coding in qualitative research

Coding in Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is different from quantitative research in many ways. Therefore the techniques employed by the qualitative researcher in data analysis are bound to be different from those employed by the quantitative researcher. One of such techniques employed by the qualitative researcher when analyzing, interpreting and making sense of the data is called coding in qualitative research. It is assumed that the quality of the research results rests on how well and easily the researcher has coded the data. In other words excellence in coding leads to excellence in research results.

Understanding the coding process can, however, be problematic if not difficult especially for the beginning researchers, even the most proficient of researchers have difficulty in completely comprehending the concept and are bound to learn the process through sheer trial and error.  Here is a brief discussion of the many questions the beginning researcher might need to ask before undertaking the coding technique for data analysis

Coding defined

First we need to know what is coding

In the social sciences, coding is an analytical process in which data, in both quantitative form (such as questionnaires results) and qualitative form (such as interview transcripts) are categorized to facilitate analysis. Some studies will employ multiple coders working independently on the same data.

What is a code?

As defined by Saldana in the Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers

“A code in qualitative inquiry is most often a word, or a short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative salient essence capturing and/or evocative attribute for a portion of a language based or visual data. The data can consist of interview transcripts, participant observation, field notes, journals, documents, literature, artifacts, photographs, video, websites, e-mail correspondence and so on.”

In other words the code captures the main idea or summarizes the more complex data in fewer words, in addition to words the codes may also include numbers or phrases.  

For example

If a single word such as SECURITY summarizes the primary topic of an excerpt, we call it a descriptive code

An in vivo code is used when coding something that the participant says himself and is placed in quotation marks “COMFORTABLE”

Purpose of coding in qualitative research

Why does the researcher code in the first place, the reason being that data generated in qualitative research is extensive. The researcher thus wants to reduce the amount of data while not losing its meaning and at the same time also wants to capture the main ideas and issues. Coding in qualitative research leads to a better understanding of the phenomenon, developing constructs, categories and themes and in developing the final theory.

How does coding in qualitative research helps?

  • Coding helps the researchers to refine and fine tune the data. It helps the researcher to segregate, group, regroup and re link in order to consolidate meaning and explanation.
  • Coding the data helps the researchers identify themes, patterns and categories. It will identify any patterns that require further investigation.
  • Coding in qualitative research also helps the researcher retrieve a similar piece of information that he/ she came across earlier in the huge amount of data collected in the research.

Factor effecting the choice of coding method

The method of coding adopted by the researcher is influenced not only by the approach of qualitative research (i-e case study, ethnographic, phenomenological) and ontological, epistemological and methodological issues but also by the researchers’ subjectivities, predispositions, quirks and personalities that they bring into the process. The different types of coding methods are attributive coding, descriptive coding, narrative coding, in vivo coding, emotional coding, evaluation coding, magnitude coding, process coding, values coding and thematic coding, axial coding, pattern coding, focus coding, theoretical coding.  Some of these coding methods are used during the first cycle stage while others are used in the second stage of the coding process.

What can be coded and how often to code?

Deciding what can and cannot be coded is  difficult, the beginning researcher may end up coding everything in the first attempt only to realize that what he/she has coded doesn’t help him/her make sense of the data at all, the researcher would then have to do it all over again. To make things easier it would be helpful to remember that units of social organization (cultural practices, roles, social and personal relationships, encounters, roles, settlements and habitats etc) get coded. Similarly cognitive aspects or meanings (e-g ideologies, rules and identities etc), emotional aspects or feelings (e-g employee satisfaction, sympathy in health care etc) and hierarchical or social inequalities ( racial inequality, battered women etc)  can also be coded. Slices of social life recorded in the data – participant activities, perceptions, and the tangible documents and artifacts produced by them. Your own reflective data in the form of analytic memos and observer’s comments in field notes are also substantive material for coding.

A researcher is bound to ask this “how often do I apply codes to my data?” the answer to this question depends on nature of the data, the type of coding method selected and how much detail is needed.

Questions researcher should ask when coding

Here is a list of questions the researchers need to ask themselves in order to better understand what is going on in the environment and thus decide how to do coding in qualitative research.

  • What are the people doing?
  • What is going on?
  • What is the person saying?
  • What do these actions or statements take for granted?
  • How do structure and context serve to support, maintain, impede or change these actions and statements?

(Charzma 2003-:-94-95)

Researcher-qualities that aid in coding data

  • In addition to the cognitive skills such as induction, deduction, logical and critical thinking etc, the qualitative researcher must also be organized because even a small scale study can lead to thousands of words in data and the multiple codes you generate would need an organized framework for analysis.
  • The researcher must also display perseverance , though everyone needs to take a break but still needs to establish some kind of work ethic and environment that would enable them to work for longer periods of time with full concentration.
  • The researcher must also be able to deal with ambiguity. Nobody gets the coding process done correctly in their first attempt, therefore if one coding method or process is not working for the researcher he/she must be open to flexibility and try a modified or a different method altogether.
  • The researcher also must be creative, creativity is important for data collection, data analysis and for the final written report.
  • The researcher must be rigorously ethical, this skill will allow you to treat your participants with respect, not ignore/delete difficult or problematic passages of text and while analyzing will help you maintain scholarly integrity while working hard for the final outcome.
  • The most important skill needed for coding data however remains an extensive vocabulary, having an extensive vocabulary will help the research to choose the best words when coding data.

Manual versus electronic coding

Coding can be done manually as well as electronically. Manual coding is done using a pen, pencil, paper, note-cards etc. Researchers prefer to code manually when the data to be coded is small its drawback is that it is now outdated, tedious and time consuming approach. The researcher will make a codebook to write all the codes and the definitions and other details about the codes.

Coding electronically involves using computer aided qualtitative data analysis softwares CAQDAS such as N vivo, Atlas ti and Transana. The researcher however uses electronic coding when the data includes videos and audio  that is not transcribed. Coding electronically allows the researcher to easily organize codes, run code frequencies, explore relationship between codes and do memoing. Its drawback is that the researcher needs to be familiar with the functions of the software before starting the process.




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