Different Ways to Write About Larger Themes or Concepts in ATLAS.ti
The purpose of this article is to present an alternative way to use comments and memos in ATLAS.ti, as an example of using the program creatively. Every research project has its own needs according to its methodology and objectives, and every researcher has their own preferences, and so it is helpful to know that the program offers great flexibility in how it can be harnessed.
Different ways to capture writing in ATLAS.ti
A major part of qualitative data analysis is writing – composing analytic memos, jotting down unexpected insights and ideas, providing formal definitions of codes, and so on. When using ATLAS.ti the question arises: where is the best place to capture all this writing? One way is to seek out a feature of the program that most closely corresponds to the kind of writing. So an analytic memo would be written as an ATLAS.ti-memo. An unexpected insight that does not yet relate to anything in particular might be written in the HU-comment, a general purpose place that refers to the project as whole. And a definition of a code would be written as an ATLAS.ti-code-comment. This is a reasonable approach, but is not always the most powerful way to use the program. Here is one example where I almost always take a different approach: when representing and writing about larger themes or concepts.
Different methodologies use different terms for the bigger-picture concepts in qualitative research, such as categories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) or theoretical codes (Charmaz, 2006). A common term is theme, even though the word has very different meanings in different methodologies (e.g. cf. Chang, 2008; Guest, MacQueen, & Namey, 2012; Thorne, 2008). For our purposes I will use theme for higher-level concepts in general.
Perhaps because writing about themes is often called memo writing, or writing an analytic memo, it is natural to go to ATLAS.ti’s memo feature as presumably the right place to do this writing. You can create a new ATLAS.ti-memo, give it a name, and begin writing. I want to make the case that a better place to write about the emerging themes in a data analysis is the comment areas of special-purpose ATLAS.ti-codes, in conjunction with using ATLAS.ti-networks. In other words, the choice of what the program’s features are used for should not just be based on what the program calls them.
Similarities and differences of ATLAS.ti-memos and ATLAS.ti-codes
Codes and analytic memos in qualitative research are obviously completely different things with different purposes. (When I write “code” I am referring to a named concept you create in the research study – nothing to do with ATLAS.ti. When I write “ATLAS.ti-code” I am referring to a thing in the program. The same goes for memos). In contrast to codes and memos in the research project, ATLAS.ti-codes and ATLAS.ti-memos in the program have a great deal in common, with only a few things that are different. It might be better if the names of these two software features were different from the names of things in the research process, because sometimes coding is best done without the use of ATLAS.ti-codes (see my blog post “Using quotation names for coding: An illustration from grounded theory”); and as I am about to describe, analytic memos are often best written using special-purpose ATLAS.ti-codes. Perhaps ATLAS.ti-memos could be called Writings in the program, indicating they can be used for writing of any kind – for example, I use them for keeping a project journal, writing notes on conversations with co-researchers, pasting in reference materials of one kind or another, communication among team members, etc. And ATLAS.ti-codes could be given a more general name that covers all their uses, including their usual use for naming groups of quotations, as well as other uses such as the one I am suggesting in this article. My preference would be to call ATLAS.ti-codes Concepts, in the sense that a concept is simply a name given to any grouping of things.
An ATLAS.ti-code and an ATLAS.ti-memo are essentially variants of the same ATLAS.ti design: a list of things that have a name, a comment or writing area, and the ability to link to other things in the program. But some of their features are different. Here’s a table of the similarities and differences that are relevant to my argument.
Illustration: Using ATLAS.ti-codes to represent themes
In this network the five themes are at the top of the visual display, and the other “regular” ATLAS.ti-codes are beneath them. They do not have to be kept spatially separate, it depends on what the visual display is representing, and on personal preference.
The ATLAS.ti-codes representing themes start with a “#” to distinguish them, and also to have them cluster together as a separate group of ATLAS.ti-codes in the top portion of the Code Manager.