Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Studies in Qualitative Methodology: Computing and Qualitative Research: Volume 5

Robert G. Burgess (editor)
London: JAI Press
ISBN 1 55938 902 8
47.00/$73.25 (hb)
216 pp.

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Volume 5 of this series brings together essays which provide user perspectives on, and their experiences in, evaluative research on the usage of software in qualitative social research and in substantive research projects that are assisted by computer software. Essays scrutinize methods, techniques and processes of analysis as they are affected by software.

Setting the scene, Nigel Fielding and Raymond M. Lee describe the history and development of CAQDAS. They draw from the pilot stage of a research project concerning user experiences and discuss the problems of, and strategies for, teaching CAQDAS in the structured academic environment. The essay locates some of the problems of qualitative research methods and tradition, subsequently software assisted, in the context of the former hegemony of the quantitative paradigm.

Sharlene Hesse Biber, (one of the co-developers of HyperRESEARCH) continues in the general theme with her essay entitled 'Unleashing Frankenstein's Monster?' The essay raises points of debate about the use of computers in the qualitative field and concludes that users of the technology must be proactive in deciding when they use this technology.

One of the problems associated with any work discussing computer software is that the references to current software are out of date at publication. At least three of the essays refer at length to some of the advantages and disadvantages of working with The Ethnograph V.3. This is unfortunate since the package is much improved in its later Version 4.0. It is interesting to note, however, that nearly all the constructive comment in the essays has since been incorporated in the new version. This emphasizes the marked degree of responsiveness of developers to user experiences. It also underlines the usefulness of communicating the processes of analysis, both for the interaction with the developer and for other researchers.

The essays by Wilma Mangabeira, Derrick Armstrong and Annemarie Sprokkereef (et al.) used The Ethnograph in three quite different substantive research projects. The commentary on the 'mechanical processes' in the use of the software was useful, but became repetitious after the first essay. However, the real essence of each account was the objective description of the usefulness of the software in the analytic process, and further, the points at which the software became less effective. Armstrong describes how the software helped in tracking down themes which ran across cases but did not help the deeper examination of the relationships within one case. All of these essays are a rich, though dated, source of support to those thinking about the use of CAQDAS.

Similarly, though referring to a more current version of software (QSR NUD*IST), Lyn Richards frankly describes the use of the software in a large team research project concerning menopause as a social construction. This is a colourful account of how the software became more useful as familiarity with it increased and it will be of significant value to NUD*IST users. Although her description lacks the objectivity of the accounts given of the use of The Ethnograph (she is a co-developer of the software), she frankly confesses major mistakes that were made and the problems and tensions of the necessary and different learning processes which the team underwent.

The work by Anna Weaver and Paul Atkinson takes a lateral step into a discussion about the use of hypertext technology as an analytic or presentational tool for qualitative data. Their comparative investigation of GUIDE, as a hypertext software package, and The Ethnograph V. 3, as a more conventional code and retrieve package, voices a discomfort with the 'the culture of fragmentation' emphasized by the code and retrieve approach. They suggest, though not without reservations, that there are other ways that technology can trace continuity and themes which occur in data, and that hypertext is one method. The account of the use of GUIDE to perform a secondary analysis on TB data will be useful to many researchers as an indicator of the possibilities of hypertext but also its problems and limitations.

This collection of essays ends with the contribution of Liz Stanley and Bogusia Temple who briefly outline the basic approach of Info Select, NUD*IST, Ethno, The Ethnograph, askSam and the 'analytic facilities' of Word for Windows. They include practical suggestions on the use of latter. They also raise the issue of 'epistemological openness' which they feel should be addressed fully by the developers of CAQDAS software. Though not agreeing completely with some of their categorizations of software in this respect, I agree this is an important issue, reflected earlier by Biber's concern for proactive decision making.

Robert Burgess has brought together a collection of essays which will be of significant use in these proactive processes in which prospective and current users of this genre of software need to be engaged. The Weaver and Atkinson comment about the need for both evaluative and reflective personal accounts of working with software, begins to be realized in this volume.

Ann Lewins
CAQDAS, University of Surrey

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996