Using digital tools thoughtfully in qualitative research

There is no question that digital tools have revolutionized our work as researchers in numerous ways. For example, rather than writing down as much as I can recall from an interview after the event as Hortense Powdermaker (1966) describes in her tales of anthropological fieldwork completed over 50 years ago, all I need do is press “record” on my digital device to hear exactly what was said after the event. I don’t even have to connect my recording device to my computer to download the file – I can simply press a link in the recording app I use to upload the audio file to a cloud storage service. Yet, with all that digital devices add to my work, I still find it useful to consider some of the ways in which I need to be thoughtful in how I incorporate these in our research.

Attending to what is going on

The compulsive urge to flip to a new screen, or check one’s phone for new texts, emails, or Facebook or Twitter feeds has had a deleterious impact on our collective capacity to attend to what is going on. I recently heard an interview with Adam Alter, the author of “Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked.” Alter talks about how the attention span of the average person has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds – shorter than the attention span of a goldfish (9 seconds)! It has become increasingly common for people to be so engrossed in viewing what is on their phone that there are now statistics available on accidents due to “cell phone distracted walking.

Similarly, when doing fieldwork for a qualitative study, it is essential that we be able to attend to what is going on around us. This involves attending to what we might observe in a setting, slowing down to deliberately review relevant documents, and pausing to examine artifacts in the settings in which we examine. Observing in a field setting involves more than “seeing” – we can listen to environmental sounds, savor the scents and aromas, touch the artifacts in a setting, and perhaps even appreciate the flavors of the foods available. Descriptions of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch can be included in our field notes. Unless we are attending carefully to what is going on, much of what can be described may be omitted in favor of a few photographs and jotted notes.

Listening respectfully

Doing academic work involves attending meetings, listening to talks, and taking classes, whether face-to-face or online. In all these interactions, it is easy to be overcome by the urge to multi-task and do something else at the same time. This is more profound when we have upcoming deadlines and too many tasks to do. For example, it’s all too easy to be engaged in another activity while talking on the telephone. Similarly, during conferences, meetings, and classes, it is really easy to use our digital devices to check and send email and texts or do some web-searching while we “listen”. Even though I recognize the importance of giving speakers my full attention in order to listen respectfully, at times I have to make a conscious effort to stop whatever I am doing on whatever digital tool I am using (laptop, cell phone, or tablet), and do one thing at a time — rather than catching up on some other task on my to-do list.

Analyzing and interpreting data

Some researchers have described the process of analysis of qualitative data prior to ubiquitous use of computers as involving large stacks of index cards which were then sorted and examined in-depth. Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS) programs have made sorting through large numbers of source documents and retrieving specific sets of data largely obsolete. For newcomers to QDAS, it is a mistake to assume that that software will do one’s analysis. Any analysis, whatever approach is used, entails an iterative and recursive approach on the part of the research in which data are read, and re-read. Writing about what is learned from the data is a crucial part of that analysis (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005). Thus, while QDAS can serve as enormously useful tools in the research process – whether in literature reviews, organization of project documents, data analysis and writing up findings (Paulus, Lester, & Dempster, 2014), the tools themselves do not take the place of other activities that researchers routinely engage in – including reading, writing, thinking, and conversing with others about emergent ideas.

Faster timelines to publication

There is no question that online environments have sped up the process from writing to publication of findings. Less than 20 years ago, journals did not have online submission systems, and authors were required to submit hard copies of manuscripts to journal editors for distribution by mail to reviewers. Authors received hard copies of pre-print articles (proofs) for pre-publication review, and on publication, were usually provided with a number of hard copies of the article for distribution to colleagues. In contrast, the process from submission to review to publication keeps getting shorter. This includes the time for reviewers to examine manuscripts, complete article revisions, and review proofs of forthcoming articles.  On the one hand, this speeding up of the time line to publication is useful, since research findings become available to the public and other scholars in a more timely way. Findings can be disseminated easily online. Yet mistakes in the process due to missed steps can easily occur. For example, in one article that I published some years ago, the copy-edits that I had submitted were not completed. This resulted in the article being published with errors. This problem was compounded when I did not take the time to read the published version and correct the problem immediately. The lesson learned here is that it is always useful to double-check!

I have no wish to go back to the days when manuscripts were typed on typewriters, when notes from interviews were recorded by hand, or when we did not have access to the analytic and organizational assistance of QDAS. The digital tools that I use are enormously helpful for my work. I do want to use these tools thoughtfully, though. For me, this means being judicious about my use of technologies, and thinking about how I can use these in ways that ensure I am attending to what is going on and listening respectfully to others. In analyzing and interpreting data, and writing up reports from qualitative studies, this means taking the time to be accurate and systematic throughout the process. I try to double-check details and gain feedback from others. Doing these things routinely in a mindful way is no easy task.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds us that attending to detail in everyday encounters is integral to living life. She writes in her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

These instructions are also useful for qualitative researchers.

Best wishes with your work this week!

Kathy R.

For links to digital tools and Qualitative Data Analysis Software, see QDA Resources


Paulus, T., Lester, J. N., & Dempster, P. G. (2014). Ditigal tools for qualitative research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Powdermaker, H. (1966). Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist. New York: Norton.

Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E. A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 959-978). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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