The Coding Cave and the Performative Fishbowl

by Sarah Scarsbrook

doi: 10.18278/aia.

Sarah Scarsbrook is an artist, researcher and lecturer.  She is a current Ph.D. candidate at Birkbeck working on the thesis The Artist and the Art School: Professionalisation in London Art Schools from 1986 to 2016.  She has experience working across London’s arts and cultural sector and focusses her research interests on the effect of art education, the creative industries, and cultural and educational policy on visual artists.  Her artwork is thematically interrelated with her research, hinged on notions of identity, authorship, serendipity and duration.  Sarah regularly exhibits, presents and publishes her work on related topics in the UK and internationally.

The Coding Cave and the Performative Fishbowl. In a small underground room in Birkbeck College, London, the events in the film took place over seven days in autumn, 2017.  The film shows the axial coding iteration of grounded theory in action.  In total, around 800 hours had already been spent first cycle coding the qualitative data taken from twelve interviews with artists about their art school experience.  This was the first time the data was printed out into its physical form and could be interacted with in this material way.  Incorporating spoken notes, movement and editing processes, the film is a visual memo and a document of Scarsbrook’s research being performed.  An interconnected relationship is played out between the conceptual, the self-reflexive and the absurd in a representation of prolonged physical, emotional and conceptual immersion amid, on top and under the skin of the data.

Briefly describe the overall project for which you are using grounded theory?

I am using grounded theory methodology in my ongoing Ph.D. research in the Film, Media, and Cultural Studies Department at Birkbeck College, London. For my study, I’m examining the views of artists on their formal undergraduate Fine Art training in London art schools since the mid-1980s, with a focused interest on their experiences of professional development. To clarify, in the UK, the term art school refers to the educational institutions, universities, and colleges that deliver Fine Art education for foundation, undergraduate, and postgraduate study. From the outset, my study was conceived to be an exploratory one, and grounded theory methodology was chosen at the beginning because of its suitability for this type of study and my research enquiry. The central questions I am asking in my study that inspired my use of this methodological approach are: what are the participating artists’ motivations for attending art school relating to transitioning from art student to “professional” artist? And, what are artists’ encounters with furthering professionalisation in London art schools and how has this been met, incorporated, or rejected by the artists investigated? The interview was chosen as my data collection method as a method that is suited to the grounded theory approach. I carried out interviews with 12 artists from four different London art schools across three graduate exit points in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s.

As an artist myself, who studied at a London art school during this time, my research is being carried out from a position of personal experience, understanding of the terrain, and wanting to know more about this key area of an artist’s development. Through my ongoing study, I am interested in exploring the reasons why artists go to art school, what their views are on formal art training and the institutions that provide it, and what they perceive they take from their education related to professional development and more widely. I wanted to talk to artists and listen to their experiences of their art schooling and provide a platform for their voices to be heard. I decided upon the timeframe as being from the mid-1980s to the mid-2010s, and the London location, through several scoping exercises, which indicated a marked increase in the implementation of a pedagogy that focused on professional development at the London art schools during that time. Grounded theory embodies an adaptable and flexible style for analysing qualitative data, and is also a methodology that encourages self-reflexivity, so was chosen for these aspects too. I considered that using this approach would allow me to incorporate and manage my experience as an art graduate alongside that of the experiences of my participants by utilising the specific grounding and distancing techniques, and constant comparative processes this method is known for.

For those who do not know grounded theory as a method, how would you summarise it? 

Grounded theory can be summarised as a social scientific methodology used in qualitative research enquiry for interpreting and explaining phenomena, elucidating narratives, and developing theory from data. The methods and procedures used in grounded theory methodology vary, from data collection approaches in interviewing and participant observation to a range of analytic processes carried out in data coding, theoretical sampling, and analytic memoing. As a methodology, it has a broad history that has evolved flexibly with the changing ontological and epistemological approaches to research, that have been dependent on the researchers who have chosen to employ grounded theory in a study. It’s fair to say, that there is not one grounded theory approach, but many, and in my experience, each are as varied as the researchers who use this methodology. As an immediate caveat, however, I feel the need to add, this does not give researchers a licence to purely do what they want and then call it a grounded theory approach; there are some specific methods and procedures that are necessarily employed, but I acknowledge that each researcher will carry these methods out by their own design. The grounded theory methodological approach begins from the conception of a study and continues right through to the conceptualisation of a narrative position or theory.

To give a brief historical context, it was conceived of in the late 1960s by Barney Glaser and Anslem Strauss as a postpositivist social scientific qualitative research methodology. Since then it has evolved and there have been different incarnations of the grounded theory approach based on changing research paradigms and researcher’s perspectives over time. There are many useful guides on grounded theory to aid beginners and for those who continue to develop and use this approach. As a relative novice, I have found in particular, The Sage Handbook of Grounded Theory (2007), edited by Antony Bryant and Kathy Charmaz, offers a comprehensively broad and inclusive contemporary reading of the methodology. This is a practical and critical volume that outlines grounded theory’s background as a postpositivist method developed by Glaser and Strauss, rooted in pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. It continues by interrogating its relevance and development as a social constructivist method, relating to Charmaz’s approach, that takes into consideration the researcher’s reflexivity and positionality, that I agree with, as always bearing influence on outcomes and findings in somewhat partial ways. More recently, Charmaz, Thornberg, and Keane’s chapter Evolving Grounded Theory and Social Justice Inquiry in The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, fifth edition (edited by Denzin and Lincoln in 2017) continues to outline the evolution and relevance of the methodology from the constructivist perspective today.

Other handbooks and guides I’ve found useful, to get a sense of the different approaches are Corbin and Strauss’s Basics of Qualitative Research, fourth edition from 2015, which gives guidance on interactionist grounded theory. In essence, this most recent edition remains true to Strauss’s interactionist take on grounded theory, but is mainly now representative of Juliet Corbin’s perspective since Strauss’s death in 1996, which today also incorporates some of Charmaz’s constructivist approach as well as Adele Clarke’s more situated perspectives. Clarke’s 2005 Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn is another useful guide to consult, which considers itself to be a reappraisal of grounded theory that is “congruent” with that of Charmaz. Clarke’s grounded theory is one set in the context of postmodernism, and embeds poststructural and feminist perspectives of the situations and contexts of meaning making, which I have found to be particularly relevant and have integrated within my approach, especially in the process shown in the film and in the making of the film itself.

To get a sense of what using grounded theory as a methodology entails, Uwe Flick gives a succinct indication in Doing Grounded Theory (2018) that is based on the classic and continually developing iterations of grounded theory described above. He suggests that today there are four central features of a grounded theory study. These are, “minimal preconceptions about the issue under study, simultaneous data collection and analysis, using various interpretations for data, and aiming at constructing middle range theories as the outcome of the research” (Flick 2018:3).

In my experience of using grounded theory methodology, I have found it to be open, flexible, and adaptable. Deeply critical and reflective analysis is afforded through the specific coding processes that permit the inclusion of the researcher’s position, yet also allow for an important analytic distance at all times through the continuous comparative techniques required of the researcher using this approach. All of the slightly different strands, since the 1960s, involve what is known as the “coding” of data. In my case, the data takes the form of transcribed interviews, and the coding was carried out over three “cycles” or stages. The first cycle of coding refers to studying the transcript, in a line-by-line way, and retrieving comments and points of interest around the research enquiry (but not limited to this), that refer to the specific type of code being used. This is also known as open or initial coding as it opens up the data and its many possible interpretations. It is common to use more than one type of code in this initial stage. In my study, I used four different types of open/initial codes simultaneously. I used Descriptive code—where, using nouns, I wrote a short quick description, usually in one word, of what was happening in the text, In Vivo code—where I extracted pertinent verbatim words and comments of interest from the transcript, Values code—where I assessed whether what was being said were assertions of a “Value,” an “Attitude,” or a “Belief,” and what that might be, (this allowed me to make meaning from the words while also assessing my own beliefs, attitudes, and values in the process), and lastly, Process code—where I used gerund words used to describe the action, that is, what I felt was happening on different levels that included psychologically, emotionally, physically, and practically, and also conceptually during the interviews as relayed in the transcript.

During the first cycle, many different ideas surfaced for me, some relating to and others seemingly not relating to my overarching research enquiry; all were written about however as part of my analytic memoing process, which is another key method in the grounded theory approach. The analytic memos are usually written, and are made from the beginning of the project, becoming more and less central throughout the project. They are important for capturing and developing ideas, thoughts, and concepts, and also for positioning yourself and being self-reflective of this during a grounded theory study. During coding, they continue to be made throughout the process, as and when an idea emerges, to seize a notion, observe a pattern or grasp an emerging concept so that it might be developed further later. After the first cycle of coding is complete, which was focused on individual interviews, I put my data through a second cycle, sometimes called axial coding, whereby all of the codes from the first cycle could be cross-referenced and inter-examined. I did this to uncover further patterns and common concepts among the data as a whole. The outcome of this stage was a mix of distilled reductions (though not in a reductive sense) of the existing codes along with some new codes from the cross-referencing that are amalgamated to form what are known as core categories or themes and keys. This second cycle of coding is the stage I explore in my film The Coding Cave and the Performative Fishbowl. After this stage, I had discovered 21 overarching themes and categories. A third and final stage was carried out, also known as selective or theoretical coding, which I found necessary to distil the 21 themes and categories I had further, until I had a smaller selection of themes to work with. These are known in grounded theory as keys and contain categories and subcategories. This final step in the coding process is carried out to condense, sort, and finally move toward developing the theory, which happens through writing up.

Why did you decide to make the film?

My impetus to make the film is bound to both my being an artist and to my grounded theory approach used in my research. The film is a snapshot of part of my working process, which I had decided I wanted to do to document my second cycle of coding from the moment I had decided to print out all of my first cycle data to second cycle code physically in a space. It was a significant key step in my project that felt momentous at the time, given the many hours of desk-based coding I had carried out in the first cycle. For this iteration of my coding process, I printed out a slightly condensed version of the codes generated in the first cycle, and made 12 reams of data from them, one per interview, that could be rolled down to navigate and make more meaning from these numerous codes from the first iteration; this was coined as the Scarsbrook Rolling Method. As the film, and caption states at the beginning of this article, this was the first time the data had been printed out into a physical form and it was immediately noticeable that the research took on a different feel on a somatic level. As a researcher, having the data physically printed out provided a completely new and exciting way to be among my data, and, as an artist, it felt significant and more typical for me to work physically with materials in this way. The way of working I created felt akin to my artist practice, creatively making, doing, and thinking through interacting with ideas, views, and positions in a physical and material-based way. I had a desire to document the process to, in part, capture a sense of the performativity produced by my operating in the space I had created and of the performance of research that would take place there; of the physicality and situatedness of my enquiry at this point in my grounded theory approach. To document this vastly different way of interacting with the data from the desk-bound routine of the first cycle, it felt important to document it as an exploration of working in a more bodily way with and among the materiality of the data.

Another reason for having a camera in the space was to develop a new and more appropriate way of making analytic memos, given the different interaction that was occurring through the method I had developed to work with. During the first cycle of coding, I was desk-bound, which at times was admittedly physically frustrating and often physically pain inducing. For ease in this situation, I had typed up my analytic memos in unison with working on the spreadsheet I had created on my laptop to contain all of my first cycle codes. However, having significantly changed the way I interacted with the data for the second cycle of coding, I wanted to use having a camera in the room not only to document me and this stage in my process, but also to develop spoken analytic memos to accompany this practice, to consider and question what was happening in the data in a way that felt more appropriate, given the physical interactivity of the method I had created as a working environment. Having the camera rolling to film this part of my process was then also a decisive and pragmatic way to incorporate analytic memoing as a major component of the qualitative data coding process in grounded theory methodology, in documenting my thoughts, ideas, concepts, and making connections as they surfaced throughout the coding process straight to camera. Being able to speak these to camera allowed me to capture key discoveries in situ as they occurred, much like the typed memos of the first cycle made at my desk alongside my spreadsheet. The practice of analytic memoing is not to carry out all of the coding and then write up the analysis of ideas later, but to seize them in the moment as they come through the coding. For me, having a camera rolling with me in the room while I coded seemed like a natural and practical way to achieve this. As ideas surfaced, while using handwritten post-it notes to document the emerging codes, as you’ll see me doing, I was able to speak my thoughts and ideas of emerging concepts, akin to my written analytic memos in the first cycle, but straight to camera. I also made separate voice memos using a voice recording device, to capture notions as they arose, which were also incorporated into the film.

The actual making of the film, including the editing process, then took on another dimension, and while it is not intended as a culmination of analytic memos, neither is it purely about what I did. Rather, it provided me with a way of exploring my experience of the process, as a researcher and as an artist. Throughout my grounded theory approach, I, like many others who use this methodology, found myself dealing with my entanglement with the data. The method is known for its requirements of researchers to be able to come in and out of the data, “grounding” and “distancing” through the constant comparative procedures carried out. Using this method became a highly self-reflexive process for me and so the film was also made as a way to explore this entanglement, my self-reflexivity, and my subjectivity. As well, I hope it offers some insight into common feelings and experiences of not only the grounded theory approach, but in carrying out qualitative research more widely, and what happens when we hit walls, have to face insecurities in our thinking or experience the joyous and validating eye and mind-opening moments of discoveries and knowing, feeling like it is all going to be worth it after all.

The decision to title the film The Coding Cave and the Performative Fishbowl is twofold. The “coding cave” part refers to the cave-like places I like to create for myself to work in. I ensure that my coding caves provide me with just enough comfort, sustenance, daylight, food, water, sometimes herbal tea (the basics to meet my needs) to propagate the right conditions for me to work away (hopefully) undisturbed for as long as it takes. The “performative fishbowl” part of the title springs from exactly that the feeling of “performing” as a researcher while being watched by onlookers through the large glass windows in the room I worked in. Once the research took on a physical form which involved my body, and the necessity to traverse, stand on top of and navigate the reams of codes, the space I worked in took on a stage-like presence, with me at the centre, feeling like I was enacting my research. While I was examining the performance of artistic identity asserted by my participants revealing itself through my analysis, I was dealing with myself as an entangled subject and participating artist in my own study, performing being a researcher and an artist simultaneously. I deliberately put myself under surveillance, and, at times, one of my Ph.D. supervisors observed me from behind the camera, while I perform being her student, being a researcher, but all the time being conscious of being filmed in action, acting out my grounded theory approach, perhaps alluding to the famed interactivity of this methodology. The room I worked in to carry out this stage was underground, with limited daylight and thus even more cave-like, but also had two large windows on two of the walls where people going by could see in, and some, stood and watched as I “performed” from within what felt like a fishbowl. The idea of the fishbowl, of course, also contains connotations of going round and round, and back and forth, as an apt analogy for those who carry out in-depth qualitative data analysis of any kind, and I’m sure will resonate with those who work with grounded theory.

What are your main findings so far?

As my study is currently ongoing, I will keep this answer fairly brief, and focus on the present stage of my Ph.D. project, where I am in the midst of building the bridge between my coded data, which contains all of my analysis so far therein, and writing up my theory. In this stage, so far, I continue to be surprised and excited to discover that I keep finding out even more about my data than I thought I could from the rigorous in-depth coding techniques I’ve carried out. During the process of coding the data using grounded theory methodology, it is common to maintain a distance from the existing theoretical analysis in the area of study, as per one of Flick’s central features I highlighted in a previous answer. This is a deliberate move, so as to resist, consciously or otherwise, bringing ideas into the coding stage from elsewhere, but to rather keep the focus on what is happening in the data. Connecting my findings from the coded data with extant theory has been a challenging step, but one which has permitted the situating of my project more firmly within the body of existing literature and work that addresses professional creative identities in arts educational and cultural policy settings.

To briefly summarise on findings so far, however, the overarching themes I am focusing on are in the areas of motivation, absorption, and recovery, all of which are situated in the context of what art graduates have told me of their art school experience. As my study sits now, I can see from my findings that my theory development through writing up is focused on; the motivations and reasons given for going to art school that are situated around identity, seeking professionalisation and also elements of serendipity; what happened at art school in terms of the experience of learning, what was absorbed, and what was deflected, and what happened afterwards around self-regulation, adapting and recovering from art school. All of which, I view as interrelated to professionalised and professionalising artist identities and the art schools as a major factor in the processes of professionalisation.

There is an interesting distinction between the reflexive and self-reflexive qualities of doing research as opposed to analysing data. How does the latter differ from one’s positioning as a researcher in the field or the interview room?

In my film, though the participants are by this stage far removed from the interview room and while the data being analysed is a group of codes I have generated from the first cycle of analysis; the other artists are still very present, and are represented through the ongoing reflection and self-reflexivity that I show as continually taking place. Though I am shown with the data and the participants in my research are not necessarily “shown” in the film, aside from being represented in the 12 reams of codes, this is a deliberate act to highlight the contemplations and self-reflections within the context of my research and that occur more widely. Whether in the “field” or in the “interview room,” whether being filmed or being recorded by a Dictaphone, there still remains both reflexive and self-reflexive interaction through the enquiry. Notes I made before, during, and after the interviews serve as analytic memos in grounded theory that are made and referred back to at all stages in the approach.

With grounded theory methodology, there is a constant overlap and conflation of data collection, analysing, and theorising. These elements of the research are carried out simultaneously by the researcher and are not considered distinct. Doing research and analysing are interconnected and there is little separation of the two. According to Charmaz, Thornberg and Keane (2017), the notion of the division between theorising and carrying out research is something actively rejected by its founders Glaser and Strauss, as this was seen to be part of the positivist tradition they were moving on from. In grounded theory, the constant comparative method that affords simultaneous data collection and concurrent analysis blends the field into an analytic space for reflection and vice versa.

I would suggest that every researcher, whether using this methodology or not is reflective up to a point, but self-reflection, in particular, is a big part of the grounded theory methodology. It is useful to remember that self-reflexivity was deeply embedded in the first study that used grounded theory carried out by its founders who were driven to consider death and dying in hospitals, while both having relatives who were dying in hospitals. Reflecting on one’s relatedness, position, and questioning one’s assumptions, biases, and ideas about the situation under investigation are embedded in the fabric of grounded theory and are encouraged to be considered and evaluated in using the systematic methods used in this methodology. Self-reflection starts at the beginning of the process with grounded theory, occurring in the first instances of coming up with the initial research enquiry, through to the interview room and when simultaneously analysing the data. This is in part facilitated by the emphasis on consistently making analytic memos, but it also embedded in every stage of the methodological approach.

How “grounded” is a grounded theory which utilises an overly technical language (“data,” “axial coding”)? 

The language of grounded theory is something that has been attributed to its founders’ backgrounds. According to Charmaz, Thornberg, and Keane, the use of terms such as “data” and “coding” stems mainly from Glaser’s contribution to the formation of the methodology whose background was in positivist quantitative research. Though the language was developed in the physical sciences, these terms are still used today in grounded theory as a methodology of the social sciences. The language of grounded theory was developed in the context of Glaser’s positivistic approaches that pre-date the formation of grounded theory methodology. This scientific language is something Charmaz discusses in her constructivist approach, where she attributes the early iteration of grounded theory and the language used as being derided for being conventionally quantitative. Over time, while retaining the underlying premise of grounded theory, though the perspectives of those developing this methodology have evolved and continue to do so, the language has been retained.

The word “grounded” here refers to the theory being grounded in the data; that the theory comes from the data up. It is not a hypothesis-led investigation therefore, but is widely considered inductive, or according to Clarke’s situated version is abductive. As a social scientific research methodology, using terms like “data” has become common, and in qualitative data analysis, “coding” is used widely and not only when doing grounded theory. Different meanings of the term “grounded theory” itself have also been discussed. According to Flick (2018:7), “grounded theory” can refer to a type of theory developed by using particular methods to investigate empirical material, while also referring to a specific methodological approach and the adherence to a specific attitude in the field according to Strauss and Corbin, Charmaz or Clarke, for example. No doubt as further iterations and versions continue to evolve and develop so too might some of the language, the incorporation of “abduction,” for example. Though, as seems to have been the case so far, while the methodology and those who use it develop, they also maintain an homage to its roots in retaining the language of Glaser in the processes used.

There is an agonistic, experiential and relational quality in axial coding. You mention “connecting with” data and “feeling each other,” as well as “dominating it.” Is there a power relation at play in data analysis? Does this extend to our research participants?

Using grounded theory is an intensely exhaustive and meticulously detailed methodological approach to research. At the beginning of my film, there is an opening note about the length of time I had spent during the first cycle of coding, totaling around 800 hours, prior to the axial coding stage shown in the film. As I mentioned previously, this time had been desk-based work carried out on a laptop, so printing out the data enabled and furthered my connection with the data in a different, more bodily way, and yes, for me, in this sense, I can say there was a different feeling of power relation at play in this context. Standing on top of my data gave me an empowered feeling to take on the challenge I had set myself, that was to cross-examine all of the coded data I had generated so far in the process.

There is also a sense of me coming to terms with, or meeting the insecurities of my analysis in carrying it out this way. The film shows the performance of my insecurity and of my attempt to control my situation. The data by this stage occupied a powerful position in my life and the process I chose to confront this was an acknowledgment of this in the way I chose to control the data; fixing it onto rolls, eking it out slowly, controlling it through the apparatus I constructed for it to hang from and from which I could navigate my way through it. Hanging the data in the space was as much about containing it as it was about freeing it from the confines of my computer. In accommodating the work in the room, I built the controlling variables around me to exercise my power and control over the material within the parameters I chose. I chose to observe this, through filming the whole process, and in doing so formulated another power relation with myself of becoming the observed. Choosing this space, and these parameters and to observe myself permitted me to deal with my insecurities head on.

There had been a sense, or a doubt, at times for me in the preceding step that I might not get to this stage. To use a well-trodden analogy, it sometimes felt like the mountain was too steep and slippery, or that I didn’t have the right equipment or enough rope to climb further, so by the time I was at the axial coding stage, it was admittedly a moment of joy and pride to have reached that stage, although also still tinged with slight trepidation as to how to tackle the new amorphous task I was embarking on. The sense of “dominating it” and the empowerment therein was to do with that aspect, which drew on all of the work I had done and the insecurities and uncertainties I had encountered in getting there. In reality, when I had reached the axial coding stage, of course, I found I had only climbed to a ledge, I actually had, and presently still have, a while to go before I reach the top of my mountain.

The expression I made of me “dominating” my data, after feeling like it had “dominated me for so long” was thus referring to reaching a certain point, dealing with my insecurities, and feeling self-assured to tackle my next steps, almost in a pre-match pep-talk sporting kind of way, and also acknowledging that in this iteration, I could literally stand on top of my data, while I worked; operating from a physical position of dominance. Thinking in these terms reveals an interesting dynamic in considering the control we place on our data and on ourselves. This could act as a form of continuing motivation, to notice our feelings toward our research during the processes we use and the apparatuses we construct in order to traverse and negotiate our work in progress, especially if we create situations where we might surmount insecurities and feel more in control.

In terms of the possible power relation with my participants, I have had only the utmost respect for them and gratitude that they wanted to take part and provide me with the valuable data for me to be able to carry out my work. Without their generosity, willingness, and openness, there would be no project. In using grounded theory, I could really do all of that justice, through the ways that analysis is carried out with this methodology. A grounded theory researcher is challenged to go deep into the data, grounding and distancing, and constantly pushing and questioning the self and the validity of ones’ ideas and thoughts through the process to ensure as best as is possible that the participants are fairly represented. As an artist myself, tasked with examining and representing the positions of other artists as fairly as possible, I am especially motivated to this cause. For this to be a justified and fair representation, using the working methods I have chosen, I have been able to maintain that what the participant has said always comes first. In that sense, one could say that the participant’s voices are empowered through this careful and considered treatment. When conscientiously followed, I feel it would be almost impossible to push a specific agenda using a grounded theory approach and thus skew the power play in favour of the researcher. What was also important for me, using this methodology, was the interchange between the interviewer and interviewee, where for me, my in-interview process was to actively listen and create a space in which the participants felt safe and able to tell me what they wanted to. Through careful and meticulous analysis of the data, I feel a balance of power has been struck between what the artists told me and how this has been interpreted as related to my research enquiry and my experience as an artist.

The data analysis process is an overwhelming and physically demanding process. In the video, after a long day analysing data, you wonder whether you have got “enough stamina” to continue. What does the project tell us about the bodily dimensions of data analysis in grounded theory? 

The film is a document of the atmosphere of a particular stage of my research process. As an artist engaged in both performance and filmmaking, the medium of film was a way to capture my somatic existence as a performer enacting research. For me, it’s always important to contemplate and be aware of our bodies as we go about our worlds, which extends to research and how we carry this out and what it feels and looks like in our bodies to do so. All along I have been fascinated by bodily markers of my work from the impression my body leaves in a place I am researching in, to the stiffness I feel in my neck, or pins and needles I get in my toes from a sitting position. I’ve noted the dents my heals leave on a sofa cushion, and the ring marks left by my umpteenth consumption of a cup of tea that’s been continually topped up throughout the day. My approach to coding is similar to that of my approach to art making, and would entail me getting into a working zone that meant I would be engaged in the activity for hours upon end, not really aware of, or noticing that time was going by, and thus not noticing basic bodily needs of thirst, hunger, or rest/restroom breaks either. I find this way of working is tiring yet rewarding, and works for me. Having the “stamina” to work in this way is thus a part of what I feel is required of me as someone who has chosen to research using a grounded theory approach using the method I developed for this stage in my process.

I find the bodily dimension of my data analysis is always implicit in what I do and how I go about my work. In the earlier stage of coding, this meant sitting in front of my laptop for hours, due to the requirements of that stage in the process, that entailed systematically entering information into a spreadsheet I had developed to contain my work and the amorphous amount of codes generated. But, for the second cycle, this would change, and excitingly I found myself standing among the codes I had spent hours working on already. For me, my specific physicality relating to my approach was not only performative, in that I surveilled myself in a room carrying out research, but, it was also practically considered too. The apparatus was constructed with my bodily dimensions and limitations in mind in making sure I could stand, reach, and also see the top of the data, and be comfortable while kneeling, crouching, or sitting on the data, while analysing. The physicality of what I had created to work with had parallels with making art works, which in turn led to feeling more comfortable with working with the data from artists, as I connected with myself as an artist in the space. The limitations of the space I had secured to work in at Birkbeck, the university I’m based at in London, also meant my body had to adapt, in more than one way; according to space and time. I had a semi-self-imposed timeframe that would ensure I adhered to a fairly strict working practice and tight-ish deadline, and which also meant the space could be used by others again when I was finished. For practical reasons, I wanted to be able to read through as much data as possible at one time, but as I would have needed to rent something the length of a bowling alley to unroll my full data reams, I unrolled enough of the data to be able to work at one end of the room on this and also have a space at the other end of the room I was working in to position the cross-examined concepts in the form of post-it notes as they surfaced. As demanding as the self-imposed deadline was to meet, I was happy to prove to myself I did have enough stamina. Perhaps I can admit to this being a part of my underlying motivation in the first instance, to put myself and my body through the arduous and taxing task I had set myself.

The sensuous, affective dimension of data analysis is quite prominent in the video. For example, the data needs to be visualised in order to be coded, while the materiality of the data on paper surrounding you in the room is further intensified by its aural presence––as you say “The narrative…is buzzing…vibrating.” This is not something that is covered in grounded theory. Can you comment on this feature?

The narrative, that is, analysing it and also finding and explaining it, is part of using a grounded theory approach. As per Denzin and Lincoln (in Flick 2014:7) who discuss a fifth moment, out of eight that are identified as definitive moments of change in qualitative data research after postmodernism; I am looking for the narrative. Flick’s (2014:7) interpretation of this is that narratives have replaced theories, as being more specific than grand theories, to fit local and delimited situations and problems. In effect, researchers who use this methodology are constantly dealing with personal narratives, that is, the stories people tell of their lives in interviews, in order to get the end result, which often takes the form of a narrative that explains phenomena in these stories. Implicitly, grounded theory has become a methodology that today embodies a narrative approach. Because of my awareness of this, that I know the end result is a narrative, I can’t help but search for this. While keeping control, I am also seeking the narrative. The film documents what I do with the data in order to find that narrative. It charts my hopes in finding it, which motivates me and gives me the self-assurance I need to find it. The exciting moment arrives and is documented in the film when the narrative is sensed, when I can feel it buzzing in the room, which encourages me to strive on.

With all of the data being in one space in its physical form, as it was for me in that part of my process shown in the film, once I was in the throes of working in this way it soon became very exciting to be among the codes I had generated from the first cycle of coding. A key idea related to finding the narrative in grounded theory is the notion of “emergence,” through which theory and the narrative is believed, especially by Glaser, to surface. This is a disputed term, however, due to the supposed lack therein of a subjective research position, which is in line with Charmaz’s social constructivist approach to grounded theory that acknowledges the researcher’s partiality in the research. From my perspective, I agree with this aspect of the constructivist position in that I see research as being to an extent partial due to what the researcher brings to it from their own experience based on their understanding of and involvement with the world. Emergence, however, for want of a different word, perhaps materialisation, realisation, or extraction works as well, does seem to happen. This is what I was noticing at that point, where I felt the narrative was buzzing and vibrating. By that point, I had an excess of ideas and concepts churning around my thoughts, popping up, coming out of, and being lifted from the reams of codes, and being distilled and refined through this practice. The room, or maybe it was me, seemed to vibrate with the excitement of these emerging findings and discoveries taking me one step closer to the narrative.

In reality, there was no actual sound of buzzing in the room, or really much in the way of specific auditory quality to the work, but for a few paper sounds as it brushed together when moved through the rolling process and perhaps a felt tip pen squeaking against the post-it notes while a code was conceptualised. The main actual sound came from my movement and my singing of song lyrics of popular music that referred to specific categories that I was labeling in the data, like, George Michael’s “Freedom” and “Faith,” David Bowie’s “Fame,” and Chrissie Hynde’s lyric “Special” from her hit Brass in Pocket. These songs and more sprang into my head and out of my mouth as I created a live soundtrack to accompany my working process and which I felt became a fitting musical tribute that I performed as a marker of my time in the room.

The role of the post it note in idea-generation. See e.g.: Any comments?

My decision to use the humble post-it note was not consciously, as is referenced in the film, to elucidate some kind of “Beautiful Mind”-esque backdrop to me or my world as I coded. It was not to convey a kind of frenzied or feverish approach to promote an image of the hard-at-work or semi-crazed researcher-in-action. It was, in reality, much more practical than that. It was to facilitate me getting my ideas, in the form of codes, written down quickly and physically onto the data reams and then easily off again and onto larger pieces of paper on the opposite walls when grouping these into key themes. It was part of a specific and deliberate distillation process at this stage in the method. The post-it notes indicate a next step in my process and give a physical appearance to the process of reduction. The analytic memoing is where the ideas are opened up in greater depth, but the post-it note was a continuation, albeit in a different format, of the coding procedure from the first cycle; that of conceptualization and distillation. It is not used as a substitute for, or a “decontextualisation” of deeper thinking, as the article alludes to, but in my approach is part of the reduction processes involved in grounded theory. I chose to use the post-it note for its simple size, pragmatic form, and its ease of maneuvrability. The context in which I use the post-it was a way I developed to approach what I wanted to do at this stage, and much like the specific apparatus I created, and the Scarsbrook Rolling Method I developed to carry this out, it was a practical choice to interact with the data, to be able to sift through the codes, write a post-it note, and stick it down on the relevant position on the reams. In order to find my way back to that position once the post-it note had been moved to the larger pieces of paper that contained the overarching emergent themes, I used an alpha-numeric code, already developed for the computerised version I worked on in the first cycle, to locate the participant, the type of code, and its place in a given transcript.

Using the post-it notes did provide an interesting shift in the coding practice as the “handwritten” came into play. Not only the handwritten, but also items were color-coded using a range of different coloured felt tips, so the post-it note’s role became an integral vehicle at this juncture. It enabled the physical “cutting” and “pasting” of codes, lifting and shifting the codes out of the coded reams and onto the large pieces of paper that acted as grouping zones where the post-it notes were gathered and given a new home as this part of the conceptualisation and distillation process was carried out. Once allocated in an overarching code zone, also known as a theme or category, on a larger piece of paper at the opposite end of the room, the post-it note codes have remained in their positions on these pieces of paper since, and can be referred back to if necessary.

For me, the idea of embarking on a physical practice of coding over using a computer-assisted process, as alluded to in the article, is preferable for many reasons. Though there are various computer software that can be used in qualitative data coding practices, I would always prefer to be in touch with my data. However, the advantages are posited by many who use grounded theory, Corbin and Strauss (2015) suggest they can be useful and attractive for novices who are insecure or tentative about how to go about entering the data, that they provide a way in and a way of organising and sorting through huge amounts of data. It is also suggested that many computer programs have been specifically developed for use with grounded theory and so are more difficult to use with other qualitative research approaches (Flick 2018). For me, however, I prefer to be in control of the organisation, filtering, elucidating, and conceptualisation of looking for the meaning in what my participants have said. There seems to be a tension between the physical and the nonphysical nature of using and not using a computer to aid our methods. I see all as physical, but would certainly prefer to be more physically engaged with my work than less through the use of computer-assisted processes.

Using grounded theory to carry out my research has, for me, also been particularly attractive because I have similar experiences to those of my participants. The physicality of my process has enabled my dealing with the entanglement of myself with my topic through using specific approaches to my data, which using a software would, I doubt be possible. On reflecting on the article, the post-it note in my approach provided something I don’t believe an algorithm could, which is a physical, hands on approach, where I could think through interacting, rationalise through enacting, and generate ideas through physically relating to my data and then fold this back into the process on my continuing journey en route to the generation of my grounded theory.



Bryant, Antony, and Kathy Charmaz (eds.). (2007) The SAGE Handbook of Grounded Theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Charmaz, Kathy. (2006) Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. London: Sage.

Charmaz, Kathy, Robert Thornberg, and Elaine Keane. (2017) Evolving Grounded Theory and Social Justice Inquiry. In Handbook of Qualitative Research, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 411–443. 5th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Clarke, Adele. (2005) Situational Analyses: Grounded Theory Mapping after the Postmodern Turn. London: Sage.

Corbin, Juliet, and Anselm Strauss. (2015) Basics of Qualitative Research, 4th ed. London: Sage.

Flick, Uwe (ed.). (2014) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Analysis. London: Sage.

­­–––––– (2018) Doing Grounded Theory: Sage Qualitative Research Kit, 2nd ed. London: Sage.