11 thinking “tricks” when analyzing data

Kathryn Roulston

A number of authors who write about qualitative research have talked about “thinking” as it relates to doing qualitative research (Freeman, 2017; Jackson & Mazzei, 2012; Saldaña, 2015); and in particular doing qualitative data analysis. One older source that I still find helpful is Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it, by sociologist Howard Becker (1998). Trained in the symbolic interactionist tradition, Becker outlines a number of strategies, what he calls “tricks,” that qualitative researchers can use to make sense of their data.

Becker reminds us that we can only “see” using the ideas that inform our thinking. Since our training as researchers shapes the kinds of ideas we can think with, it is useful to think about how our perceptions are shaped by our individual fields of studies and ways that research is usually done. Becker (1998, p. 18) writes:

… in a strong sense, there aren’t any “facts” independent of the ideas we use to describe them….Recognizing the conceptual shaping of our perceptions, it is still true that not everything our concepts would, in principle, let us see actually turns up in what we look at.

Becker uses the example of gender categories: when male/female categories are used,  “it prevents us from seeing the variety of other gender types a different conceptualization would show us” (p. 18). To expand our ways of thinking about data, Becker suggests a number of  thought experiments or “tricks” that researchers might use while analyzing data. (For more “thought experiments”, see Maxwell, 2013, pp. 68-69). The first set of tricks suggested by Becker are those of “imagery” – and involve “seeing” things differently.

1.      The society as a big machine.

In this experiment, the researcher is asked to:

Design the machine that will produce the result your analysis indicates occurs routinely in the situation you have studied. Make sure you have included all the parts – all the social gears, cranks, belts, buttons, and other widgets—and all of the specifications of materials and their qualities necessary to get the desired result (Becker, 1998, p. 39).

Becker comments that social scientists frequently focus on problems, so the object of this thought experiment is to imagine the kinds of things needed to create the sort of problem you are examining. Here, the focus is on the repetitive aspects of a phenomenon. This design exercise is a “way of systematically looking for everything that contributes to their occurrence” (Becker, 1998, p. 40), and ensures that you are not overlooking crucial issues.

2.      Society as organism

By thinking about “society as an organism,” the researcher can examine all of the kinds of contexts and situations in which activities occur, and examine the connections between these. Here, the focus is on examining the ways in which various aspects of the phenomenon that is being examined are connected (e.g., “influences”) (Becker, 1998, pp. 40-44). Related activities include examining “objects as the embodied residue of people’s activities”, and focusing on activities as a starting point of analysis, rather than “types of people” as analytic categories (Becker, 1998, p. 44).

Other tricks discussed by Becker are to do with “context.” In the next two thought experiments, the focus is on examining the specific contexts in which a study is being conducted, in detail. That is:

3.      Everything has to be somewhere

By attending to the detail of

physical features (where it is and what kind of place that is to live, work, and be) and the social features (who is there, how long they’ve been there, and all the other things demographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians tell you to attend to) (Becker, 1998, pp. 56-57)

researchers are able to specify the particularities of contexts in which a phenomenon occurs.

4.      Put in what can’t be left out

Becker reminds readers that:

Following the previous rule is clearly impossible, since it requires you to know everything about everything and write about all of it when the time comes. Therefore, as you think about what you are studying, notice what features of the place you are invoking as ad hoc explanations of the specific features you want to talk about. If you find yourself referring to the weather as a partial explanation of some event, the weather belongs in your introductory description. And if it belongs in that description, it belongs in your analysis (Becker, 1998, p. 57).

Another set of thinking tricks that Becker discusses is to do with “concepts.” Developing concepts, according to Becker, can be accomplished in multiple ways, including in dialogue with empirical data. When thinking about concepts, which Becker defines as “ways of summarizing data” (Becker, 1998, p. 109), he suggests the following:

5. Locating a question

“Ask yourself: The data I have here are the answer to a question. What question could I possibly be asking to which what I have written down in my notes is a reasonable answer?” (Becker, 1998, p. 121).

6. Let the case define the concept

This allows you to define the dimensions you might see varying in other cases (and may lead to more questions) (Becker, 1998, pp. 123-125).

7. Bernie Beck’s trick

Beck was one of Howard Becker’s colleagues at Northwestern University, and recommended the following strategy: “Tell me what you’ve found out, but without using any of the identifying characteristics of the actual case.” (Becker, 1998, p. 126). Becker provides an example from his own dissertation research, transforming the following description…

These teachers make their careers by moving from school to school within the Chicago school system, rather than trying to rise to higher, better paid positions, or moving to other systems in other cities, and their moves between positions in the school system can be understood as trying to find a school in which the people they interacted with – students, parents, principals, other teachers – would act more or less the way the teachers expected them to.


how people in bureaucratic systems choose between potential positions by assessing the way all the other participants will treat them and choosing places where the balance will be best, given whatever they are trying to maximize (Becker, 1998, pp. 126-127).

8.      Concepts are generalizations

Becker reminds us that concepts are generalizations that are tested using knowledge of the world (p. 128). Yet, sometimes concepts do not fit the real world. In this trick, considering concepts as generalizations “helps solve the problems created by an unthought-through insistence that all the properties of a concept always go together. Uncoupling them, and treating them as capable of varying independently, turns a technical problem into an opportunity for theoretical growth and articulation” (Becker, 1998, p. 132).

9.      Concepts are relational

Becker suggests putting

terms into the full set of relations they imply (as “tall” implies “short” and “gifted” implies “not gifted”). Then look at the way that set of relations is now organized and has been organized at other times and in other places. See how things came to be organized the way they are here and now, and what connections to other social arrangements sustain that set of relations (Becker, 1998, p. 138).

This trick reminds me of the properties and dimensions described in grounded theory accounts of axial coding (Dey, 1999; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). I’ve found this process a really useful too, as it helps us to think about the range of dimensions of a phenomenon that we might examine (e.g., frequency, magnitude etc.) within specific conditions.

10. The Wittgenstein Trick

Becker cites Wittgenstein: “Let us not forget this: when ‘I raise my arm,’ my arm goes up. And the problem arises: what is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?” (Wittgenstein 1973, 621 cited by Becker, p. 138).

Becker recounts that this trick:

Helps us strip away what is accidentally and contingently part of an idea from what is at its core, helps us separate what’s central to our image of a phenomenon from the particular example it is embedded in, as Wittgenstein isolates the core of our intuitive image of intention by separating the contingent physical action from it (Becker, 1998, p. 139).

11. Enlarging a concept’s reach

And to conclude this list (although this is only some of the strategies discussed in his book), Becker reminds us: “Don’t mistake a specific instance of something for the entire class of phenomena it belongs to” (Becker, 1998, p. 143).

This is a short summary of some of the “tricks of the trade” that Becker discusses in his book. If you need some inspiration – I encourage you to read his full account for detail. Of course, if these ideas don’t work for you, you might like to look at the more recent books cited at the beginning of this blogpost for inspiration that discuss how we might “think” about data analysis and theory as we do our research. I hope some of these ideas might be useful as you analyze your data. Best wishes with that!


Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Dey, I. (1999). Grounding grounded theory: Guidelines for qualitative inquiry. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Freeman, M. (2017). Modes of thinking for qualitative data analysis. New York & London: Routledge.

Jackson, A. Y., & Mazzei, L. A. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research: Viewing data across multiple perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Saldaña, J. (2015). Thinking qualitatively: Methods of mind. Los Angeles: Sage.

Strauss, A. L., & Corbin, J. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


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