Susan Eliot on Attributes of a Successful Qualitative Coder

Hi. I’m Susan Eliot, an independent consultant who specializes in qualitative methods. I live in Portland, Oregon but work with nonprofit and government agencies nationwide. In addition, I write a qualitative blog and teach workshops on qualitative topics.

Anselm Strauss once said: “Any researcher who wishes to become proficient at doing qualitative analysis must learn to code well.”

I’ve been thinking about this more since I conducted a workshop on using Excel to organize and code qualitative data. The data-organizing element was easy to convey to my audience but when I got to coding, questions like, “Can one code be in a category by itself?” or “What constitutes a category?” arose.

The answer, of course, is, “it depends.” Among other things, coding categories depend on type of study, depth of analysis, and intended use of findings. Unfortunately, there is no one matrix or formula to follow as in quantitative approaches.

Hot Tip: Johnny Saldana, author of The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers (2009), says coding requires creativity, flexibility, responsiveness, and integrity. But he also claims that a large part of successful coding depends on having the right attributes. Saldana lists seven attributes which (in addition to cognitive and analytical abilities) all qualitative researchers should have to achieve high caliber coding:

1. Organization. It’s difficult to imagine being unorganized when your task is making sense of hundreds of pages of transcript. Saldana claims that it’s a skill we develop, not something we’re born with.

2. Perseverance. There’s no magic to it, just a lot of stick-to-it-ness. It’s tedious, time consuming work even if you’re using one of the qualitative software packages.

3. Ability to deal with ambiguity. Since there are no strict rules or formulas to follow, it’s impossible to stipulate one right way to code. We must be able to navigate in the mud.

4. Flexibility. The flexibility to code and re-code as many times as the data and our insights indicate is essential. As with each turn of the kaleidoscope, we must be able to adjust our view with each new round.

5. Creativity. We have a wide range of options for how we arrange, segregate, and interpret qualitative data. Our creativity must guide us down the unique path each new study presents.

6. Rigorously ethical. When we allow ourselves the necessary creativity and flexibility to uncover the truth in data, we have the associated responsibility of using that freedom with honesty and integrity.

7. Extensive vocabulary. In qualitative research, our precision rests with our word choices. Saldana suggests using a thesaurus and unabridged dictionary to find the right words for concepts, codes, themes, categories and theories. I would also suggest a metaphor dictionary.

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3 thoughts on “Susan Eliot on Attributes of a Successful Qualitative Coder”

  1. Pingback: Laura Sefton on Getting Started with Atlas.ti Qualitative Analysis Software · AEA365

  2. I don’t. I have the Metaphors Dictionary by Elyse Sommer. I ordered it from Amazon because it has gotten good reviews (including one from a NY Times writer) and includes many of Shakespeare’s metaphors-the master of metaphor. Basically, I mentioned it in my blog as a way of saying ‘consider using metaphors in your qualitative reporting.’ I like metaphors because they help me convey complex issues (usually in one or a few words) and speak to the heart. I find them most helpful when I know what I want to say but can’t find the right words to convey it. Let me know if you find another dictionary you like or a great online source. Thanks for writing!

  3. Annelise Carleton-Hug

    I was curious about your suggestion for a metaphor dictionary – do you have recommendations for specific dictionaries? Thanks!

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