Reusing qualitative data

INTroduction

Secondary analysis of qualitative data entails reusing data created from previous research projects for new purposes. Reuse provides a unique opportunity to study the raw materials of the recent or more distant past to gain insights for both methodological and substantive purposes.

Secondary analysis has been less common and more contested for qualitative data than for quantitative data.  However, use of the approach has grown rapidly to become more widely practiced and accepted. This growth is explained by many factors such as the open data movement, research funders’ policies supporting data sharing, and researchers seeing benefits of sharing all manner of resources through social media.

Another factor enabling qualitative data reuse has been improved services and infrastructure, such as the UK Data Service, which provides access to hundreds of data collections. By 2010, over 1,000 qualitative and mixed methods datasets per year were being downloaded from the former Economic and Social Data Service. Even this represents only a part of the reuse of qualitative data, much of which still takes place informally, as well as through other archives and repositories.

The UK Data Service is dedicated to supporting quality research and education by documenting, disseminating and providing advice on using qualitative research data for secondary analysis. We want to ensure that access to qualitative data is as free, open, and as easy to access as possible, while upholding all ethical and legal standards.

DIVERSE APPROACHES TO THE REUSE OF qualitative data

In distinguishing various approaches to reuse, two issues are central.  First, who is doing the reuse, specifically, are any of the primary researchers involved in the reuse project?  Second, what are the purposes of the reuse, namely, are the new questions similar to, or very different from the questions of the original researchers? Below we describe the main ways data can be reused.

Description: Previous research can be used to describe the attributes, attitudes and behaviour of individuals, societies, groups or organisations at the time of the original project.

Comparative research: Comparative research provides comparison over time or between social groups or regions etc.

Re-analysis: Re-analysis asks new questions of the data and makes different interpretations from the original researcher. It approaches the data in ways that were not originally addressed, such as using data for investigating different themes or topics of study. The more in-depth the material, and the more contextualised the raw data, the more possible this becomes. This does not involve attempts to undermine researcher's previous analysis.

Research design and methodological advancement: Research design and methodological advancement involves designing a new study or developing a methodology or research tool by studying sampling methods, data collection and fieldwork strategies and topic guides. Although researchers often publish a section on methods used, researchers' own fieldwork diaries or analytic notes can offer much insight into the history and development of the research.

Learning and teaching: Both older 'classic' studies and more contemporary research can provide rich case material for learning and teaching in both research methods and substantive areas across a range of social science disciplines. 

KEY DEBATES IN THE reusE OF qualitative data

The debates about reusing qualitative data have tended to cluster in three broad areas. 

First, there is a debate about 'context', and whether data can ever be appropriately reused when secondary researchers lack the context of the original project. 

Second, there are legal and ethical concerns as to whether reuse can be done while complying with data protection and other legislation. Moreover, there are ethical questions about informed consent for unknown future uses of data and of changed relationships with participants when data are shared. 

Finally, there are more practical challenges of reuse, such as the newly emerging challenges of sampling from what are, in some cases, vast quantities of qualitative data now available for reuse. 

More detail about all these debates can be found in the page on reuse articles.

EARLY EXAMPLES OF reusE OF qualitative data

Early classic examples of data reuse include:

  • Seebohm Rowntree's (1901) three surveys of poverty in York
  • Llewellyn Smith’s (1930-1935) repeat of Charles Booth’s (1891-1902) poverty survey in London
  • Robert and Helen Lynds’ studies of Middletown (1929, 1937)
  • Oscar Lewis (1963) of Robert Redfield’s (1930) research on the village of Tepotzlan in Mexico.

More recent case studies are available here.

GETTING STARTED

With so many ways to go about reusing data, there cannot be any hard and fast rules about how to go about doing it.  However, there are some steps common to most approaches:  

  1. Get oriented to the original research project by reading the catalogue record and other documentation.
  2. Think about the project data - why was each type of data collected?
  3. Consider the original sample design and how it was implemented.
  4. Think about all levels of context of the original data (such as interaction, project, and societal).
  5. Find a way into the data; sometimes there is a lot of it! Often the best starting point may be case summaries or data lists. 
  6. Develop analytic strategies – refining concepts by cross-collection comparisons or bringing cases and quantitative together.

SPECIAL ISSUES On reuse of qualitative data

There is a growing body of literature on the reuse of qualitative data, addressing ethical, methodological and epistemological topics. The following issues are just a sample and cover a range of perspectives, from the experience-based to the more theoretical.

The following recently published special issues are recommended, listed in chronological order:

All references cited here and many more articles relating to secondary analysis of qualitative data can be read.

TEACHING SECONDARY ANALYSIS OF QUALITATIVE DATA

The UK Data Service provides some valuable resources for helping to teach reuse of data.

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