Making digital tools sexier

Making digital tools sexier

By Nicholas Woolf on Jun 16, 2016 at 01:20 PM in CAQDAS commentary
Making digital tools sexier

By Nick Woolf, 16th June 2016

Digital tools for qualitative data analysis are powerful and sexy, but does everyone know? And what can we / should we do about are some musings from some recent conference experiences.  

Who would travel half way across a continent to a conference with less than 30 participants? Christina and I were recently at the ICQI 2016 conference in Champaign at the University of Illinois. Norm Denzin – the founder and organizer of ICQI – told me 1,305 qualitative researchers attended this year. The 414 page program offered more alternative sessions to visit in two days than could reasonably be taken advantage of in a year, so severe choices had to be made. Those of us firmly in the CAQDAS world mostly plumped for the offerings of our very own Digital Tools Special Interest Group (SIG) which were conveniently held in one place – room 217 in the Noyes building – a place we became very familiar with. And those pretty interested in CAQDAS but also other things spent some time in room 217. And at most of our sessions there were a handful of people from the rest of the conference, including recognizable faces like Johnny Saldaña. All in all there were about 25-30 people at each of our sessions, and for me firmly ensconced in room 217 the entire time it was a terrific mini-conference. I’ve been traveling around teaching CAQDAS so intensively for the last 20 years that I haven’t taken time out to attend conferences, so it was great to finally meet many of the core group of researchers, teachers, and software developers in the CAQDAS world.  

Severe choices

Making digital tools sexier

But the question we now have to answer is why those severe choices about where to plant oneself in each session led so few to visit room 217? Why in this so obviously digital age are there only 25-30 qualitative researchers out of a guest list of 1,305 who regularly came to the Digital Tools sessions? It is certainly not due to the SIG leaders’ efforts – Kristi Jackson, Trena Paulus and Judy Davidson put in extraordinary efforts over the last year and created an excellent program. And it is not a criticism of the thousands of choices made by all the conference participants about where to be at any given time.

So what does it mean?

What we need to know is: What does this mean? As qualitative researchers we find meaning in everything, right? All human beings are hard-wired to find an explanation for everything that happens, even random events. But as qualitative researchers we are not satisfied to explain life like everyone else, we have to find its meaning. So what does it mean in this digital age that only 25-30 qualitative researchers on average out of 1,305 found sufficient interest in digital tools to visit room 217? Here are some possibilities, starting with the more philosophical and ending with the more practical. If we can figure out the answers it might help advance our field.


Are tools really that important – isn't what’s important what you do, not how you do it?

We have a standard mindset about tools that comes from everyday life, like using a knife to cut an apple or making a checklist to remember everything you need on a trip. It’s pretty obvious how to use these tools to extend your physical or mental capabilities. What’s important is whether or not you want to slice the apple, or whether it’s worth bothering to make a checklist. Once you’ve decided to do something, how to use a tool to do it is usually pretty obvious and doesn’t need further thought. But according to John Seely Brown, software is a different kind of tool.[1] He famously proposed that how you use software as a tool cannot be explicitly described because the learning is situated in the context in which it occurs, and can only be learned through its use. The alternative is to acquire knowledge about the software but not be able to use it – that may ring true with many qualitative researchers in their attempts to use CAQDAS packages. There is a lot known about tools that makes their use far from neutral – Marshal McLuhan talked about how they numb the parts of the body they amplify[2], and Nicholas Carr talked about how humans uniquely mold themselves around the form and functions of their tools.[3]  Maybe we need to reflect more about the hidden impact of our tools, whether paper, whiteboards, sticky notes, or CAQDAS programs? Maybe we should have a Digital Tools conference session on the significant if dimly recognized impact of all kinds of tools on humans, to put our own CAQDAS and other digital tools in context?

Are we only partway through the generational transition to digitally-native researchers?

Making digital tools sexier-4

Trena Paulus and colleagues make the point that the upcoming generation of researchers are ‘digital natives’ who take it for granted they will be conducting all their work with digital tools.[4] Looking around the ICQI conference there were some of these, but also plenty of ‘digital immigrants’ who certainly did not grow up that way and are only partially embedded in the all-digital world. And there were plenty of experienced-looking researchers for whom digital tools have arrived later in life. So should we patiently wait for the new generation to take over? Maybe we need some presentations explicitly geared to the digitally resistant, perhaps debate contrasting the nature and value of analogue and digital tools? Maybe we would learn something ourselves?

Do we know our statistics?

Making digital tools sexier

For many of us qualitative researchers statistics are not our strong point. On the one hand, 25-30 attendees on average at our sessions out of 1,305 total available participants sounds a bit like a lack of interest in digital tools. But on the other hand, in any given 90 minute session  there were roughly 36 different offerings available – so if participants were equally distributed there would, coincidentally, be 36 people at each one. So maybe we weren’t doing so badly with our 25-30! But the question is if those 25-30 were mostly the same 25-30 people every session, and that virtually all of the other roughly 1,275 participants never set foot in room 217? What does that tell us about interest in digital tools? Do we even know how many qualitative researchers actually use CAQDAS packages?

Did we get the message out?

Making digital tools sexier-5

On the most practical level, is it our fault that few seemed to know how interesting and productive our sessions would be to any qualitative researcher? Kristi Jackson talked at the closing Town Hall Meeting of the Digital Tools SIG of the year round effort that went into making our program the success that it was, and asked if any digital tool aficionados had any spare bandwidth in their lives to help out next year, including getting the word out about what we have to offer. Kristi indicated that we would be hearing from the leadership team in due course about the opportunities to help or become leaders ourselves, so this is likely one area that we could come up with some tools of our own.

Those of us who are excited about the use of digital tools and are interested in reflecting on the role they have in our practices, on the relationship between technology and methodology, and on the best ways to teach and use them, assumed that the Digital Tools SIG would offer good choices. And we were not disappointed. For us these topics are important. Maybe the question we need to address is how to make them sexier so that more qualitative researchers engage directly with the field. 


[1] Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

[2] McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[3] Carr, N. (2016). The glass cage: Where automation is taking us. NY: Random House.

[4] Paulus, T. M., Lester, J. N., & Dempster, P. G. (2014). Digital tools for qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.