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Ode to Methodological Writing in Qualitative Research

18 April 2018 - BY Judith Davidson

I am a fool for methodological writing in qualitative research.  I categorize this kind of writing along a continuum that runs from:
  • least formal, which I term “in process” writing—
  • to semi-formal—categorized in my mind as “ideal methodological descriptions”
  • to formal or the writing of methodological literature. 
I use a range of tools to capture and create these forms of writing, with digital tools figuring importantly in this process. 

In Process Writing

My “in process” methodological writing is aimed at scooping up, capturing, identifying, labelling, reflecting, and reconsidering every methodological step I take.  I anchor these forms of writing with a methodological log in which I note formal steps that I take as I move forward in a project.  However, I am capturing methodological information in every note I take, and I look to methodological coding to index those emerging ideas for later review.  That review may take place in memos where I mull, thrash, consider, and rework methodological processes and ideas.  Parallel to my “in process” writing I will be collecting methodological literature and storing it in related bins. 

I am a diehard fan of Qualitative Data Analysis Software (QDAS).  As a methodological fiend, I appreciate the way these tools allow me to identify, label, organize, store, and retrieve bits and pieces of related items.  Having done my dissertation in the old xerox- cut-up-coded-bits-and-store-in-manilla-folder-method, I know how easy it is to mix things up, lose them, and ultimately find yourself standing in a swirl of paper scraps:  NO THANKS!  Give me my QDAS coding tools!

As time has gone by, I have also become addicted to QDAS capacity to link texts—memos to sources, a piece of text in one document to a piece of text in an interview—these are the habits of a sophisticated QDAS aficionado.  In addition to QDAS, I also rely upon bibliographic management tools in which I can sort and organize methodological literature before I draw it into a QDAS package.  Once inside a QDAS project I can virtually connect the literature to my writing. 

Ideal Methodological Descriptions

It starts with the proposal, the first time you have to write a description of the project methodology, and it continues from there as long as you are writing about a given project—writing and re-writing the most-up-to-date description of the research methodology.  Each time I do it, there are new items to integrate, data to account for, and analysis processes to describe.  I am always surprised by the amount I need to capture from one stopping point to the next.  Preparing to write a new one is a significant exercise in taking stock of what has been accomplished. 

While the amount of methodological activity for which I have to account may grow, the amount of space I have to write about it for a particular report or paper often does not.  Each time I encounter this creative stress, I have to find new ways to stay brief and succinct, while at the same time accurate and complete.   Over time, ironically, I have come to relish the challenge of getting these descriptions just right.

I like having a place to store the various iterations, usually a memo in the QDAS project, where I can also save facts for the next “ideal methodological description” I will face. 

Methodological Literature

When the methodological dough has been mixed and had ample time to rise, I am ready to bake my methodological article.  My methodological dough is composed of all the processes that have taken place during my “in process” writing.  The dough has been encouraged to rise by the multiple opportunities I have taken to comb through materials and develop my ideas in memos and other written materials. 

While many methodological articles focus on materials related to just one project and its specific issues, writing a methodological article may draw upon materials and experiences from across multiple projects conducted over an extended length of time.  In those cases, I select the items I need from different projects and import them into a new QDAS project so that I can make use of them with access to the linking and coding tools I need to juxtapose pieces, reorganize them, and move forward in my writing.  I can also import relevant literature from my bibliographic management system so that I can identify key elements and link to my own growing text. 

Surprisingly, methodological writing never seems to get old for me.  It grows and changes over time, as new interests spring forth and new material is encountered. 
This blogpost draws upon ideas I share in my soon-to-be-published book:  Qualitative Research and Teams, which will be released by Oxford University Press (September, 2018).