The value and potential of data re-use and the associated methodology of qualitative secondary analysis (QSA) is often overlooked. Dr Anna Tarrant and Dr Kahryn Hughes propose, that as COVID-19 limits opportunities for qualitative research for the foreseeable future, now, more than ever the social sciences need to address the under-use of existing qualitative data.
Qualitative data reuse has been made increasingly possible both through a proliferation of accessible data sources, and innovation in research methods. Over the last two decades there have been large scale investments in archives and repositories capturing a ‘tsunami’ of new data. Furthermore, there has been tremendous innovation in wide-ranging methods of qualitative data re-use (e.g. Irwin and Winterton, 2011; Davidson et al. 2018; Hughes et al. 2020; Jamieson and Lewthwaite, 2019; Tarrant and Hughes, 2019; Hughes and Tarrant, 2020). Not only are qualitative data important documents of human life, they are an endlessly creative resource that connect us to the much longer social histories of which we are part. As the lockdown makes traditional approaches to qualitative research challenging, now is an appropriate time for us to reconsider the tendency for primary data generation to be the ‘go to’ form of fieldwork and new research.
Data re-use and modes of apprehension
While repositories, resources and data, alongside new methods of data reuse, present huge potential for the generation of new knowledge, they also confront the researcher with familiar challenges addressed in more traditional approaches to fieldwork. These include questions about how we access samples, manage the data available to us, and how we determine whether and how data generated can be used as evidence to inform on the social world. The analytic opportunities engendered through qualitative secondary analysis (QSA) requires us to engage with such questions, albeit these are often reframed around those concerning ‘context’ for researchers repurposing data via new empirical endeavours. The contextualised character of qualitative data production, for example, requires considerable theoretical work, or ‘recontextualisation’, by researchers who reuse data, as well as a careful and precise examination of the complex dimensions of their relationship with the data. Relatedly, QSA also requires us to revisit methods of co-production, such as how far the generation of data ‘insights’ depends upon co-present, proximate and synchronous forms of face-to-face engagement. QSA therefore involves careful and critical engagement with the ‘embedded contexts’ both of previous studies and the subsequent contexts of researchers seeking to make sense of existing data and the extent of their usefulness.
These questions are often linked to another set of concerns about how far new research may be limited by working with existing qualitative datasets. Such datasets are often considered ‘fixed’ in terms of their connection to, or even expression of, the ‘original’ study contexts. There may also appear to be a lack of formative opportunity in generating new data by using datasets that have been produced by other, often unconnected, research teams. However, our work conceptualises qualitative secondary analysis as a process wherein researchers seek to apprehend data of different orders. This endeavour requires engagement with questions concerning how datasets are repurposed and recast, both as theoretical objects and as ‘evidence’. From this position, temporal and epistemic ‘distance’ are not inevitable analytic deficits. Indeed, such ‘distance’ can offer opportunities for new insights in ways not always available to those researchers proximal to the formative contexts of research. Awareness of the affordances of these kinds of temporal distance, as well as the development of a new vocabulary to explain QSA research, is shifting debate from questions of whether we should re-use data towards questions of how data might speak beyond the contexts of their original generation and what methods of QSA can be developed to do this.
Men, Poverty and Lifetimes of Care: an exemplar of fieldwork re-using data
Using datasets in the Timescapes Archive, Anna’s work provides an example of possible methods of QSA, challenging ideas of ‘fixity of context’ and meaning, and is an exemplar of how rich, in-depth insights can be achieved by re-using ostensibly ‘small’ datasets and samples. Her QSA involved developing and using a new research design where analyses of two existing datasets were undertaken concurrently with literature reviewing. Other developments include:
- Testing new methodological techniques for engaging with existing data (e.g. Tarrant and Hughes, 2019; 2020);
- Familiarisation with existing datasets, bringing them together and theoretically sampling from them;
- Bringing new questions to new samples, and generating new insights from her analyses;
- Developing new empirically-driven research questions, and
- Sustaining and extending existing study samples, as well as key stakeholder groups and networks (Men, Poverty and Lifetimes of Care).
Through these various activities, new directions are opened up for thinking through questions concerning researchers’ formative engagement with existing data, as well as methodological innovations for addressing these. Additionally, the work demonstrates the creative potential of re-apprehending data in new and novel ways, both in how existing datasets may be reused for the purposes of new thinking, but also effective ways of taking existing relationships from previous research forward.
Teaching and Research
The fieldwork plans of taught postgraduate researchers may feel especially impacted by the global pandemic. The anticipated longer-term effects on the Higher Education sector have already caused concern, particularly in terms of teaching delivery, which by necessity has moved online. There are also clear implications for students who have been planning to undertake face-to-face fieldwork. For social sciences students, dissertations form a major component of their courses, facilitating the bringing together of new learning, about method and the substantive, with real world research engagement. Using the analytical opportunities of their ‘temporal remove’, students who re-use data have the potential to broaden the methods they use, to generate new and relevant insights about the social world, and in this way become embedded in much longer research histories.
qualitative data re-use and QSA is feasible at any scale, suitable for long years of analysis (as our work has involved), or for the much shorter time frames of postgraduate research students
There are also valuable resources to support a step change in attitudes towards re-using qualitative data for fieldwork for teaching purposes. For example, ‘free to access’ repositories such as the Timescapes Archive, and the UK Data Archive, contain bespoke datasets and resources to support course design and delivery.
Asserting the value of QSA
The aim of this blog, inspired in part by our new edited collection Qualitative Secondary Analysis, is to illustrate the huge, almost untapped potential afforded by resources and methods of qualitative re-use and QSA. In demonstrating their value for researchers at all career stages, we argue for the increased uptake of these methods as discrete and important forms of fieldwork. We propose that qualitative data re-use and QSA is feasible at any scale, suitable for long years of analysis (as our work has involved), or for the much shorter time frames of postgraduate research students. However, as we indicate above, the process whereby researchers engage with how existing data can be used to ‘speak of the social world’ and subsequent data analysis and immersion will always be a lengthy undertaking, requiring careful and reflexive work. Nevertheless, although the COVID-19 crisis may constrain face-to-face researching, archived data support researchers’ connections to much longer histories of research and provide the opportunity for new and exciting research innovation.
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I was just discussing this point on another forum. The whole point about qualitative ethnographic data is that it is context-dependent. A subject may something differently if the context is different, or even if exactly the same question is asked again. A lot of material, for example interviews with Indigenous people under very tight ethics protocols, cannot be analysed secondarily – this would be unethical. We do have to watch for data-mining and reselling by commercial interests, too.
Thanks for your comment Simon. We have recently published a paper in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology (here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2020.1766759) that deals with questions of context in more depth, as you raise here. Many of these issues are also comprehensively discussed across the chapters of our recent edited collection with Sage, Qualitative Secondary Analysis (link int he article). The point you raise about data mining and commercial interests is important although we refer here to data that is archived in research repositories that have gold standard protocols for depositing and access.
Thanks for a good blog! I wanted to follow the links to the publications you reference but the links to some of them seem to be broken. Could you check them please?
Hi Thordis, I have reviewed this blog and I think I have caught the broken links, let me know if there are any outstanding issues. Thanks.
Thank you very much for sharing this informative articles.
When discussing universal access to health services , socio economic determinants which can also rely on qualittiative data makes a difference. The challenges we may face are ( Taking maternal health services as an example):
– what are the maternal health related quantitative data that can matter?
– will the collected quantitative data respond to the needs to identify the priority maternal health services and geographic areas in given context in an accurate manner in a way that we quantify the planned health service more accurately ?
– How will these qualitative data inform gloable priority reports / how we link them with global reports such as SDGs? whose reports are mostly based on quanititativative data ?
I am interested to discuss this further and we can perhaps explore the possibility of further research in the areas of qualitative research and maternal health services .
Thanks for writing this. This is a very interesting piece. I was wondering to what extent ethnographic data can constitute an archive. Ethnographic notes are often written in different forms from impersonal to the register of a personal diary. As one commentator pointed out the matter of context, it is also subject to time. While ethnographic field notes are written in the regisiter of the present, they become dated very quickly. The way to improve such data is to do more fieldwork which has become a difficult affair now. I was also wondering about the limits of an archive. What if there is are materials that never make it to an archive? But look forward to reading more on qsa!