Harvard Educational Review
  1. Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis

    By Eben A. Weitzman and Matthew B. Miles

    Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995. 369 pp. $31.50 (paper)

    Qualitative researchers in education often find themselves working with hundreds or even thousands of pages of qualitative data. In the course of a single research project, data sources such as field notes, interview transcripts, and primary and secondary documents can readily yield enormous amounts of text, presenting the researcher with the challenge of managing and making sense of so much information.

    In recent years, several powerful software applications have been created that can help qualitative researchers organize and work flexibly with large collections of text-based data. Specifically designed for working with words and ideas, these specialized tools allow for point-and-click coding, searches by keyword or code, instant sorting, and easy retrieval of selected passages. This new generation of computer technology for qualitative data analysis represents an order-of-magnitude improvement over older cut-and-paste methods relying on scissors, tape, highlighter pens, and index cards.

    Imagine, for example, that you are working on a qualitative research project with enough data to fill an entire file cabinet. Using a typical organizational strategy, you might place your individual documents into manila folders, arrange those manila folders in hanging folders, and then put the hanging folders into the drawers of the file cabinet. Your data is accessible, but when the time arrives for data analysis, you face the task of remembering all the data that might pertain to a particular research question, figuring out where you put those documents, making photocopies of those files, coding the appropriate passages with highlighters, physically placing the coded documents next to one another, and then making sense of it all as it literally surrounds you.

    Alternatively, you could convert the entire set of documents into a single full-text computer database. Then, with the assistance of a specialized application for qualitative data analysis, you could use your computer to instantly retrieve, search, code, or sort any phrase on any page of any document — and the entire database could be saved on a disk that fits into your coat pocket.

    For those interested in finding a computer application well-suited for their own qualitative research or just learning more about the capabilities of the latest generation of computer software designed for working with text, Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis by Eben Weitzman and Matthew Miles probably represents the best single investment they can make. Good comparative information on computer programs for qualitative research has generally been hard to find. Many of these applications have been created by individuals and small firms around the United States and the world rather than large software corporations; just figuring out what applications exist or how to place an order for a specific program can turn out to be a major challenge. Furthermore, the literature about the various computer applications has tended to be descriptive rather than analytical, and often comes from the software publishers themselves, who naturally have a vested interest in presenting their product in the best possible light.

    In Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis, Weitzman and Miles change all this by providing a critical, in-depth look at twenty-four separate applications. The authors make an impressive team: Weitzman is a professor of social and organizational psychology with an extensive computer background, and Miles is a social psychologist who is well-known in the field of qualitative research for coauthoring a popular book on qualitative data analysis with Michael Huberman.1 Together, the two researchers have produced an informative, user-friendly sourcebook that can save readers a significant amount of time and money when shopping for a software program for qualitative data analysis.

    Weitzman and Miles clearly put a tremendous amount of work into Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis; they write their reviews of each application in remarkably lucid and jargon-free language in a format reminiscent of Consumer Reports. The level of detail in the reviews reflects their careful and thoughtful field-testing of all twenty-four software programs. Reviews average about ten pages each and actually show you what each application can do, and every review includes a series of realistic visuals (complete with helpful captions) that display what the computer screen looks like when performing various functions with that specific computer program. In addition to describing the special features of each computer program, Weitzman and Miles discuss the strengths and weaknesses of every application and make explicit comparisons with other applications in the same "family." Based on type and function, they place each of the twenty-four programs into one of five categories: text retrievers, textbase managers, code-and-retrieve programs, code-based theory-builders, and conceptual network-builders.

    Each review features complete ordering information, including addresses, phone numbers, and price. Software prices range from $25 to over $1,000; most cost between $100 and $400. Students and faculty members should be happy to learn that many companies offer substantial discounts for educators.

    Sage Publications deserves special credit for their role in publishing Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis. Instead of issuing this book in hardcover and attaching a hefty price tag, they released it as an oversized (8-by-11-inch) paperback and made this valuable information available at a modest cost. Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis is the most comprehensive resource on its subject currently available, and is an excellent starting point for qualitative researchers interested in integrating computer technology more fully into their own data analysis strategies.



    1 Matthew Miles and A. Michael Huberman, Qualitative Data Analysis: An Expanded Sourcebook (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994).
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