The Critical Fan Toolkit

Qualitative Coding: Description and Process

This section aims to make transparent the qualitative coding process, the theories that guided my coding creation, and why I used XML (eXtensive Markup Language) to qualitatively code the interviews. Qualitative coding is a method used in the humanities and social science to analyze textual data, such as interviews. Researchers create a set of codes, which are themes and patterns that appear across their textual data; these codes usually reflect the particular heuristics or theories with which coders are working. Using these codes—or the schema—researchers mark up the textual data and count how often particular themes appear across, make comparisons between, and analyze the textual data. Each researcher who chooses to incorporate qualitative coding may design their schema creation, coding process, and validation methods differently depending on their discipline, the theoretical framework they use, and their overall goals. Because I aim to be transparent with my research methods as well as provide a guide for any researchers hoping to develop their own research toolboxes, I will describe my qualitative coding process and why I chose to use XML.

What is Qualitative Coding?

In the above paragraph, I describe the overall process of qualitative coding, from data collection to analyzing the researchers’ codes. However, envisioning the qualitative coding process through just text alone can be difficult, so I will provide an example using a portion of the interviews from one of the fanfiction writers, specifically Kittya Cullen’s interview.

In order to qualitatively code, textual data is needed to actually build and apply your schema. Kittya Cullen’s original interview transcription is the textual data that I will use in this example. To provide some context, during the interview, I asked her to describe a choice she made in her fanfic in which she linked Asami’s trauma to her relationship with Korra. Kittya says:

“I think I was both going for an understanding of how Asami herself is effected by this really terrible thing we see happen to Korra. Because at that point, everyone has seen someone who they think is all-powerful and infallible, invulnerable to an extent, be ... I don't want to say broken, but be injured in a really drastic way and them not being able to do anything much to help with her recovery in concrete ways.”

In just a few short sentences, Kittya Cullen unravels a complex choice, and I wanted to capture the importance of this moment. However, this short paragraph is just a small percentage of the entire interview, and merely underlining or highlighting the quote would erase the complexities in Kittya’s words.

In its most basic sense, qualitative coding is a form or highlighting or underlining. However, instead of merely underlining text, I “annotated” text that captures a particular pattern or theme. The schema I created, which I describe below, incorporates language and theories form critical fan practices and rhetorical genre studies (visit the framework section of the CFT to read more). Using this schema, I began to mark up specific moments in Kittya Cullen’s interview that captured particular critical fan practices or RGS theories. If you are familiar with HTML, you may recognize the pointy-bracket structure. My codes are the bolded words between the pointy brackets, and the text being encoded are between the beginning <code> and end tags </code>.

<code writing-agency="reflection">I think I was both going for an understanding of how Asami herself is effected by this really terrible thing we see happen to Korra.</code> Because at that point, <code canon="canon-relation"> everyone has seen someone who they think is all-powerful and infallible, invulnerable to an extent, be ... I don't want to say broken, but be injured in a really drastic way and them not being able to do anything much to help with her recovery in concrete ways.</code>

With this document encoded, now the sentence “I think I was both going for an understanding of how Asami herself is effected by this really terrible thing we see happen to Korra” is labeled as “writing agency: reflection,” which is one of the codes used to mark up these interviews. I use the “writing agency: reflection” code to indicate when writers reflect about a specific choice they made while writing. I then use “canon:relation” to encode the last section of this excerpt. “Canon: relation” highlights when interviewees discuss how they identify with or relate to the canonical text. I continue this process throughout all the interviews based on the schema I created.

Once all the textual data is coded, I can conduct further analysis across the different interview, comparing and contrasting different interviewees’ perspectives. For example, I may analyze all the times interviewees reflected on specific writing choices. What were the choices they made? Why might they have made these choices? What do these choices suggest about writing fanfiction and critical fan composing practices? I can frame my arguments and answers to these questions by pulling information from the structured, qualitatively-coded interview documents. For the results of the analysis, visit the interview analysis section of the toolkit (coming soon).

Why Qualitative Coding?

Qualitative coding, according to Johnny Saldaña (2015), is a heuristic, or how knowledge is modeled and shaped. Understanding qualitative coding as a heuristic emphasizes that the creation of schemas, the choices made when marking up the textual data, and the methods for analyzing the marked up texts are all framed through the particular theoretical lens and discipline in which the researcher works. As I molded and created my schema to mark up the interviews with, I made deliberate decisions about thematic patterns I wanted to highlight in these interviews based on both the critical fans and rhetoric genre studies fields, which I will describe later in the “Schema Creation” section. The process of qualitative coding—from data collection, to schema creation, to coding the document, to analyzing the codes—models and makes transparent researchers’ understandings of data, and therefore unravels and reveals their knowledge.

Qualitative coding models both researchers’ knowledge and models the modeling process. In her description of “humanities computing,” Julia Flanders (2009) argues, “it is rather about modeling that knowledge and even in some cases about modeling the modeling process. It is an inquiry into how we know things and how we present them to ourselves for study, realized through a variety of tools which make the consequences of that inquiry palpable.” Flanders is focusing more on data modeling as found in the digital humanities, not qualitative coding. Data modeling in the digital humanities may include marking up archival documents to make them digitally readable (not just readable on computer screens, but readable by the computer) by using forms of XML. Abbie DeCamp (2020) explicitly connects the process Flanders describes to qualitative coding, arguing it mirrors the types of data modeling described in the digital humanities: “The process of encoding forces an incredibly close reading - one must read and process all parts of a document, thinking deeply about each portion, sometimes down to the word, to accurately tag a document. That is, building in itself is a knowledge-making process.” Building schemas, using and creating qualitative coding tools, and coding textual documents are knowledge-making processes, processes that simultaneously construct and manifest knowledge. As Flanders argues, this process “require[s] hat one distance oneself from one’s own representational strategies and turn them about in one’s hands like a complex and alien bauble.”