There is a significant hurdle that researchers face when considering the addition of qualitative methods to their research designs. This has to do with the analysis – making sense – of the qualitative data. One could argue that there are certainly other hurdles that lie ahead, such as those related to a quality approach to data collection, but the greatest perceived obstacle seems to reside in how to efficiently analyze qualitative outcomes. This means that researchers working in large organizations that hope to conduct many qualitative studies over the course of a year are looking for a relatively fast and inexpensive analysis solution compared to the traditionally more laborious thought-intensive efforts utilized by qualitative researchers.
Among these researchers, efficiency is defined in terms of speed and cost. And for these reasons they gravitate to text analytic programs and models powered by underlying algorithms. The core of modeling solutions – such as word2vec and topic modeling – rests on “training” text corpora to produce vectors or clusters of co-occurring words or topics. There are any number of programs that support these types of analytics, including those that incorporate data visualization functions that enable the researcher to see how words or topics congregate (or not), producing images such as these
Words are important. Words are how we communicate and convey our thoughts. And the relationships between words and within phrases can be useful indicators of the topics and ideas we hope to communicate. Words, on the other hand, do not necessarily express meaning because it is how we use the words we choose that often defines them. How we use our words provides the context that shapes what the receiver hears and the perceptions others associate with our words. Context pertains to apparent as well as unapparent influences that take the meaning of our words beyond their proximity to other words, their use in recognized terms or phrases, or their imputed relationship to words from Google News (word2vec).
For example, by the words alone and without a contextual reference, it would be difficult to understand the meaning of the following comment made by a male focus group participant:
“A woman’s place is in the home.”
Was this participant making a comment on traditional values, or was he expressing intolerance on a broader scale, or was he emphasizing the importance of home and home life?
Context is also provided by the manner in which the words are spoken. An educator participating in an in-depth interview, for example, might state,
“I use technology in the classroom when I can!”
While another educator might state,
“I use technology in the classroom, when I can.”
The same words used in the same order but with different intended meanings.
So, those who want to incorporate qualitative methods into their research designs still face the hurdle of finding a “quick” and “low cost” alternative to the painstaking work of qualitative analysis. But awareness and the thoughtful consideration of the need to go beyond words – and find actual meaning – will ultimately lead to more accurate and useful outcomes.
Image captured from: https://www.trustedtarot.com/cards/the-sun/