Rethinking the guiding ethos of 5LQDA: from managing contradiction to harnessing creative tensions

I attended the excellent 5LQDA workshop for NVivo last week. I really can’t recommend these highly enough, as well as the books. I am actively working to integrate and develop my teaching and materials to work with, incorporate and work within the broad structure of 5LQDA and I don’t think I can personally give it a much stronger seal of approval than that!

However, this isn’t a unilateral adoption not unthinking acceptance. I want to work to adapt my materials and help to use them to scaffold and structure gaining awareness of the components of NVivo and ATLAS.ti.

The core of 5LQDA: Managing Contradiction

There is one guiding rationale of 5LQDA where my views diverge, quite strongly, from the printed word – and as it is so fundamental to the model I want to document and explore my perspective and how it differs from Christina and Nick’s book.

They state that:

The central issue is the contradiction between the nature of qualitative analysis and the nature of software used to conduct the analysis. The way these contradictions are reconciled determines the approach to harnessing the software. (P13)

And furthermore that:

there is a contradiction between the emergent nature of qualitative analysis and the step- by- step nature of computer software. The Five- Level QDA method is a way of managing this contradiction. (P157 and back cover and other blurb)

This is THE core argument of 5LQDA as a method. However there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right for me about “managing the contradiction”. The tenor of that statement and the language it evokes – of management and compromise – also seems to permeate some of the ways that potential is treated e.g.

“the potential misuse of rudimentary automated features that may be introduced in the future are concerning”. (P18)

So how to acknowledge this fundamental rationale, its reason and importance but to find a way manage the contradiction between that and my somewhat different view? Could it, itself, be translated it into something a little more positive and evocative not of managerialism and compromise but potential and opportunity?

A potential translation: from manager-subordinate to creative partnership?

I therefore hope that one way to productively resolve this is and incorporate the 5LQDA approached into my practice and teaching is through a slight tweak that I hope stays true to the intention of the original but also draws on my interests and desire for supporting step-changes in how software works in and with qualitative research.

Harnessing the creative tension between the emergent nature of qualitative analysis and the potential new and developing components in software that work in a pre-programmed way”

To me the idea of a “creative tension” is a really positive way of viewing the way that this contradiction could be played out and one that also gives a little more agency and acknowledgement to the potential of software tools to undertake new and different ways of approaching qualitative analysis in terms of scale, approach and intentions.

Thus it is neither to let new tools drive analysis but also not to place software as entirely and absolutely subservient to analytic tasks conceived without acknowledging its potential. For if those ideas and tasks and approaches are always and already prior to selecting a component – then how would those tasks develop and change in order to take advantage of the new opportunities software affords (see my previous post on technology, tactics and strategy and the tanks in ww1 for more on this)?

I’m not alone in this concern to me there is a running theme through 5LQDA that reminds me of this quote:

Over the past 50 years, the habitual nature of our research practice has obscured serious attention to the precise nature of the devices used by sociascientists (Platt, 2002; Lee, 2004). For qualitative researchers, the tape recorder became the prime professional instrument intrinsically connected to capturing human voices on tape in the context of interviews. David Silverman argues that the reliance on these techniques has limited the sociological imagination: ‘Qualitative researchers’ almost Pavlovian tendency to identify research design with interviews has blinkered them to the possible gains of other kinds of data’ (Silverman, 2007: 42).

The strength of this impulse is widely evident from thmethodological design of undergraduate dissertations to multimillion pound research grant applications. The result is a kind of inertia, as Roger Slack argues:

It would appear that after the invention of the tape recorder, much of sociology took a deep sigh, sank back into the chair and decided to think very little about the potential of technology for the practical work of doing sociology. (Slack, 1998: 1.1 0)

(Back,  2010)

And it is thinking about the potential that I think is important – rather than incredibly powerful software being subservient to the habitual nature of our research practices. “Managing the contradiction” seems to prolong that, to promote analytic strategies derived prior to and without serious attention to the potential of tools for their transformation and translation into new and different ways of working. Which segues into this great quote about how that has played out to date:

Qualitative analysts have mostly reacted to their new-found wealth of data by ignoring it. They have used their new computerized analysis possibilities to do more detailed analysis of the same (small) amount of data. Qualitative analysis has not really come to terms with the fact that enormous amounts of qualitative data are now available in electronic form. Analysis techniques have not been developed that would allow researchers to take advantage of this fact.

(Blank, 2008, p258 [3])

An example – new tools enabling the exploration of new approaches

The NSS analysis I worked on is a case in point – I was interested in seeing if and how tools could help with analysing large(r) quantities of qualitative data and how. To find out what sort of questions and analytic needs could be accomplished by the software tools. The project was therefore an exploratory one – to look at what these could do and how they could be used. But that seems to run entirely counter to the 5LQDA rationale where I should have defined the analytic task in advance and then selected the tools rather than selecting the tools and then seeing what questions they could help with. Of course at the strategic level that was the intention of the project – but the point is that with the increase in tools in QDA software to open up new and interesting ways of doing things, how is that potential going to be filtered up into developing strategies to fit new tools and their appropriate tactics? How do we follow tanks with tanks, not horses. 

Another example: CAQDAS and the ethnographic imagination

One of the key ideas in ethnography is to “make the familiar strange” (see for example Myers, 2011 here ). This runs counter to the idea of “immersion in data” and creates a dynamic, creative tension with it as a useful and essential step to reconsider conclusions or ways of thinking that are merely confirmation bias of an initial reading.

Tools such as those in NVivo to explore content and view word frequencies for example are an excellent way of “making the familiar strange” and highlighting patterns in word use that you may not have spotted – prompting new and potentially productive ways of looking at the data. Hunches about language differences can be explored further with tools such as cluster analysis. However “I want to make my data strange to help me identify things I may not spot otherwise” seems too tool-led for 5LQDA with the concepts unlikely to be rendered as strategies for immersion precisely because it runs counter to analytic intent of immersion and is produced by tools (there are loads of ways to make data strange so how you would translate that into a component? But a specific component affords this potential and from it a series of creative, perhaps unknown opportunities.)

A quick example but one that hopefully helps to illustrate why I prefer thinking of creative tensions – the seriousness of Lennon jarring and also working with the playfulness of McCartney created a myriad of tunes that individually wouldn’t have been realised – rather than the managing of contradiction. To me creative tension captures the same tensions and issues and contradictions and disputes and challenges but re-cast them in a more bi-directional and creative way, rather than the manager-subordinate of 5LQDA’s phrasing.


Back, Les (2010) Broken Devices and New Opportunities: Re-imagining the tools of Qualitative Research

Blank, G. (2008). Online Research Methods and Social Theory. In N. Fielding, R. M. Lee, & G. Blank (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of online research methods [electronic resource]: Los Angeles, Calif. ; London : SAGE.


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