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February 23, 2012

Data mess and storytelling – by Bernie

I was going to write a blog about my life as a piece of crochet, but that actually sounds a bit bonkers, so I'll save that for a day when I just don't care what I sound like...

But the point of it was to do with the complicated and frustrating world of qualitative data analysis and representation. Here's where I am at the moment: I have lots and lots and lots of words, and I have 30 weeks to put them into some sort of sensible and comprehensible pattern (you see the crochet analogy?!). I also have very mixed feelings about the whole subject of representation.

In my supervision meeting the other week, we were reviewing something I'd written as an initial representation of one of my interviewee's words. I had essentially written it as a story, including some fairly long text boxes of intact interview data. Because I'm taking a narrative approach, I'm pretty committed to the idea of holistic representation. I have an innate fear of reductionism, and besides, I want their stories to be heard as they were told to me. I thought I would produce the stories of the interviewees within the meta-narratives of the midwifery profession's identity struggles, clinical leadership in the NHS, and ideas about groups and their behaviours.

My supervisors seemed to really quite like the approach I'd taken, but then we got onto discussing the structure of the data chapters. They were encouraging me to think in terms of typologies of midwifery managers - for example, the reluctant manager, the conflicted manager... Initially, I thought this might be a good idea, as it's very neat, and I do like very neat things.

But then I was walking on the beach in Northumberland last week (soooooo beautiful and soul-enriching),

Bamburgh beach

and I realised that in relation to the PhD, I actually have a bit of a problem with neat. I've written about messy research before, and I've also mentioned the way in which this process of taming the million words feels a bit like trying to pack a very big tent into a very small bag. But the further I get into this process, the more I actually enjoy trying to keep that messy feeling intact. The work I've done really isn't neat. After all, it involves people telling me stuff in very long interviews. And it involves a profession that has a myriad of issues attached to its very existence.

So I'm trying to move towards somewhere between chaos and reductionism. The problem is, my thesis will end up being about 200,000 words long if I put in the stories and then a load of theoretical data as well. So I want to know how other people using qualitative data have managed to tame it. Will I ever get to a point where I feel the big tent fits into the small bag? Or have I just given myself the task of my life, one that will just run and run beyond the PhD? I'd like to think that on September 30th I can hand that tent bag over with a beautifully folded tent and all its poles inside, but I'm wondering whether the tent will in fact have to be screwed up messily in the bag (just), and then will just spill out all over the floor when the external examiner opens it... And at the moment, I'm not sure which outcome would make me happier.

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