomena to be studied, the background of the issues/problems to be studied and so on. Reflexivity is not to be restricted only to the data analysis, but rather it needs to be carried out throughout the whole research process (Mauthner and Doucet, 2003). Friese (2012) reminds us that reflexivity is essential throughout the entire research project and it helps researchers to be aware of biases. In particular, researchers can use ATLAS.ti


to undertake literature reviews, explore data, and use a variety of available functions to code, sort data, study quotations, and create links that greatly facilitate the process of understanding the underlying meanings behind the gathered evidence (Rambaree, Forthcoming).

However, some researchers have also voiced concerns regarding data analysis with the help of CAQDAS

- such as ATLAS.ti (St John & Johnson, 2000; Blismas & Dainty, 2003; Bryman, 2008; Harding, 2013). For instance, St John and Johnson (2000: 393) name the following concerns: “…increasingly deterministic and rigid processes, privileging of coding, and retrieval methods…and distraction from the real work of analysis”. Moreover, it is argued that software like ATLAS.ti has limited capabilities that hinder research ­ ers from undertaking diverse types of qualitative analysis using different analytical methods and ap­ proaches (Blismas & Dainty, 2003). On the contrary, as it can be found from the below given three cases, ATLAS-ti allows certain flexibilities, where researchers were able to choose different ways of look ­ ing at the data using different approaches as well as making different types of rigorous analysis.

Friese (2012: 92) proposes a method for computer-assisted qualitative data analysis based on the three principles Noticing, Collecting and Thinking (NCT). According to Seidel, the three aspects represent a simple and most logical way of proceeding with any type of qualitative data analysis (Seidel, 1998). Giv­ en that there are different methodologies of qualitative data analysis - such as thematic analysis, narrat ­ ive analysis, and discourse analysis – it therefore becomes important to discuss how ATLAS.ti can be util ­ ized in each of these. In particular, information is still lacking on how to apply NCT when using ATLAS.ti in the context of different qualitative analysis methodologies. Specifically, novice researchers using AT­ LAS.ti could benefit from more specific step-by-step guidance in undertaking qualitative data analysis that is framed within different approaches and theory of method (Rambaree, Forthcoming). Friese (2012) calls upon researchers to use the NCT approach to work with ATLAS.ti for reporting what else may be discovered; and she provides an interesting analogy by stating The data material is the terrain that you want to study; the chosen analytic approach is your path­ way through it. The tools and functions provided by ATLAS.ti… are your equipment to examine what there is to discover (p.4).

In this article, three different methodological approaches of qualitative data analysis using ATLAS.ti are described as examples, and the discoveries are reported. The aim of the article is to appraise the possibil­ ities, limitations, and challenges in undertaking these three different methods of qualitative data analysis using ATLAS.ti. Following this introduction the three different projects and their respective analytical ap­ proaches are briefly described. Before the conclusion, an appraisal of the possibilities, limitations and challenges in using ATLAS.ti in undertaking the three methods of qualitative data analysis is carried out.

At this stage, it would be worth acknowledging that perhaps there are other ways (possibly more effi ­ cient, effective and rapid) to undertake the below described analysis; nevertheless, in an area of limited guidance this article is presented as a material for initiating further discussion for the advancement of qualitative data analysis with ATLAS.ti.

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Project 1: Grounded Theory As An Inductive Approach In this project, grounded theory analysis was carried out using an inductive approach to make a theoret­ ical proposition on Mauritian early adolescents’ internet-mediated dating pattern. Data for this project were gathered in 2004 through the use of tools such as digital voice recorders for Focus Group Discus­ sions (FGDs) and floppy-disks for collecting individuals’ written narratives from 136 adolescents from Mauritius. Glaser’s (1978) non-linear method of theory generation through data analysis was used as guidance for the data analysis (see Figure 1). An article related to this particular project is published in the International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society (Rambaree 2008).

–  –  –

Further, the Network View Manager (NVM) was of paramount importance. Using the linking and related functions under NVM, nodes were imported to create categories of concepts for eventually looking at a logical pattern that could explain how internet-mediated dating starts and evolves. For examples, the fol­ lowing initial codes ‘Access by Mistake’, ‘E-mail from a Stranger’; ‘Contact by Accident’ were grouped under one concept labelled as ‘Chance’. See Figure 2. Then after such concepts were linked to cat­ egories, say for instance ‘Contact’ and linkages between the categories were establish in order to provide theoretical explanatory patterns. For instance, the categories of concepts such as ‘Contact’, ‘Attraction’, ‘Friendship’ and so on were linked and organised in a logical manner, in order to provide theoretical ex­ planation on the evolution of the dating pattern (Refer to Figure 3).

–  –  –

In this study, ATLAS.ti 5 supported the researcher in exploring patterns of behaviour by creating a ‘visual playground’ with the codes, categories, concepts and networks to draw a logico-empirical pattern that emerged from the data in studying the Mauritian early adolescents’ Internet-mediated dating. Moreover, ATLAS.ti 5 facilitated the study by allowing the researcher to present the findings in a vivid, visual and transparent manner (as shown in Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3).

Project 2: Abductive Thematic Network Analysis

The second project was a mixed-method (qualitative and quantitative) study that was carried out in 2006 by a group of researchers from the Department of public health sciences, at the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. The research participants were students aged 11-22 years, from secondary schools in two urban settings in Kenya and Zambia. Within the qualitative part, a total of 1875 students completed a ques ­ tionnaire where they were asked to write pertinent (in some cases more than one) questions (most of them were open-ended) that were related to adolescent sexual and reproductive health. This particular item generated more than 2000 open-ended questions, representing a rich qualitative data set. In this project, two researchers (Faxelid and myself) used Abductive Thematic Network Analysis (ATNA) using

–  –  –

ATLAS.ti 6 for developing a model that provides a typology of sexual and reproductive health questions asked by the research participants in the context of Kenya and Zambia (Rambaree & Faxelid, 2013).

Abduction is the pragmatic way to construct descriptions and explanations that are grounded in the gathered data from the activities, discourses, concerns, motivations and meanings used by research parti ­ cipants in a study (Lewis-Beck, Bryman, & Liao, 2004). It is a way of ‘guessing right’ in making inferences and providing interpretations on ‘new discoveries’ by using intuitive reasoning (Swedberg, 2012). The use of intuitive reasoning in abductive research, which relates to the process of providing hypothetical explanations based on the newly found facts was introduced and advocated by Charles Sanders Peirce in the 1950s (Levin-Rozalis, 2004). Expanding on ideas borrowed from Pierce, Haig (2008) posits that ab­ duction adds to knowledge construction by reasoning from factual premises to explanatory inferences. In its simplest form, abduction is therefore the process of associating data with ideas that could be checked through further research (Richardson & Kramer, 2006). Haig (2005) states that, the important feature of abductive method is its ability to serve as a framework for framing more specific research. For several re ­ searchers, abductive reasoning is based on a pragmatic approach that allows reasoning to move back and forth between theories and empirical evidence (Dubois & Gadde, 2002; Morgan, 2007; Feilzer, 2010).

ATNA can be considered as a pragmatic methodological approach with an abductive way of reasoning in studying and explaining linkages between emerging themes from the gathered qualitative data (Ram­ baree & Faxelid, 2013). It is a combination of ideas borrowed from Haig’s (2005) Abductive Theory of Method (ATOM) and Attride-Stirling’s (2001) Thematic Network Analysis (TNA).

TNA is a technique for examining linkages between themes emerging from gathered data (Attride-Stirl­ ing, 2001). Within TNA, researchers study the data to identify themes and then develop graphical repres­ entation/s of the linkages between the themes. According to Attride-Stirling (2001), the networks between the themes are merely a graphical tool to organize themes and show the interconnectivity between them in order to facilitate the subsequent analysis. The central part of TNA is where researchers relate the principal themes and patterns that emerge in the analysis to the original research questions;

and then propose explanations from empirical data to such questions (Attride-Stirling, 2001).

In this study, Stein (1989) theorisation of sexuality was used for abductive reasoning in carrying out TNA of gathered data from the field. In particular, Stein (1989) highlighted a theoretical explanation on sexu­ ality with three specific central themes: Drives - view of sexuality as an overpowering natural and in­ stinctual drive, which is represented in both the medical and psychological disciplines; Identity- self-iden­ tification, preference and orientation as well as socially constructed image based on interactions and cul­ tural influences; and Practices- behaviours and activities controlled mainly through power agents, such as religion, school, family etc.

TNA can be both theory and data driven. In a theory driven approach, researchers can use a theory to design a conceptual framework; and, the themes observed from the gathered data can be linked deduct ­ ively to the already established theoretical concepts to form a network of linkages between the theoretic ­


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