Saturday, November 04, 2006

Reading :: Interactive Qualitative Analysis

Originally posted: Sat, 04 Nov 2006 10:02:30

Interactive Qualitative Analysis: A Systems Method for Qualitative Research

by Norvell Northcutt, Danny McCoy

We've seen a lot of research methods and methodologies recently that involve collecting and analyzing data along with research participants. Participatory design, action research, and contextual design are three examples. The latter, in fact, borrows much from TQM methods such as the K-J Method and affinity diagrams. Interactive Qualitative Analysis draws from the same well, outlining a systematic qualitative approach to collaborative data analysis that leverages those TQM methods and strives for true mutual participation in data analysis.

Written by two researchers associated with the School of Education here at the University of Texas, the book describes Interactive Qualitative Analysis (IQA) in detail. IQA is based in systems theory and dialectics (p.xxii). In fact, they approvingly quote Engels' laws of dialectics in their description of IQA (p.14). In fact, they get quite carried away with dialectics throughout, making the same sorts of overreaching claims about is that Engels likes to make: "This ebb and flow is the result of the dialectical nature of both history and reality itself" (p.102). (They also use the dialectical ground to take some potshots at postmodernists, although they make conciliatory noises as well.)

Essentially, IQA is a phenomenological approach in which focus groups produce affinity diagrams describing a shared phenomenon, an affinity that involves both open and axial coding. This coding leads to interview protocols, which in turn guide individual interviews. The interviews and affinities then lead to mindmaps, or systems diagrams that describe the phenomenon.

The authors illustrate IQA by applying it to an IQA course -- an extremely confusing example, because it's very difficult to tell when the authors are talking about IQA and when they are describing what students said about IQA. Really, this was a bad move for the authors to make, and they compound the problem with too many stories, transcripts, and lists. They also compound it with distracting and generally unsuccessful attempts at humor. (One footnote reads: "The interviewer was, of course, one of the authors, but he could easily have been the other one" (p.423).)

That's really too bad, because IQA is in many ways an intriguing approach that complements the other approaches I mention above. Although it does not appear to support observational work (being primarily phenomenological), it does pose some interesting possibilities for those who do phenomenological work, particularly in its adoption of TQM techniques and its stance in favor of co-analysis with participants. The use of mindmaps is also intriguing, although the authors appear to overrely on them and equate them with mental models (always dicey when you're talking about more than one person).

In summary, IQA is a really interesting and potentially useful method for qualitative analysis carried out with the participants. It's more focused on rigor than contextual design is, but it's also far less modest in its claims and far less observational. If I were to use it, it would be either for strictly defined phenomenological work or as a component of a more integrated study, and my claims would be considerably more hedged than the ones the authors present in their examples.

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