Exercise 2: Creating an analytic story
In his video interview, Mick Finlay stresses the importance of creating a story when you write up your qualitative research findings. By ‘creating a story’, he does not mean making things up. Instead, he is referring to assembling themes, sub-themes and data excerpts in a way that creates a clear, focused, logical response to your research aims and question(s) and that enables your work to satisfy relevant criteria for good qualitative psychological research (see Chapter 2 in the book). This can involve decision-making about what to include and what to set aside and assembling materials in different ways to find a structure that works best.
In this exercise, you are invited to create analytic stories from a set of 17 data excerpts taken from a journal article that reported a qualitative psychological study of experiences of living with facial acne in young adulthood. By ‘analytic stories’, we mean stories that could structure a ‘Results’/’Findings’ section of a dissertation or article – the section where the outcome of the analysis is presented.
The aims of the research study were ‘to explore the meaning of living with mild-to-moderate visible acne in the life stage of emerging adulthood [ ] [and] to obtain a rounded picture of the impact of the acne and its importance in the daily lives of young emerging adults. The study aimed to provide information about how participants experience their illness and to capture some sense of the wholeness of their experience. The research was designed to explore the perspectives and experiences of these young adults and the psychosocial impact of living with facial acne on their daily lives, feelings about the self, friendships and family relationships.’
Eleven young adults aged 18-22 years (six males and five females) who defined themselves as having mild-to-moderate facial acne were interviewed for the research. All were university students in the UK. Nine described themselves as White Caucasian and two as British Asian. Six were receiving no medication, three were using treatments prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist and two were taking oral acne medication. Ten participants had longstanding acne of 4–7 years duration; one participant had her acne for one year.
In the data excerpts (presented below), pauses in participants’ speech are indicated by three dots; clarificatory material appears in square brackets. The gender of each speaker is indicated. Data excerpts were presented in the journal article from all but two of the 11 participants.
‘Yeah, you look in the mirror and think “Oh, you know, what am I going to do about this?” but then you sort of put it to one side.’ (Participant 1, male)
‘When you’re in a bar… you notice women looking at him… and you obviously notice women not looking at you and… that’s probably more of reflection on him because he’s very attractive you know… and not a reflection on me but I draw straight for the negative – that they’re not looking at me because of my skin.’ (Participant 2, male; emphasis in original)
‘If I looked at old photos when I had, like, perfectly clear skin, and then I’d look at myself now and think ‘Oh, it’s getting worse”… but if it got better… it would be quite a positive thing that it’s going away now but it never lasts that long cos it always comes back… My mood is always changing about it – it’s good, it’s bad, it’s good.’ (Participant 3, male)
‘People used to recommend creams to get rid of it, like acne creams and face washes, yeah. It’s nice positive feedback, you know, say “This might work” and try it out but half the time they never work. But I thought it was quite useful.’ (Participant 3, male)
‘And then it was my sister’s wedding in December and I actually used some make up to hide a bit… so it [the acne and trying to conceal it] has made me more girly, right?’ (Participant 6, male)
‘I’ll say something about their weight and they’ll come back with “Shut up, spotty.” It’s just a joke. I don’t worry.’ (Participant 6, male)
‘My workmates became very good with it. They’d basically come with me and look through everything in the pharmacy and be like “Try this. How about that?”’ (Participant 6, male)
‘Well… I used to be a fat kid, so when the spots came, I thought… not as good looking now… so then I lost weight to sort of balance it out, so… that’s how I sort of balanced it out really, that’s how I dealt with it.’ (Participant 6, male)
‘I have a web cam at home and I used to put it on myself… and I would have a lamp next to me and the lamp would shine right in my face… and all the acne wouldn’t show any more and I would take pictures of myself and keep it as a screensaver. I would then convince myself that things weren’t that bad.’ (Participant 7, female)
‘My best friend said “Why don’t you try this foundation on? … And as for your spots, how did you get them? Did you get them from squeezing?” and I said “Yeah” and she said “Oh I am not going to squeeze my spots now.” Everyone was trying to learn not to do what I did.’ (Participant 7, female)
‘What I didn’t like doing was close up pictures… and I remember that the only time I would see them was when I looked at a picture of myself and I couldn’t cover them and I saw I had so many [acne].’ (Participant 7, female)
‘When I look in the mirror, it makes me perceive myself as someone who is lazy, someone who should be out there doing something, which sort of brings low self-esteem between me and myself in front of the mirror.’ (Participant 7, female)
‘My mum is good getting me to doctors and trying all the creams… She just wanted me to be comfortable in my own skin. My mum would probably support me the best.’ (Participant 8, female)
‘So somebody would have to really push me, like, even my family… I don’t let them see me. That’s how I deal with it, I kind of hide behind it.’ (Participant 8, female)
‘I will still go to uni[versity], I will still work to get the good degree. However, it did stop me going out and meeting new people, which could have opened new opportunities for me.’ (Participant 9, female)
‘When I met new people… I would be paranoid and just be like “Are they looking at my spots?”… I felt maybe [I] had to compensate for the fact that I had spots, so I’d perhaps be more kind of confident.’ (Participant 10, female)
‘I don’t think my face is as bad as other people’s. Sometimes when you see people with bad skin, you think “Why am I being so stupid?”’ (Participant 11, female)
Copy and paste the data excerpts into a document. Read the data excerpts carefully. Do this as many times as is necessary to develop a familiarity with them. Then, working by yourself or with another student or a small group of students, cluster together those data excerpts that seem to be tapping into the same or related issues. There are various ways in which you might cluster the excerpts so do not restrict yourself to just one clustering scheme. You might find it helpful to print out hard copies of the data excerpts and cut out individual excerpts so that you can physically move them around.
When you have organized the data excerpts into clusters, identify what each data cluster has in common. What is the issue that is reflected in the data excerpts in a particular cluster? Note that issue, expressing it as clearly as you can in a way that reflects the data.
To make some clusters and some clustering schemes work, you may need to set aside one or more data excerpts – although all of them found a place in the write-up of the research in the journal article. If you want to set some excerpts aside, consider whether you would be losing something that would help you fulfil the study’s research aims.
At this stage, do not consult the article in which the research was reported. You will undoubtedly be curious to see how the authors/researchers organized the data excerpts there. However, your learning about the process of crafting an analytic story will be best served by consulting the published article after you have clustered the excerpts yourself and developed your own analytic stories.
When you have decided upon your clusters, arrange them into an analytic story. Identify the most important cluster or clusters – the one(s) that respond most clearly and powerfully to the research aims. This will form the heart of your analytic story. Arrange the other clusters around this central one/these central ones. For example, some clusters might deal with background or contextualizing issues and so need to appear early in the story. Others may deal with implications that follow from the central cluster(s) and so will come later in the story. When you have arranged the clusters in a provisional order, try talking your way through the story that they tell. Voicing a provisional analytic story aloud can help you hear if a story is clear, relevant (to the research aims) and persuasive (in relation to the data).
Your analytic story is unlikely to be unitary and smooth. It may involve shifts in focus and will have to deal with variability in the data. Think about how you might accommodate those features in your story, for example, by explicitly acknowledging shifts in focus and variability when they occur. Remember that the study’s research aims were ‘to obtain a rounded picture of the impact of the acne and its importance in the daily lives of young emerging adults.’ Getting a rounded picture necessarily involves acknowledging and contextualizing diversities of experience.
Just as there are different ways in which you can cluster the data excerpts, there are also various ways in which you can arrange a set of clusters into analytic stories. If you produce more than one possible story, think about how you might ultimately choose one rather than another. Does one story fulfil the research aims more fully than another/others? Does one story satisfy the evaluative criteria for qualitative research (see Chapter 2 in the book) better than another/others?
If you are working on this exercise collaboratively with another student or a few other students and are doing so in a class, you will be able to compare your analytic story with those produced by other groups and the rationales for those stories. If you get the chance to do this, consider the ways in which your analytic story overlaps with and differs from the stories produced by other groups. In light of what you learn from those other stories, do you want to adjust your own story in any way?
Of course, there is one obvious story with which to compare yours. This is the journal article that used the data excerpts ‘to explore the meaning of living with mild-to-moderate visible acne in the life stage of emerging adulthood’. As you can see, the lead author is Jess Prior who is the co-author of Chapter 17 in the book (‘Analysing Qualitative Data: Comparative Reflections’).
In what ways does the analytic story in the article overlap with and differ from your analytic story?
We would expect to find differences: the authors/researchers worked from a data set of 11 interview transcripts whereas you worked from a tiny fragment of that. However, there should also be some similarities because the authors used the data excerpts that you worked with to illustrate a specific analytic story.
Note that this exercise does not reflect a standard process for creating an analytic story. Normally you would create a story at the end of the analytic process when you have developed themes and sub-themes from the data and have selected data excerpts to illustrate these. In that case, you would work with the themes and sub-themes, moving them around to develop an effective analytic story. Or at least one that you think will be effective. Very often, when you develop an initial analytic story and start to write it up, you find that parts of it (or even the whole story) do not work. They just aren’t persuasive in relation to the data or they don’t fit readily within the larger story. In that case, you will have to return to the process of moving themes and sub-themes around. If that happens, it can be frustrating but remember what we noted earlier: one of the purposes of writing is to clarify your thinking and your ideas.
The process of creating a story applies to all sections of a dissertation or potential journal article, not just to the Results/Findings section, and to the dissertation or article as a whole. The Introduction section needs to identify and contextualize a problem or question that the dissertation/article will address. If you think of your dissertation or article as an adventure novel with a journey at the heart of it, like The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, the Introduction lays out the task that will be confronted – your equivalent of getting to the treasure held by the dragon, Smaug. The Method section is the equivalent of an outline of the journeying process, the advice you took and the maps you followed. The Results/Findings section presents the content of the journey in a detailed way: here is where the ‘action’ lies. The Discussion section sees you reach your destination and (mostly) fulfil your task, although maybe not always in ways that had been anticipated at the outset. As you draw the threads of the dissertation/article together in that section, there is usually an opening left for a ‘sequel’, as you note the further questions that have been raised by your research.
That analogy might sound rather grandiose. Nonetheless, it underlines the importance of creating a story or stories in your write-ups of qualitative psychological research. It also reminds us that this type of writing is a skill, like any other type of writing, and it requires effort, practice, inspiration and resilience to develop and refine the skill. If you become disheartened with the writing process, don’t forget that: be patient with yourself and keep going.