My countdown has started! In 52 weeks I’ll be submitting my thesis! So the time of pussy footing is over, and the real thing has started. Long hours of writing, editing and rewriting constitute my typical day and will be accentuated as the days pass.
As I became aware of the time left for my submission, I also realised that the process of the data analysis has been the most difficult of the PhD. It was a sort of a revelation. I was paralysed because I was feeling so vulnerable and insecure, that I thought, well if I overcome this, everything will be easier. I guess, I’m not wrong since researchers in qualitative studies, as Sharan B. Merriam describe the data analysis process as the most difficult and crucial stage.
Why is data analysis in qualitative research so difficult?
Data analysis is the crucial stage of the research process when we make sense of the data (Merriam, 2009), Researchers interpret the data after constructing and deconstructing bits and pieces . I concur with Merriam (2009) that making sense out of data “ involves consolidating, reducing, and interpreting what people have said and what the researcher has seen and read- it is the process of making meaning” ( p. 175-176). Through the analysis of data researchers make meaning: we find the answers to teh reearch questions. Data analysis is the stage in which we actually see what the research is about.
Data analysis in the qualitative tradition is usually an iterative, “ recursive and dynamic process” (Merriam p. 169). As the research design of qualitative studies is usually emergent, the data is collected in different stages, and the ana;ysis is done both at the moment of collecting data and after the collection. The analysis is done in different ways, findings are drawn, revisited , and restructured. Each qualitative study has its unique data analysis approach depending on the nature of the problem and the research design (Patton, 2002). Data analysis is not a fixed process that follows a strict set of procedures.
Data analysis is a continous inductive-deductive process. One of the main characteristics of qualitative research is that allows us to see through the eyes of the participants. Thus, researchers listen and tell their stories. In the data analysis process, themes and categories usually emerge from the data, then some concepts are imposed to the data, and viceversa . Researchers interpret and reinterpret the data from what they can see , but also from the existing literature of the field of study and from the theoretical perspective adopted in the study. Data analysis is a complex and challenging process. As Patton (2002) stated, “the ongoing challenge, paradox and dilemma of qualitative analysis engage us in constatly moving back and forth between the phenomenon of the program and our abstractions of that phenomenon, between the descriptions of what has occurred and our interpretations of those descriptions, between the complexity of reality and our simplifications of those complexities, between the circularities and interdependencies of human activity and our need for linear, ordered statements of cause- effect” (pp. 480-481).
My analytical approach: Cultural Historical Activity Theory
On top of the difficult nature of data analysis in qualitative research, I encountered the challenge of the application of Activity Theory on my analysis. As I have described in many other posts, my research has explored the activity of learning to teach in an EFL teacher education program in Chile. The data collected aimed at providing with the tools to understand the activity and answer the research question: How do EFL pre-service teachers learn to teach in this specific context? Therefore, the analysis process has focused on the activity of learning to teach considering both what participants think about the activity and how different sociocultural factors shaped their learning. Thus, my study adopted a CHAT perspective, thus an activity system analysis method has been used for the data analysis. This study used CHAT to seek for an understanding of the activity of learning to teach.
I adopted a CHAT perspective because this theory does not only contribute to understanding the activity of learning to teach, but also it illuminates its complexity and ultimately suggest changes for improvement. CHAT is a relatively new theory in the west and is still developing. CHAT has been used in two different ways in the last 20 years. On one hand, especially North American researchers have used CHAT as an analytical tool, i.e., the aim of those studies has been to understand a complex learning environment. Whereas in Europe, especially lead by Engestrom, CHAT has been used to transform social practices. In doing so, Engestrom et al have developed a methodology: Developmental work research (DWR) which aims at expansive learning. Participants get engaged in the analysis of the complex learning environment, work collaboratively, and develop ways to transform their daily practices.
Though my PhD and the research itself was motivated by my personal engagement and commitment towards the improvement of teacher education, early on the research process, I decided to seek an understanding of the activity, rather than transforming it. Therefore, I chose to use CHAT as a heuristic justified on three main reasons. In first place, there are no previous studies that have documented the activity of learning to teach in the context studied. Therefore, problematising and understanding the activity was a priority. Second, institutional and organisational factors constrained a bigger participation of pre-service teachers in the decision making process. And third, this study was inserted into a research project that had a limited duration and funding.
In summary, I am writing my analysis chapter and when I am done with this, I guess the thesis would be closer. So it is high time to cult the cloth and smash it!