A remarkable body of data has been collected in the social sciences by interviewing people or observing peoples’ interaction in a variety of situations – qualitative data sources very valuable for contemporary research. Notable projects promoting the re-use of qualitative data are ESDS Qualidata 1 (now UK Data Service) or Bequali 2. Here, we discuss important challenges in re-using qualitative data for secondary analysis and present first ideas on how to overcome them. This includes exploiting state-of-the-art IT-methods from the fields of Information Retrieval and Data Mining – adapting and integrating them for the digital humanities – as well as methodological considerations based on interdisciplinary work, in our case between computer scientists, historians, and social scientists in the project “Gute Arbeit” 3.
Challenges in secondary analysis of qualitative data
We focus on challenges on three main levels: a) making qualitative data accessible for secondary analysis, b) making relevant material findable, and c) making it understandable, i.e., ensuring adequate interpretation.
Efforts towards secondary analysis of qualitative data often have to struggle with researchers’ reluctance to make their data – their asset – (digitally) available. One crucial issue is warranting anonymity. The problem is exacerbated with qualitative data since answers are rather uncontrolled and unstructured, making it possible to combine information from various places in an interview, e.g., potentially giving information on an employee's (rather unique) background. There is an inherent conflict: While the data owners may tend to prefer protecting their clients, other researchers will argue for having complete information on interview content and context.
The ability to select the right primary material is an important precondition for re-analysis. For this, tools for exploring and searching relevant studies, cases/samples, and documents are needed that allow defining various criteria and notions of interesting or “similar” data. Furthermore, when reading and analysing the selected (long) interviews we envision enhanced analysis support, e.g. for re-using and sharing codes and annotations or for within document navigation to snippets of interest.
Understanding context is crucial to correctly interpret utterances of interviewees. Lack of context knowledge (“Not having been there”) is usually stated as one of the major concerns regarding the feasibility of secondary analysis 4. Furthermore, some qualitative approaches consider interactions between researchers and interviewees as essential for interpretation 5. While for some studies e.g., ethnological field studies, (contextual) data may not be sharable at all, for semi-structured interviews the process of data gathering can be made more transparent 6. Moreover, when working with data from earlier time periods questions of (the comparability of) socio-cultural macro-context are raised 7.
Technologies for digitally enhanced secondary analysis of qualitative data
In current practice, qualitative researchers mainly rely on qualitative data analysis tools like ATLAS.ti or MaxQDA or on (quantitative) dictionary-based content analysis tools, e.g., General Inquirer or Diction. Here, we discuss how secondary analysis of qualitative data can benefit from more sophisticated techniques from text mining and natural language processing – especially when systematically combining them to reveal novel usages.
Named Entity Recognition
Automatically identifying persons, organizations, and locations, i.e., so called named entity recognition (NER), is a standard task in natural language processing with tools publicly available, e.g. Stanford Named Entity Recognizer 8. In secondary analysis, NER can be used for improving search (e.g., faceted search) and contextualization. While non-disclosure agreements and adequate access rights will be the cornerstone of an anonymization strategy, NER can also assist in the anonymization task by finding persons or organizations talked about or by highlighting location names, which possibly provide additional hints to who was interviewed. Identified named entities can be systematically substituted by pseudonyms – storing the mapping safely on a remote place.
Opinion mining (sentiment analysis) techniques could support the secondary researcher in finding opinionated material, e.g., passages with positive or negative points of view on a particular subject. For example, our project “Gute Arbeit” is interested in how peoples' concepts of “good" work evolved over the last decades. Besides, such techniques may support judging the sensitivity of material, e.g. insults. Direct application of – often vocabulary-based – state-of-the-art sentiment analysis tools (e.g. 9) to qualitative data is usually not feasible. There are peculiarities regarding the detection of subjective expressions and opinion targets, context dependency, indirect opinions, and ordering or omittance effects. For example, in face-to-face interviews subtle sentiment expressions are common. We are researching how to ‘train’ machine-learning approaches to better cope with qualitative data.
Topic modeling with its prominent representative Latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) 10 is a statistical technique for identifying the topical structure of large textual corpora. Application to limited size qualitative corpora may require gathering additional training data (11, 12).Topic modeling techniques can highlight themes - possibly going beyond themes asked for - discussed in (long) qualitative documents. Concept Maps or co-occurrence matrixes are related ideas. For a quick overview, interview contents can be visualized by means of representative topics. For example, topics extracted from a collection of studies show commonalities while comparing topics of individual studies sheds light on specifics. Similarly, Janasik et al. 13 argue that such text mining procedures can aid both data-driven, inductive research by finding emergent concepts as well as theory-driven, deductive research by checking the adequacy and applicability of defined schemes.
There are different kinds and levels of context of the interview, e.g., conversational, situational, regarding the research project, or institutional/cultural 14. While most of these context variables need to be documented by the primary researcher, IT tools can substantially aid capturing the socio-cultural (macro-)context present at the time of data collection. Using external knowledge bases, e.g. Wikipedia or news corpora, primary data can be automatically annotated and linked with background information (e.g. 15, 16, 17). Changes in socio-cultural context may also be better traceable by topic or word clusters with their evolution tracked over time 18.
Intelligent Search and Visualization
For fast access to an archive of unknown qualitative studies, intelligent search procedures and advanced visualizations for supporting exploration are crucial: Term clouds, Topics maps, and timelines, e.g. for word (cluster) evolutions. Facetted search is a standard in many web applications allowing to browse data or to filter query results based on facets. For a qualitative data archive such facets can be classical metadata like project or study, year, or author, but also advanced information extracted automatically, like entities or topics talked about. All of these may help the secondary researcher to better define his notion of interesting or “similar” material.
While quite many projects make use of one of the aforementioned techniques, novel usage scenarios result from systematically chaining or plugging in the various components. Of course, to aid digital humanities researchers IT tools need to adhere to best practices in interface and interaction design (usability principles like learnability, robustness). More importantly, scepticism regarding the utility and validity of employing IT techniques in humanities research as well as potential misperceptions of ‘hostile takeover’ attempts have to be addressed.
The technologies discussed hold a lot of promise for supporting secondary analysis, but it is important to carefully fit the way they are offered with the work practices and expectations for secondary analysis. Due to the close collaboration across disciplines as well as the work on concrete secondary analysis tasks, our project “Gute Arbeit” provides a good hands-on opportunity for such user-driven technology adaption. We conducted two group discussions where an early prototype realizing topic modelling via Mallet 19 was shown as a stimulus to each three humanities researchers. Despite some limitations in perceived quality, in sum our researchers stated an added value regarding data access and exploration – though considerably less for those very familiar with the data. In general, the need for iterative interaction, flexibility, and personalization were put forward by both groups. For example, instead of aiming at automatic topic labelling users want to maintain their own topic labels and as well define relationships between topics or group topics into clusters. Thresholds for probability-based techniques like topic modeling should be adjustable to allow trading off completeness versus specificity. By enabling ranking based on relative (cumulative) topic coverage one can easily focus on the most relevant subset of documents that cover most of the topic in the corpus. Contrasting different subsets of documents matching criteria like study, profession, or time period regarding prevalent topics was mentioned as an interesting further development. Especially for the historian, the time dimension was important. Language and topic evolution could be visualized.
Our experiments showed the need to select and adapt text mining tools carefully - here tailoring the technology to the needs of secondary analysis. The lessons learned through our interdisciplinary, collaborative, agile approach to tool development highlight the methodological strengths of the rapid prototyping process: researchers get to know and trust the techniques better as these early hands-on sessions demonstrate potentials as well as necessary refinements. While it is hard to know your requirements for novel digital research tools before seeing them in action, iteratively providing (imperfect) evolutionary prototypes seems a useful methodology for establishing a common ground for the Digital Humanities.
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