To Heck with Heidegger? Using QDAS for Phenomenology
Heidegger warned that the use of technology is dehumanizing, and prominent phenomenological methodologists like van Manen (2014) have claimed that QDAS packages “are not the ways of doing phenomenology” (p. 319). Those involved in the development of QDAS, on the other hand, sometimes regard hesitance to use digital tools in qualitative research as due to misconceptions or lack of experience. In this post I stake out a middle ground with advice for phenomenologists wary of technology but eager to take advantage of its strengths. This post is based a recent article in Forum: Social Qualitative Research (Sohn, 2017).
By Brian Kelleher Sohn
Brian is a recent graduate of the Learning Environments and Educational Studies Ph.D. program at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a phenomenologist in the field of education. He is currently working on a book about phenomenological pedagogy in higher education.
Max van Manen (2014), a primary source for many human sciences phenomenologists, claims that qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) is not an appropriate tool for phenomenological research. He claims that using “special software” may facilitate thematic analysis in such genres as grounded theory or ethnography, “but these are not the ways of doing phenomenology” (p. 319). He goes on to say that coding, abstracting, and generalization cannot produce “phenomenological insights” (p. 319). The appropriate tools, however, are absent from his and other phenomenological methodologists’ instructions. Must we use pencil and paper? Record interviews in wax? Write our findings with a typewriter?
Phenomenologists’ concerns about technology and its effects on the researcher are well articulated (if extreme) in Goble, Austin, Larsen, Kreitzer, and Brintnell (2012). Framing their concern’s with McLuhan’s (2003) “medium is the message” (p. 23) and Heidegger’s (2008) views on technology as dehumanizing, they argue that “through our use of technology we become functions of it” (§1). If I have a hammer, I am likely to become one-that-hammers, in the hyphen-prolific wording of students of Heidegger. The right tool for the job, as we say, makes it easy. But ease, in some sense, is the problem for Goble et al. We all know there’s a difference between writing a letter and writing an email: so what might be lost when we use QDAS instead of (more) manual methods?
“Nothing, you luddites!” QDAS users and developers might respond. Every now and then I notice unbridled enthusiasm in the pro-QDAS camp almost as uncritical as what van Manen and Goble et al. write about technology. Davidson and di Gregorio (2011) argued that the processes of qualitative research, no matter the genre, involve disaggregation and recontextualization of data. Any difference between the genres is attributed to “residue” (p. 639) from battles for legitimacy rather than from genuine concerns or criticisms. Time to get with the times!
I wasn’t sure about getting with the times, but I knew I needed a structure to support my phenomenological dissertation study (Sohn, 2016). Below I’ll share some of the strategies I used to reconcile my concerns with technology and my desire to finish my research and graduate.
As a well-mentored phenomenologist, I had participated tangentially in dozens of research studies (e.g., Bower, Lewis, Wright, & Kavanagh, 2016; Franklin, 2013; Dellard, 2013; Worley & Hall, 2012) as part of an interdisciplinary phenomenology research group. In this group we developed research questions, conducted and analyzed bracketing interviews, read and analyzed interview transcripts, and critiqued each other’s preliminary findings. For the most part, the primary investigator in these studies did not use QDAS. It is through this group that I developed an appreciation for face-to-face interaction to conduct phenomenological analysis. I worked with this group for my dissertation, but unlike many of my research group colleagues, I also used the QDAS program MAXQDA. In the space I have here, I’ll talk about three major areas of concern for phenomenologists and what I did to address them.
Seeing words on a screen is not the same as hearing them in an interview or other form of data, like an audio recording of a class session. For Goble et al. (2012), they felt their study participants were turned into zeros and ones when their transcripts were uploaded to QDAS, a Matrix- type nightmare for those who wish to maintain the embodied and cognitive aspects of their work. My solution to this problem was to go back to the audio recordings. I had to listen to them multiple times in auditing transcripts and to identify the relevant passages to my second-order analysis of the data. This immersion helped me see the participants’ data as living and breathing (sometimes kind of heavily). MAXQDA and other packages allow synchronization of the audio-recordings with the transcript so that you can easily listen while reading and analyzing.
Becoming a Tool
Dehumanization can run two directions—towards the participants and back at the researcher. Goble et al. (2012) worry that research studies, rather than opportunities for wonder and discovery, become problems to be solved with QDAS. Instead of artists, we can become functionaries of a capitalist-driven university system that demands results (and publications). This problem is much bigger than QDAS, but when using QDAS, one may feel the pressures of efficiency interfere with quality analysis and writing. For me, when I went to write my results chapter, I thought, “Oh, boy! All the hard work of coding and conceptualizing and memoing and logbooking in MAXQDA will pay off now!” So I started copying and pasting my chapter into existence. I soon found myself with writer’s block, uninspired despite looming deadlines. After realizing I was on autopilot, I returned to some motivational readings from Merleau-Ponty and was able to get back on track. He describes the goal of phenomenological writing as “establishing [the phenomenon] in the writer or the reader as a new sense organ, opening a new field or a new dimension to our experience” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968 , p.182). I had to go back to MAXQDA supporting my writing, rather than driving it.
Maintaining wonder—challenging what is known through a careful examination of bias and positionality—is a key component of the phenomenological attitude. QDAS programs facilitate the ability to find literal similarities across documents, and the speed and efficiency may lead to superficial connections between study participants. A faint echo can by magnified when the coded segments pile up. I had to be diligent in my bracketing efforts, both inside and outside MAXQDA. Every four to six weeks I took printed transcripts to the research group for discussion, insight, confirmation, and contestation. In these sessions other members had the opportunity to help me examine what I thought I knew about my study at a granular and broad level. These times I spent outside of MAXQDA were also opportunities for distance from my data. We need immersion, we need to dwell in the words of participants, but without stepping back, it is difficult to successfully engage in the abductive thinking required for high-quality phenomenological insights.
As Shuhmann (2011) says, the QDAS user-interface “adds a layer of interpretation to qualitative analysis as one has to know how to ‘read’ a software package” (§2). This additional layer, the interface between user and QDAS platform, is where the following recommendations may best serve researchers (and more recommendations can be found in Sohn, 2017). In my case, I used MAXQDA to code and immerse myself in my study without feeling the participants had been atomized into cyborgs. I used memo and logbook features without turning my thoughts into restrictive categories. When I did feel as if an over-reliance on MAXQDA was hurting my study, I returned to the research group and reread phenomenological writings to reignite my motivation for producing the report. In order to maintain the phenomenological attitude while using QDAS, I recommend the following: keep your feet inside and outside the study and be diligent and exhaustive in bracketing.
Bower, K., Burnette, T., Lewis, D., Wright, C., & Kavanagh, K. (2016). “I Had One Job and That Was To Make Milk” Mothers’ Experiences Expressing Milk for Their Very-Low-Birth-Weight Infants. Journal of Human Lactation, 33(1), 188–194 DOI: 10.1177/0890334416679382
Davidson, J. & di Gregorio, S. (2011). Qualitative research and technology: In the midst of a revolution. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (4th ed., (pp. 627-643). London: Sage.
Dellard, T. J. (2013). Pre-service teachers’ perceptions and experiences of family engagement: A phenomenological investigation. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville). Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/2416/
Franklin, K. A. (2013) Conversations with a phenomenologist: A phenomenologically oriented case study of instructional planning (Doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville). Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1721/
Goble, E.; Austin, W.; Larsen, D.; Kreitzer, L. & Brintnell, S. (2012). Habits of mind and the split-mind effect: When computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software is used in phenomenological research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 13(2), Art. 2, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs120227.
Heidegger, M. (2008 ). The question concerning technology. In D. Farrell (Ed.), Basic writings (pp. 311-341). New York: Harper Perennial.
McLuhan, M. (2003 ). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Toronto, ON: McGraw Hill.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968 ). The visible and the invisible (ed. by C. Lefort, transl. by A. Lingis). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Schuhmann, C. (2011). Comment: Computer technology and qualitative research: A rendezvous between exactness and ambiguity. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1101C27.
Sohn, B. (2016). The student experience of other students. Doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA, http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/3748/
Sohn, B. (2017). Phenomenology and Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS): A Careful Reconciliation. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(1), Art. 14,
van Manen, Max (2014). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Worley, J., & Hall, J. M. (2012). Doctor shopping: A concept analysis. Research and Theory for Nursing Practice, 26(4), 262-278.