Rethinking qualitative research coding: insights from Sally Thorne

Sally Thorne’s Interpretive Description: Qualitative Research for Applied Practice is now in its second edition. Among many other qualities, it’s a thoughtful and pragmatic invitation for researchers in applied disciplines to rethink coding. I know this because something interesting happened when I recently attended Thorne’s workshop at the annual Qualitative Health Research (QHR)  2017 conference.

A bit of background: QHR is an excellent conference hosted by the University of Alberta’s International Institute of Qualitative Methods (IIQM). For full disclosure, Sally and I volunteer on the advisory board for IIQM. You might think I am writing this post because Sally asked…But it was actually another respected qualitative researcher who requested a summary of Sally’s workshop.

(It was at this point in the workshop that @trishagreenhalgh asked for a blog, so here we are. When Oxford’s inestimable Trisha Greenhalgh lurks the conference hashtag #QHR2017YQB, you’re doing something right.)

One of Sally’s most relatable points was that qualitative research often is taught as a set of highly procedural, theoretically dense steps. She’s not against using qualitative methodologies, but she reasons that educators, clinicians, and other applied researchers can be distracted by unnecessary methodological procedures.

Sally endorses an approach to qualitative data analysis that centres on how applied researchers understand their data, not how closely these researchers followed a procedural series of methodological steps. A breath of fresh air blew through the room when Sally said she believes coding can become the motivation and driver for research rather than research questions.

Sally defended her position on coding with two key points. First, she reminded us that it is easy to code but hard to uncode. Once we reify an idea into a code it becomes a knowledge object. From this position, then, it becomes difficult for us to ‘uncode’ our work because this involves destroying a knowledge object.

Second, Sally reminded us to consider how coding involves signification, the act of assigning a concept or object to a symbol. While signifying our ideas occurs as an essential part of qualitative analysis, Sally noted a common trend where researchers assign codes too early. Coding too early can negatively impact how researchers think about their data later in their projects. “Coding,” says Sally, “is not the same as deep, real exploration of qualitative data.” When we establish codes too early, they demand we feed them our data instead of supporting the development of new ideas.

Sally invited us to consider some alternatives to our impulse to name and label codes too early in the analytic process. Instead of labelling a code with a word, like Frustration, Sally recommends using labels like Category A or I don’t know why this is important yet. These techniques resist the urge to early labelling that can impact later and potentially deeper thinking.

Sally explained that she sees these coding problems frequently in manuscripts submitted to the journal Nursing Inquiry, of which she is the editor-in-chief. She describes under-theorized qualitative manuscripts that foreground codes as if they are analytic results in and of themselves. “I have 14 codes and 2 categories is not a finding,” quipped Sally to gales of nervous laughter. (Come on, we’ve all done this!)  Writing results involves not only summarizing the analysis, but also creating a rich narrative that can be applied in practice.

Oh. And hell no,  don’t even bring up saturation with Sally! She calls this concept a relic of the early days when qualitative researchers had to measure up to their quantitative colleagues. It’s “absolutely antithetical to applied health disciplines” because after all, “we would never trust a health professional who told us there was no more information to be found” on a topic.

I’ll let Sally’s last slide speak for itself. Needless to say, she’s amazing. Thanks for reading. I hope this was helpful. If you’re interested in this topic and you’d like to know more, please consider following Sally on Twitter as well as the IIQM.