Can NVivo Qualitative Empirical Software Help Manage Oceans Of Research?
posted by Dan Filler
One of the real challenges for a legal scholar (and probably researchers in many other social science disciplines as well) is figuring out what to do with all those interesting articles you read. Do you make notebooks organized by topic? If so, what happens when a piece has something important to say on multiple topics? Do you create index cards, or their digital equivalents, with relevant quotes? Or, like me, do you find yourself rediscovering the wheel several times – putting an article aside in stack on day one, and rediscovering it on Lexis or Westlaw four months later when you’re searching for a different issue?
I find that keeping control of existing literature, a critical process for those who publish in law reviews (which demand a footnote to support even the most mundane statements), turns out to be a burdensome and sometimes unsuccessful pursuit. As a result, I’m very intrigued by the idea of using NVivo to help.
What is NVivo? It’s a leading qualitative empirical research software. Yes, Virginia, I did say qualitative. As many folks know, one of my biggest beefs with Empirical Legal Studies is that some of its followers have marginalized qualitiative research – so much that many people with only a passing awareness of ELS believe that all empirical work is quantitative. That discussion is for another day, however. The point is that qual researchers use software to help them keep track of their data…which is to say, their texts. My understanding of NVivo – formerly known as NUD*IST – is that you can take texts (like law review articles) and drop them into the software. You can then create coding fields, and mark selected text as part of such fields. (A discussion of the capacities of qual software is here.) For example, if one were studying the way that courts discuss victims in rape cases, and had created a sample for investigation, one might load the selected cases into NVivo. As the researcher creates particular fields – for example “victim dressed provocatively”, “victim drinking”, “victim previously worked as prostitute” (as well as “circuit court”, “appellate court”, “female judge”) – she can then mark text in each case that would fit into the field. This allows her, at a later point, to do targeted searches for particular marked themes – and also allows her to subdivide by the traits of the cases. Thus, she can identify all the decisions by female judges that identify females as victims, and break them out by year.
I wonder whether many legal scholars who don’t do qualitative work could benefit from this software simply by using it as a way of containing, coding and organizing all the articles they read in the course of their literature review. I haven’t heard of anyone doing this, but it seems like it might make a lot of sense – particularly for somewhat disorganized researchers. It might not take advantage of all the power of NVivo, but it could be the equivalent of the smartest filing system ever created.
Does anyone have experience with NVivo, or other similar software (like Atlas), that might shed light on this? By the way, many schools have site licenses for this software, so many of those interested in trying this out can do so without spending a dime.