Coding and Queen

Coding data is often a somewhat mysterious process. It’s talked about a huge amount in qualitative methods books, but rarely is it explained how it is done, what judgements you need to make in the process, or how fantastically dull it is. Well I’m saying these things now. Qualitative data coding is dull. Mind numbing even. I’m supposed to be coding this morning, but after half an hour I want to give up. This is not just because of the process. It’s because the interview I am coding annoys me. I didn’t get along particularly well with the person, and they said some things that I disagree with rather strongly. I will come onto these issues of judgement in another post. Today, I want to talk about what coding is, and why it’s mind-numbing.

There are a few different types of qualitative data coding, it depends on the approach you are taking, the type of analysis you are using and the level of information you have included in your transcript. I tend to use approaches based in grounded theory which possibly offer a more simple level of analysis than things like conversation analysis. So my transcripts are verbatim, but things like the tone or inflection of speech are not recorded, and whilst I note pauses in speech, I won’t time them. When transcribing you need to know if the focus of the analysis is on what was said or how it was said as this affects what type of things you record in the transcript. Approaches coming from the Grounded Theory tradition, such as thematic analysis, focus upon the what rather than the how. So when starting coding in this type of approach, the researcher will go through each transcript, sentence by sentence (or in some cases, word by word) and give “codes” based upon the content. Once this initial phase has been done, thematically similar codes are grouped together, into “themes”. This continues until you have around 5 large themes that tell you something about your dataset as a whole. It makes more sense when you’re actually doing it. But without data, it can be difficult to practice. When I was doing my masters, I practiced different types of coding and analysis on film scripts or song lyrics to get the hang of it. I’ll show you an example.

Song Lyrics


Is this the real life?

Questioning, Reality

Is this just fantasy?

Questioning, Reality (Not)

Caught in a landslide,

Metaphor, Trapped

No escape from reality.

Trapped, Reality

Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see,

Awareness, Surroundings

I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,

Class, Sympathy, Needs

Because I’m easy come, easy go

Ease, Presence

Little high, little low,

Affect, Changability

Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me.

Surroundings, Metaphor, Carelessness


So, from the opening lines of Bohemian Rhapsody, we’ve got some codes. Other people would likely code this differently to me, which shows why transparency is so important in qualitative research. You have to show how you came to the conclusions you did, so even if someone disagrees, or would have done things differently, they can agree with your process, and see your logic. So from these codes, we need to move up a level to create themes.



Class, Needs, Sympathy, Presence, Changability,


Questioning, Trapped, Affect, Ease, Metaphor, Carelessness

Thoughts and Feelings

Reality, Reality (Not), Surroundings,



So from these themes we can build a simple theory about the meaning of the song. It’s about a person in the midst of an existential crisis. They are questioning the world around them (“Is this the real life?”), having flattened affect and feelings of being trapped (“Little high, little low” “No escape”) and as a result have feelings of antipathy towards the world and any changes that happen in it (“Any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me”).

This is a highly simplistic way of showing codes and how they build up into a theory, but hopefully it’s put across how it’s done. Also note that when explaining my theory, I gave supporting examples from the data, this aids transparency and helps show your thought process. Doing it on a small scale like this hopefully doesn’t seem too dull. But when you have to go through several interviews, each an hour in duration, line by line in this way, it gets tiring very quickly. Working through every pause or “erm” or trying to decide if they were talking about assessment in general or a specific assessment tool for each sentence of an 8000 word document gets old fast. So I’m writing a blog post as a break. But I’m running out of things to say, so I should probably get back to it.


NOTE: I’m not saying that Bohemian Rhapsody is about existential crisis, I’m just saying it could be interpreted that way through this particular form of analysis. For me that songs is mostly about guitar solos. And brilliance.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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One Response to Coding and Queen

  1. Pingback: Thematic Analysis: Part 1 | Adventures in Social Science

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