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Electronic Textbook - Making Sense of It All: Strategies for Compiling and Reporting Qualitative Data

Greetings to my cyberspace champions of qualitative research! Following the "life can be very non-linear" model (at least it's real-life .. !), we'll kind of leapfrog ahead a little bit to the data analysis and reporting end of things this time. Specifically: what are the generally accepted strategies for compiling your qualitative data and making sense of it all to answer your research question(s)?

This was indeed a worry! In the "good ol' days" when quantitative was king, and qualitative was just coming into the picture, data analysis was a major concern. Here is the basic tradeoff between quantitative and qualitative:

  • Quantitative analysis might be (1) "messy up front:" how to make sense of the often-complex formulas and statistics! But once you do understand them and how they work, they are relatively simple to "package!" Meaning: a chi square table is a chi square table! Ditto ANOVA - (2) commonly accepted, relatively standardized ways to package (tables, graphs, charts), interpret, and analyze for your dissertation Chapter 4. Furthermore, such quantitative data as piles of survey results, even though they may look overwhelming when stacked up in piles or boxes, are actually amazingly "condensable." With the advent of computers and software designed to create databases, those piles of numbers can be rather efficiently converted into compact databases -- and the statistics can be similarly executed, with precise output (e.g., calculated values of chi square, associated degrees of freedom & p-values) readily obtained and reported in a widely accepted, standard manner.
  • Qualitative analysis, though, is just the opposite!(1) More readily understandable, and "common-sense," procedures: interviews are easier to do than to figure out meanings of often-obscure statistics, for instance! Words just inherently make more sense than numbers to many researchers! But -- in contrast to quantitative approaches, the "mess" comes later at the packaging end!!! (2) often not as conveniently "packageable," sometimes hard to summarize and make sense of it all, and to present it in a way that answers each question! Michael Quinn Patton, a wonderfully witty "guru" of evaluation research and qualitative procedures, uses a cartoon of a researcher pushing a wheelbarrow full of messy piles of papers. That is what you can come out with, from a single 1 1/2 hour group interview session -- believe me, I've been there! And then the challenge becomes: how in the world do I make sense of this all and condense it down to "manageable, easy to understand" answers to my research questions?!

This, then, is our "researcher's tradeoff" in a nutshell (or cute cartoon?!):



The quantitative supporters often used the preceding "messiness of management/summarization" as a major argument vs. qualitative procedures! "It's simply not as 'scholarly' or 'rigorous' as our precise, universal numbers!" they'd proclaim. "You don't have the equivalent of p-values, standard reporting tables/procedures (e.g., ANOVA and chi square tables)! So how in the world do you compile and make sense of it all in a scholarly fashion?!"

Turns out there are two major ways to summarize qualitative data in a scholarly, systematic, scientific fashion! The advent of these procedures significantly satisfied the quantitative critics and brought much-deserved "scholarly legitimacy" to the image of doing qualitative research.

Before I talk about these two procedures in greater detail, I'd like to give you the "secret of manageability" of those mounds of qualitative data (e.g., interview transcripts, journal entries, written open-ended survey responses).

It all boils down (pun quite intended, you'll see): to one word:



... by the way, there's a persistent rumor that that's what the "D" in "Mary D." stands for ... remember, you heard it here first ... !

That's right! The challenge -- and equal parts art and science, if you ask me! -- is to distill down the mounds of voluminous, messy, often disorganized qualitative data into manageable, concise, understandable answers to your research questions!

When you think about it, this step is akin to the application of a formula to an equally voluminous "mound" of quantitative data, such as survey responses, to produce a statistic and similarly answer a research question!

But -- this part is generally done in seconds by a computer package or program in the case of quantitative data analysis. That's why it may not seem so daunting.

For qualitative data, this requires substantial rolling up your sleeves, digging in, and patiently reading and rereading on your part! There are many ways to accomplish this step, including the following:

  • The method I use to this day: making multiple Xerox copies of, say, an interview transcript. Reading several times for 'general gist.' Annotating summary comments in the margins when "key overall themes" seem to jump out at me from the transcripts. For instance, annotated next to a quote: "This one relates to 'Interpersonal Climate.'"
  • Related to the above, having different colored transparent markers and creating a color coding scheme for the different factors, variables, etc., that are evident in those qualitative data.
  • Alternatively, buying different colored index cards, linked to the same coding scheme as above. After a few 'read-throughs' of your interview transcript, journal entries or other original source of qualitative data, transferring key quotes and your summary comments in longhand to these color-coded index cards. P.S. Seasoned qualitative researchers nod in recognition when one of them shares with the group how he/she clears a patch of living-room rug for this kind of pile-sorting purpose!
  • Ditto a method colorfully described by one of our doctoral candidates, Denise Kochanek-Ehlerman. She spoke of taping up large sheets of butcher paper in her basement for this purpose. After such initial readings/rereadings, she'd transfer key themes (planned/anticipated, as well as emergent from those qualitative data) onto those sheets with bright, vivid colored thick markers. Each sheet represented a separate variable, factor, or construct. She'd write in samples of key related quotes, tallies of how many comments related to that quote (* a super strategy of beginning to combine qualitative and quantitative reporting, by the way!), her own summary observations or comments, etc.
  • A variety of computer packages exist for creating qualitative databases. On the plus side, it's certainly convenient to be able to create and maintain a computerized database comparable to those of quantitative procedures. For instance, you'd type in your source text of interview transcripts, journal entries, open-ended survey responses, and the like. It's easier to manipulate, page through, print out and otherwise deal with these word-processed qualitative data - than the preceding, spread-'em-out-on-your-living-room-rug-&-get-down-on-your-knees-to-mark-'em-up strategy! Furthermore, most of these computerized databases make it easy to modify your text (e.g., pull selected quotes from the original while still having a complete copy of that original),as well as do searches on keywords or phrases. ("find how many times, and where, the term "climate" was mentioned by my interview subjects").

The links below will take you to informational pages on a number of popular computer applications used in qualitative research. In many cases, there are links from these pages to demos that will allow you to play with the product before committing to a specific tool.


Nud*ist - Probably the most widely used application.

Getting Started with Nud*ist (Tutorial)

Code a Text (analysis of dialogues)

The Ethnograph
(helps you search and note segments of interest within your data, mark them with code words and run analyses which can be retrieved for inclusion in reports or further analysis)

Decision Explorer

However, for interpretive purposes, there's also a clear danger in "automating the process too much." For instance, suppose an interview subject used the phrase "organizational environment" in making a comment related to "climate." It's the same idea, of course, but a manual, automated search on "climate" would miss this quote. Of course, this is a rather simplistic example - and certainly you can do searches on multiple strings, keywords, etc. Still and all, in my opinion & also that of many of my qualitative doctoral students, there's nothing quite like taking a deep breath, jumping in and immersing yourself in your own data to really, truly get a 'feel' for it. Time-consuming? messy? yes, no doubt. But at the same time, the best way to really make sure you've mined out all of the intended meaning from it.

- > Miles and Huberman ... a truly 'dynamic duo' that we'll hear more about shortly ... have referred to this as the process of 'making meaning!'

That, then, is your challenge! To distill down those volumes of qualitative data and 'make meaning' in terms of answering your research questions, identifying key response themes, ideas, variables, and constructs!

Now, on to our two basic "families" of such procedures!

Two Basic Strategies for
Qualitative Reporting & Analysis

-- by the way, just a point of clarification before we dive in ... I tend to use the terms "analysis" and "reporting" interchangeably when it comes to the application of qualitative research procedures. In the "bad ol' days" when there was so much initial resistance to qualitative methods (not as long ago as you'd think!!!), I was a bit concerned that, for dissertations & the like, some chairs/committee members might prefer the term "analysis" for strictly quantitative, and especially inferential (tests of hypotheses) procedures. To sort of "pre-empt" such objections or concerns, I suggested to students that they ask their chairs/committee members if "reporting" would therefore be an acceptable substitute for qualitative procedures. The term "reporting" would hopefully not imply "testing hypotheses/analytic statistics" and comparable quantitative procedures. In those (relatively few) cases where there was such an objection to "analysis," all of the chairs and/or committee members comfortably accepted "reporting" instead. I must say, it hasn't come up or been a concern lately. But just in case you think it might be an issue for your own chair/committee, I'd handle it as above and I'm confident it will be OK!

1. Summary narrative method. This is a very distilled (see?! I told you that strategy would come in handy!) write-up of the key findings as related to a given sub problem or research question. It will undoubtedly take many, many (many, many!) rereadings of your original source data to produce. But if you can get it down to a concise, illustrative narrative -- manageable in volume but still illuminative for your reader in terms of the "flavor" of responses to that research question -- you've hit the mark!

This is the general framework I envision if you are planning to apply this method:

Sub heading representing your sub problem or research question - reproduced either in whole or in part.

Content of your summary narrative:

1. 2-3 paragraphs (or whatever it takes; this is just a very "average ballpark") containing:

  1. Restatement in your own words of the key response themes (in those interviews, journal entries, participant-observer logs, open-ended responses, etc.) related to that question; and
  2. Judicious "sprinkling in" of key, colorful, revealing, illustrative quotes that "vividly make the point" as related to those key themes.

Something like this might do it:

Sub problem X: Key features of organizational climate. The three most frequently mentioned response themes, according to the 12 principals interviewed, were [first theme], [second theme], [third theme]. (If you like, even mention a tally of how many times each of these three themes came up for discussion--please note: number of individual mentions, not number of subjects who mentioned it--a key distinction!) As stated by one principal "[content of his/her quote, of course with names or other individual identifiers disguised/removed."

This is of course a general framework, but hopefully it gives you the idea. We've discussed the judicious inclusion of that handful of key quotes that are just *sooooo* vivid, well stated, memorable, etc., that you feel they simply *must* be included verbatim to illuminate the sub problem for the reader! We've also discussed, in our EDR 720 Research Design, an unfortunate insecurity on the part of some budding researchers to "accurately" restate original source data in their own words. Trust me: you can do it! And you should, too, in order to attain that "conciseness" and "parsimony" in your mounds of qualitative source data! By following your instincts, you'll develop a feel for which quotes refer to a concept but should just be tallied; vs. which quotes also refer to a concept but really must be reproduced verbatim.

2. The matrix or table shell method. Ah, what a glorious invention in 1984! And the ultimate answer to those critics who said that qualitative data are not as "neatly packagable" as quantitative statistical findings and results!

For this one, we have Matthew B. Miles and A. Michael Huberman to thank! They too struggled with having to roll up their sleeves, wade through mounds of data - *and* produce a concise, yet complete, "answer" to a sub problem or research question that wouldn't overwhelm a reader!

Basically, a matrix or table shell is a vivid visual!

You'd still write some summary narrative around it. But your goal with the matrix or table shell is to produce a vivid, readable, easily understood, concise visual that 'tells the story' at a glance!

Or, as Miles and Huberman put it:



That's right!!! A picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words!!! And a lot more quickly understandable than those thousand words!!!

The following is a general framework for a matrix as suggested by Michael Quinn Patton. The rows and columns may emerge from your individual sub problems. For instance, if you are looking for categories of response difference, by, say, gender, then you might envision two rows for men and women. The columns could be the categories of those response themes - either sorted by your sub problems, or as they "emerge" from your immersion in those responses. The latter, far from being "too subjective," actually represents classic "grounded theory!" Those categories become evident to you as you read and reread your responses.

Here is Patton's schematic for a matrix, or "table shell," for an evaluation of an educational program.

He chose to make the rows "processes". These would be, in his terminology, "-ing" or action words: for instance, "planning the program," "training the teacher-participants," "teaching the actual lessons," "grading the assignments," etc.

His columns, on the other hand, represent "outcomes." Some of these could be decided upon prior to the evaluation. They could include learning objectives for the students in the program such as minimum scores on standardized achievement tests. They could also include attitudinal and behavioral outcomes for these students to go along with the content-area achievement tests. These could be measured by teacher-made tests, observations, interviews with the students, compilation and analysis of students' comments as reflected in their journaling, etc.

As with all qualitative research, too, we can and often do find unanticipated outcomes - and processes, for that matter. These would again represent ex ante, emergent, classic "grounded theory" factors. Trust your judgment on these! (We'll talk about ways to get a 'reality check' on these when we discuss validity and reliability issues later on in this course.) And add them to the rows or columns, respectively, as they seem to "jump out at you" from your immersion in those qualitative data.

Here's Patton's schematic for a matrix, or table shell, cross-classifying his qualitative data by program process (rows) and program outcomes (columns) :

Processes (rows) by Outcomes (columns) Outcome a Outcome b Outcome c Outcome d Outcome z
Process 1 Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity
Process 2 Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity
Process n Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity Linkages expressed as themes, patterns, quotes, program content or activity

From Michael Quinn Patton, How to Use Qualitative Methods in Evaluation. 1987: Sage Publications, Program Evaluator's Kit, 2nd ed.

The dimensions, of course, could be any factors you'd like them to be: again, both preplanned (ex ante) or emergent from immersion in your data (ex post, "grounded theory"). It is also possible to make a matrix, or "table shell," of single dimensionality (just rows or columns), or three-dimensional as well. It all depends on the needs and circumstances of your particular study.

I'd like to illustrate for you a *most relevant* matrix of our own at this time! It's the matrix displaying the evaluation results of our pilot test of teaching courses by modem!

AOL Matrix

Data for this evaluation matrix consisted of the letters and E-mail messages containing evaluative comments regarding our Summer Sessions I and II, 1994, courses taught by modem.

The columns of this matrix are a very popular choice of dimension if you are evaluating a program, process or procedure:

  1. perceived strengths;
  2. perceived insufficiencies (which we find less 'emotionally loaded' and threatening to the users than a term like 'weakness,' but that is just our particular preference);
  3. recommendations for improvement.

The rows could very well have consisted of the courses themselves. These were: Intro to Statistics; Intro to Research; Research Design; and Intermediate Statistics. However, immersion in these data suggested alternatively categorizing the evaluation comments along the lines of the following aspects of the instruction - they became the rows:

  1. the technology itself (AOL);
  2. the course materials;
  3. the instructor (that's me!).

Please note the contents of the cells and how they reflect Michael Quinn Patton's suggested schematic, pg. 14. The key response themes are summarized in descriptive phrases to reflect the "gist" of the original source quotes.

Furthermore, you will see numbers in parentheses following the comments. These are sorted in descending order (not required, but somewhat traditional) and reflect the number of times that a given comment was made. Again, these were by individual comment, rather than subject. They were expressed in different words, of course, but essentially classified as "relating" to that given overall concept which is summarized, starred and concisely restated in this matrix. (Also customary: no number after a summary idea means it was mentioned just once.) Tallying and presenting this frequency of mention of key response themes is one of the simplest, most basic, ways to "go multimethod" and combine quantitative and qualitative data in your analysis.

It is certainly possible to come up with "empty cells." These would be analogous to "missing values," or non-response, in a quantitatively oriented and coded survey, for instance.

However, keeping in mind the "art" and "judgment" involved in "making a matrix," if you start getting too many empty cells, it may be a clue that you've "crossed the wrong factors" as rows or columns. For example, if we had had too many empty cells along the lines of the preceding "aspects of instruction - rows", it might have been a clue that we should maybe try reclassifying the comments by courses taught as rows. That scheme, or some other(s), could very well result in a "cleaner classification," "better fit," etc.

I do want to remind you at this point that application of the matrix or table shell method doesn't necessarily mean a 'table' per se. Those terms are meant to be catch-alls for the more general Miles and Huberman admonition of "Think display!" that we saw on pg. 12.

Any creative visual display -- limited only by your imagination! -- would qualify!

The preceding course evaluation matrix was presented and discussed under the "Findings and Results" section of the evaluation report. Brief summary narrative was also presented, with subheadings corresponding to each row of the matrix. As indicated in the guidelines discussed above, this accompanying brief narrative consisted of a restatement of key response themes, along with presentation of illustrative quotes (from your letters and E-mail messages).

However, any "good" evaluation report ought to proceed from the findings to some conclusions and recommendations for the future. (Sounds a lot like our dissertation Chapter Five, doesn't it?!) In proceeding to these conclusions and recommendations, the following figures seemed like a vivid visual way to "grab" the readers of the report and "hit them between the eyes" with these key findings and conclusions.

You'll notice that the dimensionality of the cube corresponds to the three rows of the matrix: namely, the aspects of the program (technology itself; course materials; and instructor attributes) being evaluated.

Likewise, for the shape containing the recommendations, it seemed logical to show the two sessions (Summer Session I and II) as "feeding into" this centrally placed figure of recommendations.

This is yet another example of a qualitative matrix, or table shell. It comes from a paper I wrote with Elizabeth (Beth) A. Packard, Program Coordinator for Special Grants of NAU's Arizona Center for Vocational and Technical Educational department. For two years I collaborate with Beth on evaluating the outcomes of the Summer Youth Employment and Training Program (SYETP). During the second year she particularly wanted to see if the emergent comments of the youth-participants varied by setting. You may recall from our previous modules that this would be equivalent to a "cross-case analysis," as per Robert Yin, if we define a setting as our "case." Two interview sessions were conducted: each with 8-12 youth from each of the two sites. The site, therefore, became a natural "dimension" (in this case, columns, although it could just as easily have been the rows) for the resulting matrix.

Such summary visual displays of key qualitative findings, conclusions, recommendations, etc., are limited only by your imagination!

Please remember to think in terms of the key criteria:

  1. concise;
  2. readable;
  3. vivid, memorable visual

In other words: does it effectively reduce the mounds of original source data and effectively "bottom-line" it for a busy reader that report who needs this information packaged ready to use?

Think of the image of an overworked administrator or manager who delegates the fact-finding duties to you and says: "Now, bottom-line it for me! Tell me simply, directly and clearly: what does all this say and what do I do about it?!"



The possibilities for creativity are virtually endless!

Former Professor Emeritus Dick Packard has a terrific "emergent qualitative paradigm" of the key pieces of an educational organization (school; district) that impact upon the desired "target" outcomes of student academic achievement. He depicted the overall shape as a rocket! (This was right after the Challenger tragedy, and Dick's way of honoring the late Christa McAuliffe.) The tip, or nose, of the rocket was that ultimate desired "student academic achievement" outcome. But, supporting it and underneath, were those other factors that, if not attended to properly, could effectively 'get in the way' of reaching that desired "student academic achievement" outcome. Dick divided these into two subgroups:

  1. Support factors: base of rocket (e.g., district funding; state legislation impacting the school or district);
  2. Focus factors: stem of rocket and directly underneath the desired target "student academic achievement" (nose of rocket) -- such things more in the realm of direct control, such as the evaluation system used for students, faculty and staff within the school or district).

This model became the focal point of a series of evaluation reports that Dick and I co-authored regarding the 5-year pilot test of the Arizona Career Ladder Teacher Incentive & Development Program. We conducted qualitative interviews on-site with key informants of those participating districts (e.g., students, faculty, staff, administrators, school board members, parents, general public at large) and classified the data according to the elements of the model.

These can be found via an ERIC search under "Packard and Dereshiwsky" if you're interested! Last but certainly not least! If you're still feeling like you would like a 'creative nudge,' and more examples on how to do up qualitative matrices, table shells, and other visual displays, there's an excellent resource that's jam-packed with examples! It's Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook by none other than our matrix pioneers, Matthew B. Miles and A. Michael Huberman! The 2nd edition came out in 1994, by Sage Publications, Inc., Newbury Park (Los Angeles), California.

Dick Packard and I have also established a special reserve in Cline Library at NAU containing top-quality research resources for our doctoral candidates. We have contributed many of our own books to this excellent collection. I kicked in several copies of the "old" but still "very good" 1984, 1st edition, of this classic how-to Miles and Huberman matrix book. Diana, you're the lucky one to have easiest access to it! You may find it under: EDR 798, Dissertation Seminar, Packard. (I'm hoping the rest of you can scrounge it up at your local university libraries.) I would recommend that you first thumb through it and skim the graphics and other displays, rather than try and read it cover to cover. The idea is to get an idea of "how to make matrices" and other displays. Invariably, after paging through it in this manner, students report that they get related ideas for how to do up their own dissertation and other research displays! Miles and Huberman also have a lot of quality advice regarding issues such as validity and reliability in qualitative research. We'll be returning to these later on in our course.

- - -Quick "my-story" time again! One of Dick Packard's and my proudest possessions is a letter written to us from A. Michael Huberman himself! He and Matthew Miles were interested in seeing how various qualitative researchers around the country had adapted the matrix/display idea. Ah, to rub elbows with the leading lights of research ...!

Next time, we'll swing back in the research design procedures and take the aerial view of sampling!

Once you have finished you should:

Go on to Assignment 1
Go back to Strategies for Compiling and Reporting Qualitative Data

E-mail M. Dereshiwsky at statcatmd@aol.com
Call M. Dereshiwsky at (520) 523-1892


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