|Issue 22||Autumn 1998|
Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to email@example.com.
Secondary analysis of qualitative data
Janet Heaton is a Research Fellow and a part-time DPhil student in the Social Policy Research Unit, Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York. Her interest in secondary analysis of qualitative data developed through the intersection of these two roles. For her doctoral work she is re-analysing data from studies on which she worked as a primary researcher, focusing on the 'temporal imperatives' which characterise the discourses surrounding contemporary hospital discharge policy and practice.
Although the secondary analysis of quantitative data is a common and generally accepted mode of inquiry, the same cannot be said of qualitative data (Hinds, Vogel and Clarke-Steffen 1997). This Update outlines some of the forms that secondary analysis of qualitative data can take, the key methodological and ethical issues that arise, and how the approach might be further developed.
Despite the fact that thus far secondary analysis of qualitative data has not been widely undertaken, there have been a few reviews of the approach (e.g. Hinds, Vogel and Clarke-Steffen 1997, Thorne 1994). Classification of different types of secondary analysis of qualitative data is not straightforward as there are almost as many types as there are examples. It is made more difficult by the fact that some researchers may not define their work as secondary analysis (Hinds, Vogel and Clarke-Steffen 1997).
These difficulties notwithstanding, forms of secondary analysis are cross-classified in Table 1 according to the focus of the analysis and the nature of the original data used. Examples of work classified in this way will be described; some cells remain empty (cells 1c, 2a and b, 3a and c) because appropriate examples have not yet been identified and it is not known if these forms of secondary analysis have ever been conducted (there are no a priori grounds for excluding them).
Table 1: Forms of secondary analysis
Additional sub-set analysis: a selective focus on a sub-set of the sample from the original study (or studies), sharing characteristics which warrant further analysis. For instance, in their secondary analysis of related quantitative and qualitative data sets about claimants of Invalid Care Allowance, McLaughlin and Ritchie (1994) concentrate on the ex-carers in the original sample in order to describe the socio-economic and psychological legacies of care giving among this group (cell 2c).
New perspective/conceptual focus: the retrospective analysis of the whole or part of a data set from a different perspective, to examine concepts which were not central to the original research. I have adopted this strategy in my ongoing doctoral research which involves re-examining qualitative data relating to people's experiences of hospital discharge in order to explore the temporal organisation of this process and associated aftercare regimes (cell 3b). In addition, although not self-defined as secondary analysis, Bloor and MacIntosh's (1990) study of techniques of client resistance to surveillance drew on two earlier studies that they conducted and provides a further illustration of this approach (cell 3b).
Various arguments in favour of developing secondary analysis of qualitative studies have been put forward (Hinds, Vogel and Clarke-Steffen 1997, Sandelowski 1997, Szabo and Strang 1997, Thorne 1994). For example, it has been contended that the approach can be used to generate new knowledge, new hypotheses, or support for existing theories; that it reduces the burden placed on respondents by negating the need to recruit further subjects; and that it allows wider use of data from rare or inaccessible respondents.
In addition, it has been suggested that secondary analysis is a more convenient approach for particular researchers, notably students (Szabo and Strang 1997). However, Thorne (1994) argues that where the researcher was not part of the original research team the approach is best only employed by experienced researchers because of the particular difficulties of doing secondary analysis in an independent capacity. It should also be noted that use of the approach does not necessarily preclude the possibility of collecting primary data. This may, for example, be required to obtain additional data or to pursue in a more controlled way the findings emerging from the initial analysis. There may also be a need to consult the primary researcher(s) (assuming that they are available) in order to investigate the circumstances of the original data generation and processing.
Despite the interest in and arguments for developing secondary analysis of qualitative data, the approach has not been widely adopted to date. Furthermore, as was shown above, existing studies have mainly been conducted by researchers re-using their own data rather than by independent analysts using data collected by others. This raises questions about the desirability and feasibility of particular strategies for secondary analysis of qualitative data discussed below.
The first is whether secondary analysis of qualitative studies is tenable, given that it is often thought to involve an inter-subjective relationship between the researcher and the researched. In response, it may be argued that even where primary data is gathered via interviews or observation in qualitative studies, there may be more than one researcher involved. Hence within the research team the data still has to be contextualised and interpreted by those who were not present. A more radical response is to argue that the design, conduct and analysis of both qualitative and quantitative research are always contingent upon the contextualisation and interpretation of subjects' situation and responses. Thus, secondary analysis is no more problematic than other forms of empirical inquiry, all of which, at some stage, depend on the researcher's ability to form critical insights based on inter-subjective understanding.
The second issue concerns the problem of where primary analysis stops and secondary analysis starts. Qualitative research is an iterative process and grounded theory in particular requires that questions undergo a process of formulation and refinement over time (Glaser 1992). For primary researchers re-using their own data it may be difficult to determine whether the research is part of the original enquiry or sufficiently new and distinct from it to qualify as secondary analysis. For independent analysts re-using other researchers' data there are also related professional issues about the degree of overlap between their respective work. There is no easy solution to these problems except to say that greater awareness of secondary analysis might enable researchers to more appropriately recognise and define their work as such.
Just as the above issues have received little attention in the literature to date, so the principles of, and guidelines for, the conduct of secondary analysis remain rather ill-defined (Thorne 1994). However, a number of practical and ethical considerations have been highlighted (Hinds, Vogel and Clarke-Steffen 1997, Szabo and Strang 1997, Thorne 1994) and four key issues are summarised below.
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Thorne, S. (1990) 'Secondary Analysis in Qualitative Research: issues and implications' in Morse, J.M. (Ed.) Critical Issues in Qualitative Research Methods. London: Sage.
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Autumn 1998 © University of Surrey
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