Qualitative Analytic Design #2: Phase One – High-level mapping of semantic content


Following on from discussion the factors informing the design of or analysis, I promised to outline each phase of our analytic plan. Here’s the first.

First, though, it’s useful to illustrate the analytic plan in its entirety, because in undertaking any phase of analysis it is always crucial to build on what has gone before, and anticipate what will happen as a result. That’s what makes analysis focused.

The diagram below shows the four phases of analytic plan as it currently stands. You’ll notice that in my last blog post I said our plan had three phases. Since then we’ve got further into the analysis and now are thinking about the phases slightly differently. That’s the nature of qualitative research design, it develops as the project proceeds.

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It’s important to note that this diagram relates specifically to the qualitative analysis of the MOP writers’ narratives, but this is only one part of the Defining Mass Observation project. How the quantitative analysis of writers’ characteristics integrates with the work I’m discussing here will be the topic of a separate blog post later on.

The first phase takes the form of mapping out the content of the materials at a high level. This is necessary because we didn’t have an overview of the materials at the outset. See here for a discussion of why this is. 

There are three elements to this mapping process, that are undertaken in parallel.
– indexing the narratives according to semantic content (via descriptive coding)
– capturing the emotional tone of the writings (coding for expressions)
– reflecting on and summarising each writers’ narrative in relation to the Research Questions


Indexing semantic content
Our pilot analysis identified key areas that we need to know about if we are to be able to answer our research questions. For the starting research questions for My Life Line and Social Divisions see here.  

There are several things we need to do in order to be able to answer these questions. First, we need to know which events writers discuss in their responses and how they express themselves when writing about them. For example, with respect to the My Life Lines Directive, we cannot analyse how and why certain events are significant, meaningful or how they structure writers’ lives unless we first know what events are reported and how they are discussed.

These factors underlie the need for a multi-staged approach and our focus on mapping out semantic content at a high-level first.

Some areas that we need to index are specific to the Social Divisions and My Life Lines Directives, although as shown below, there are many overlaps. The overlaps are one of the ways that we well be a able to integrate analysis of the two directives later on.

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So what do we mean by ‘semantic content’ and how do we go about ‘high-level mapping’ in MAXQDA?

To quote Braun & Clarke (2006:13): “With a semantic approaach, the themes are identified within the explicit or surface meanings of the data and the analyst is not looking for anything beyond what a participant has said or what has been written.” What this means for us, is that we are capturing – through coding – the content of the material in our key areas (the concepts in diagram above) from the ‘surface level’ of what is written. This means that the codes we’re using during this stage are not ‘themes’. They are areas of interest that we need to index in order to be able to answer our research questions – during this stage their purpose is essentially descriptive – to map out the content of the data according to the ‘surface’ or ‘semantic’ level.

Capturing the emotional tone of the writings
In addition to mapping out the semantic content of writers’ responses to the Directives, we also need to capture the way in which they write, the ways the present their accounts. The research team had extensive discussions about the best way to go about doing this, discussions that were driven by the overarching objectives of the study, but also informed by what we know is possible using our CAQDAS package of choice for this project, MAXQDA. See here for a discussion of the factors informing our choice of software. Any qualitative text can be read at different levels, for example, what is explicit in the text, what is implied and what can be inferred through interpretation.

Given that this phase is generally about mapping out the semantic content of the material, our aim in capturing the emotional tone of the writings is to interrogate whether certain topics and events are written about in a generally positive, negative or neutral way. Coding for expressions beyond what is explicitly present in the writing – for example because we know from earlier statements the writers’ feelings about certain topics – would mean that we lose that they have recorded an event or experience in a particular way. For example, in the My Life Line material, coding the straightforward statement “my cat died” as ‘negative’ because we know from earlier comments that the writer loved her cat, took her cat everywhere with her, perhaps partly as a result of having few close family members or friends, would lose that she records the event of her cat dying in a neutral, matter-of-fact way. The decision was therefore made to index every statement to one of the following codes: positive, negative, neutral, mixed. Doing so sets up the possibility to interrogate in the next phase of our analysis, whether certain events, experiences and topics are generally discussed in different ways.

Reflecting on and summarising each writers’ narrative in relation to the Research Questions
So, in indexing the semantic content and emotional tone of the writings, at this stage we’re not focusing on capturing our interpretations as analysts within the coding. No doubt this needs to be done, within the interpretive paradigm within which thematic analysis resides. And we’ll do this later on – but only once we’ve identified and prioritised core areas, which of course we cannot do until we have mapped them out.

However, whilst we go about this mapping process we do, of course, have thoughts and insights, make connections and interpretations. And we don’t want to lose them. Amongst the things that are core to what we all do in qualitative data analysis – whatever our objectives, methodologies, analytic strategies or tactics – is to reflect. We reflect on everything, all the time, we can’t help it. And nor should we. A key benefit of using a CAQDAS package, whichever one you choose, is that the thoughts you have can be captured within the software project, at the time you have them and, crucially, be linked to the data that prompted them.

We therefore developed a template for capturing these reflections during the process of indexing the semantic content and capturing the explicit emotional tone of the writings. This included the following elements: Opening, Topics, Language use, Classifications, Writing styles. As each writers response to the My Life Line and Social Divisions directives were indexed, these templates were filled in by the analyst. Each analyst had the freedom to make notes about these different elements in the ways that seemed appropriate for the individual response, but we each did so in relation to the overarching starting research questions for each directive, and the consistent template ensured the focus of our reflections was consistent. In particular, it meant that we were capturing the thoughts and insights we had about each MOP writer as we were reading and indexing their responses.

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One of the issues with taking a high level semantic indexing approach is that it can be quite difficult to only think at this level when reading directive responses. For the reasons discussed above and in the blog post about the factors informing the design of our analytic approach, it was important to work initially at this level. However, we didn’t want to lose the more in-depth interpretive thoughts we had about writers whilst undertaking the indexing of semantic content and explicit emotional tone. The use of our structured template for reflections ensured that we could keep the coding at the right level, whilst capturing our interpretive thoughts. Both will be of use for the later stages of our analysis.

My next blog post will discuss the second phase of our analysis, analytic prioritisation.

Christina Silver



1 thought on “Qualitative Analytic Design #2: Phase One – High-level mapping of semantic content

  1. Pingback: Transcription as a ‘moment of contact’ with qualitative data | Defining Mass Observation

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