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improving rigour in qualitative research:

Methodological literature review

In pharmacy education, the most common type of qualitative data gathered is in the form of open-ended responses to questionnaires or reflections in written form. Additionally, content from interviews and focus groups can be gathered. Designing questions to gather the data in these multiple formats is integral to ensure collection of good data. While collecting the data can be very fun and exciting, the real fun begins when the data are analyzed.

Yin’s book, Qualitative Research from Start to Finish, outlines a general framework to design a qualitative research study: collect and record data, analyze the data, display and disseminate your findings.6 For the remainder of this section, the focus will be on the analysis portion of the research process.

In general, analysis of qualitative data can be outlined in five steps: compiling, disassembling, reassembling, interpreting, and concluding.6 The process of TA will be described within this framework.


Compiling the data into a useable form is the first step to finding meaningful answers to your research questions. Compiling might mean transcribing so that the researchers can easily see the data. If your data needs transcribing from an interview or focus group, some experts recommend that you do the transcription yourself.16 While this takes much more time then paying someone to provide this service for you, the closeness to the data that you achieve during this process can jumpstart the other steps of the data analysis process. It seems intuitive, but the researcher needs to read and reread the data to become intimately familiar with it. This should occur many times throughout the analysis process. In this phase, the researcher is expected to transcribe interviews or focus groups, collate responses, and organize other textual data to be included in the analysis. Transcription services can help the researcher to save time but it is even more important that the researcher know the data intimately. In familiarizing themselves with the data,12 the researcher acquires a sense of the entirety of the data and allows a greater understanding of phrasing or the meaning of a term when viewed within the context of the whole. After getting your data in a consistent and organized format, you are ready to begin dissecting your data to discover its components.


After compiling and organizing the data, it must be separated. Disassembling the data involves taking the data apart and creating meaningful groupings. This process is often done through coding. Coding, in the realm of qualitative research, is defined as “the process by which raw data are gradually converted into usable data through the identification of themes, concepts, or ideas that have some connection with each other.”5 Coding simply involves researchers identifying similarities and differences in the data.16

Kuper describes how qualitative research differs from quantitative research in that “qualitative data analysis is largely inductive, allowing meaning to emerge from the data, rather than the more deductive, hypothesis centered approach favored by quantitative researchers.”4 The meaning that “emerges from the data” is often first seen as the data is disassembled or coded.

The activity of coding involves identifying interesting features of the data systematically across the entire data set and occurs at multiple levels. Initially, codes are attached to units of data that could vary in size (i.e., phrase, sentence, paragraph) but usually codes encompass a complete thought. They can take the form of a descriptive label that directly describes or is taken from the text. However, codes can also be more abstract and complex in the form of metaphors or literary references.2 The code serves as a tag used to retrieve and categorize similar data so that the researcher can pull out and examine all of the data across the dataset associated with that code.

The action of coding requires the researcher to ask specific questions of the data as appropriate.17

What is happening in the text?•

Who are the actors and what are their roles?•

When is it happening? (preceding event, during event, reaction to event, etc.)•

Where is it happening?•

What are the explicit and implicit reasons why it is happening?•

How is it happening? (process or strategy)