Qualitative Analysis: ‘Thick Meaning’ by Preserving Each Lived Experience

My approach to qualitative data analysis has nothing to do with Post-it Notes, clipping excerpts from transcripts (digitally or with scissors), or otherwise breaking participants’ input (“data”) into bite-size pieces. My approach Thick meaningis the opposite of that. My goal is to gain an enriched understanding of each participant’s lived experience associated with the research questions and objectives and, from there, develop an informed contextually nuanced interpretation across participants. By way of deriving “thick meaning” within and across participants, I hope to provide the sponsor of the research with consequential and actionable outcomes.

I begin the analysis process immediately after completing the first in-depth interview (IDI) or focus group discussion by writing down (typically, in a spreadsheet) what I think I learned from each participant or group discussion pertaining to the key research questions and objectives as well as any new, unexpected yet relevant topic areas. I do this by referring to my in-session notes (for IDIs) and the IDI or group discussion audio recording. I then give thoughtful study and internalize each participant’s lived experience associated with the research questions and objectives which enables me to gain an understanding of the complexities of any one thought or idea while also respectfully preserving the integrity of the individual or group of individuals. “Preserving the integrity of the individual or group of individuals” is an important component of this approach which is grounded in the belief that researchers have a moral obligation to make a concerted effort to uphold each participant’s individuality to the extent possible in the analytical process.

At the completion of the final IDI or focus group discussion, I begin reflecting more heavily on what I learned from each participant or focus group in conjunction with my learning from the other participants or group discussions. This is where I derive thick meaning from otherwise basic, straightforward opinions or ideas. For example, in an IDI study with cancer patients, many participants may have talked about their “relationship” with their physician and the importance of the patient-doctor “relationship” to their overall comfort level with treatment. However, a good “relationship” will be defined very differently by participants depending on the peculiarities of their experiences, including (but not limited to) those related to their lifestyle, cultural, and demographic characteristics. It is the contextual nuances of each journey in the treatment process that will define “relationship.” And it is these distinguishing shades of the patient-physician “relationship” that paint a thick, meaningful understanding of this construct.

At some point I will begin coding the data. Importantly, however, an interview or group discussion will not be coded based on whether, for example, “relationship” was mentioned in response to any particular question, but rather the coding will reflect the complete context of the individual. It may happen, for example, that the interview participant talked a lot about the patient-physician relationship at the beginning of the interview but then steered away from this as the interview, and the participant’s contemplation, progressed. Indeed, the participant may have come to identify the relationship with the family, not the physician, as being the biggest contributor to a positive experience with treatment, upending the participant’s earlier definition of “relationship” as well as the role of the physician.

In essence, the appropriate unit of analysis in a qualitative study is the IDI participant or focus group discussion. Defining the unit of analysis as “the entirety of a research interview or focus group discussion [is] more likely to provide the researcher with contextual entities by which reasonable and valid meanings can be obtained and analyzed across all cases” (see Qualitative Data Analysis). Other discussions in Research Design Review – e.g., The Qualitative Analysis Trap (or, Coding Until Blue in the Face), The Limitations of Transcripts: It is Time to Talk About the Elephant in the Room, Sample Size in Qualitative Research & the Risk of Relying on Saturation – have expressed a similar view; that is, the depth and richness of our outcomes are not achieved by separating participants from their lived experiences. It is not the deconstruction of personal experiences, thoughts, and ideas into discrete codes or topical clips that is the primary focus of the analysis but rather the personal context of the experiences, thoughts, and ideas we uncover that allow researchers to build a thick stew of meaning within and across participants in answer to the research questions.



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