Reflections on writing my monograph 4: qualitative data stories

Central to the doing of qualitative research is the writing of it (see Holliday 2016). And central to the writing of it are a set of complex challenges, some of which I would like to share here as I reflect on how I wrote three chapters of my forthcoming book. Writing stories of qualitative data is about transforming and re-contextualising the wor(l)ds of research participants into the wor(l)ds of the researcher.

The three chapters in question are individual case-study accounts of students’ assignment writing. Each case is presented through a series of vignettes alongside an analytic commentary of the writing process. While writing these up from my field notes and logs of video recordings (the ‘raw’ data), I began to think about the presentation and analysis of the qualitative data I had collected, the story-like accounts I was hoping to achieve, and the various layers of work involved in this process.

When it comes to the reporting and analysing of qualitative and quantitative research, there are some marked differences. For example, replicating a qualitative study is not an issue of reliability, as it is with quantitative research. And the language and style of a qualitative account (sometimes written in the first person) is not comparable to the explanatory methods of quantitative research (see Lincoln & Guba 1985 and Holliday 2016).

‘Rigour’, therefore, in qualitative research is more about the “principled development of strategy to suit the scenario being studied” (Holliday 2016, p.7). This necessitates a need, as with a school maths problem, to show your workings. In my recent paper published in the journal Research in Learning Technology, and also in my thesis, I attempted to do precisely this in a table showing decisions of data management in my research. I have reproduced a part of that table here below:

Table of qualitative data management and analysis decisions during research. Adapted from Bhatt (2014) and Bhatt & de Roock (2013)

Data management decision Transformation
1. Setting up video recording Angled webcams were placed to capture the students’ movements and talk around the computers
2. Screen recording Screen recording software was set to record on the students’ computers at the time of the assignments, then exported to appropriate video file format shortly afterwards. This process cast a wide net to gather data for later analysis which was later viewed, scrutinised, and broken down.
3. Screen-in-screen format adopted Screen recording layout was chosen: screen-in-screen format
4. File conversion and management Video files made accessible and transportable for economy of conversion time and storage space. Video files password protected and stored on Web servers for ease of access on multiple devices
5. Video logging Descriptive video log of each recording produced. I decided to focus on segments of varying lengths, for selection and repeated viewing. Selection was based on a range of concerns influenced by the research questions, observational notes, and other relevant and supporting data (e.g. interviews). A detailed account of ‘what happened’
6. Gisting More detailed exploration of the video logs. A general “forest-wise” (Erickson 2006) account of what happened, aided by earlier layers of data management and an overall (i.e. forest-wise) impression was attained of the event.
This then brought me to a “tree-wise” (Erickson 2006) analysis, in which attention is paid to specific practices and their role in the greater event
7. Digital transcript preparation Segments of recordings were prepared for further analysis in ELAN (a qualitative data analysis software) for transcription and manipulability (slowing down, segmentation, etc.). A folder contained the recording from a given session to more easily triangulate with field notes, audio interviews, and still photos
8. Analytic vignettes written Finally, textual data from the video logs, field notes and other sources were rendered into a prose to ‘tell a story’. Points highlighted as noteworthy in step 6 above were drawn together with the data of prior intermediary steps, and allowed me to examine and reflect on the analysis as it unfolded

Here, what I am demonstrating is that each qualitative data management decision entailed a different ‘layer’ of work, and transformation of the data into something else. Every step was necessary and helps build up to my final summary accounts as they appear in the chapters of the book. Through managing the research process and conducting data collection and analysis, each step’s transformation possesses its own unique properties designed to scale and normalise the qualitative data for a particular purpose and audience. Ending with, ultimately, the ‘tidy’ version for the reader of the book.

In a paper I wrote for the journal Language & Education, I describe this analytic process as a kind of ‘diving deep’ into the problem of literacy and writing. This was based on my use of videographic methods (also discussed in this book chapter).

Writing these qualitative accounts for a reader of a book meant drawing from different data sources: field notes obtained at the sites over several weeks/months; video logs of recordings of moment-by-moment practices of particular writing sessions, pictures and collected documents from the sites of the study, and finally interviews with the student participants.

The writing challenge was therefore to bring these elements, as outlined in the table above, together seamlessly, and to foreground the why and how in the ‘story’ of each of the writing tasks, and how technologies were used (or avoided) in classroom practice.

The question is how to write so that it is easy for a reader to reflect on those accounts, and for them to be conceptually fruitful. To hold the reader’s hand and guide them through the story of what was happening. I found this best handled by vignettes alongside an analytic commentary, but built upon a foundation of much less ‘visible’ work with the qualitative data (outlined in the table above). By adopting a style that I felt allowed the imagined reader to familiarise with the student in a particular case-study, their educational context, and their idiosyncratic processes of writing, the reader then becomes drawn into the account like they themselves are the observer.


Saltaire snicket © ibrar bhatt

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