Qualitative content analysis – the pattern”s the limit!

When I started writing this blog, I was planning to add a post every other week – or every week, even. To write a few lines – surely this fits in anywhere, anytime – doesn’t it? But I suppose that the human capacity for self-deception is endless and that academics are no exception… And this is why it has been three weeks (three weeks??) since the last post. But I will keep it up, even if at longer intervals.

Today I want to focus not so much on what QCA can, as on what it cannot do. Of course I am very fond of the method, I like to use it, after all I have just written a book on it. But just like any other method, there are some things that QCA does really well and others where the method becomes clumsy at best. Over these past three post-less weeks I have seen two students who wanted to do something that QCA does not do well: they wanted to explore patterns. One of them is looking at the structure of visual narratives in news reports about crises. She has already identified important components of these narratives, such as the setting, different types of actors, camera angle, distance of the shots, and the like, and QCA is a good method for identifying and classifying these and other components. But the structure of a visual narrative is much more than just a combination of individual components. It is a ‘gestalt’, it has holistic properties that emerge from the way the components interact and unfold over time. To put it differently: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. QCA can help you identify the parts, but it is out of its depths when it comes to exploring how exactly the whole emerges from these parts. Here semiotics, iconography, or some kinds of discourse analysis work much better.

The research question of the other student is very similar in structural terms. She wants to explore how branding campaigns unfold. Again QCA can help her identify the components of the campaigns. But the unfolding is likely to involve holistic patterns that go beyond a simple summary combination of the parts, and she will need other methods to address this part of her research question.

But to make matters just a little more complicated and to end on a more positive note concerning QCA: Once such complex patterns have been explored and identified, they can then be turned into the subcategories of a coding frame. Kenneth and Mary Gergen (1997), for example, have identified different structures of narratives about the self: the progressive, the regressive, and the stable self-narrative. In a QCA, the progressive, regressive, and stable structure could become the subcategories of a main category for narrative structure. Once holistic patterns have been identified using methods other than QCA, QCA can in a next step be used to systematize and classify these patterns. But this is typically only an option after the analysis has been completed. The patterns are the findings of a first study where QCA would not be enough, and they can be turned into categories for QCA in a follow-up study. Once the above student has identified different structures of visual narratives, for example, she could classify other narratives according to these structures in a second study.

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