Can NVivo Qualitative Empirical Software Help Manage Oceans Of Research?

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.

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5 Responses

  1. John says:

    I often use NVivo for my social science research, and I’m surprised that legal scholars and litigators don’t use it more often. Aside from its research purposes, it can make for a great document and information manager.

    By the way, there are other options out there too. While I prefer NVivo, Atlas.TI is another handy application if you want to directly code up multimedia files. There’s also TAMS Analyzer for Macs, which is a bit rougher, but free. (NVivo and Atlas.Ti are Windows apps, though they both run just fine on Intel Macs doing Windows emulation).

  2. Jason says:

    TAMS Analyzer also works on Linux, I found out – I’m installing it as I type this.

  3. John says:

    Jason, good point.

    By the way, TAMS has some terrific features, including some advantages over NVivo when handling multiple researchers coding up documents. The only downside of TAMS is that, compared to NVivo, it’s not particularly intuitive or user-friendly for first-time users of qualitative research applications. If the goal is to turn legal scholars and other folks on to the benefits of this kind of tool, then I wouldn’t start off with TAMS.

    I’m not sure if giving quantitative data analysis analogies helps, but… sending someone off to use TAMS for their first taste of qualitative data analysis is a bit like sending them off to use R for their first taste of quantitative data analysis. Or LaTex as someone’s first word processor.

    Anyhow, just thought I’d toss in that caveat in case any blog readers tried TAMS and weren’t initially taken with how useful this kind of app can be.

  4. Rick says:

    I’m a bit behind the times, but this post was most interesting. I’ve been looking for recent comparative reviews of Nvivo, TAMS, and Atlas.ti. So am I right in thinking that TAMS falls behind only in approachability, rather than functionality?

  5. HGomez says:

    See also QDA Miner Lite. It’s a free computer assisted qualitative data analysis software. This new freeware provides an easy-to-use tool for coding, annotating and analyzing collections of documents and images such as interview or focus-group transcripts, journal articles, web pages, or customer feedback.

    QDA Miner Lite has been designed to meet the basic needs of researchers and analysts performing qualitative data analysis. This CAQDAS tool is ideal for those on tiny budgets (or no budget) or those who wish to teach qualitative research in classes.

    For more information, click on the following link: Free Qualitative Research Software