Roll Your Own QDA (Working With Text 5)

Roll Your Own QDA (Working With Text 5)

Many social scientists purchase expensive qualitative data analysis software to code their field notes and interview data, but I want to show how you can accomplish the same thing for free using Dynalist or Workflowy. Neither app is truly free, but they both offer generous free plans that allow you to do a lot before you would need to pay for a subscription. We are also going to ignore most of the features offered by these apps, such as outlining, checklists, notes, etc.

Pretty much everything we are going to do could be done in a plain text file. The key difference is that these apps allow you to add tags to individual paragraphs, while most text editors which support tagging only allow you to tag individual documents.1 There isn’t really much more to it than that, but as you will see, it can be a powerful tool for doing research.

Let’s make a short sample conversation:

Q: What are your favorite fruits?
A: Apples, oranges, and pears.
Q: What do you like about those fruits in particular?
A: I associate apples with my home, where we had an apple orchard. Oranges… because we used to eat them on holidays. And pears – actually, I didn’t used to like pears, but for a while I lived in France and I got a taste for them there.
Q: I see, it sounds like apples have particularly strong associations for you?
A: That’s true. I always associate the smell with my childhood.
Q: But not oranges?
A: No, not as much.

Now let’s tag the text. We could add tags after the text, but instead we are going to try, as much as possible, to add the tags right in the text itself, as that will make it easier to highlight what we are looking for. (Note that in two cases the keyword is in the question, but not the response, so I’ve added the tag after the text.)

Q: What are your favorite fruits?
A: #Apples, #oranges, and #pears.
Q: What do you like about those fruits in particular?
A: I associate #apples with my home, where we had an apple orchard. #Oranges… because we used to eat them on holidays. And #pears – actually, I didn’t used to like pears, but for a while I lived in France and I got a taste for them there.
Q: I see, it sounds like #apples have particularly strong associations for you?
A: That’s true. I always associate the smell with my childhood. #apples
Q: But not #oranges?
A: No, not as much. #oranges

Now, we just copy and paste this into Dynalist.2 (Below is a picture, but you can visit the actual outline here.)

dynalist demo

Dynalist highlights the tags automatically. Clicking on any one will filter the text for that word. Even better, we can combine tags, searching for either both #apples AND #oranges, or either #apples OR #oranges (pictured below):

dynalist demo 2

And if we want, we can expand the search to look for the same tag across all our documents. You can also export the search results to a new document containing just the selected text. And for those who like the mind map features of some professional QDA apps, Dynalist and other outliners can also export an OPML file which is readable by almost any Mind Mapping app.


List of posts in this series


  1. Of course, if you are comfortable using RegEx, as described in the second post, you could just do that instead. These outliners just make things a little easier. 
  2. I’ve used Dynalist here because that’s what I use, but Workflowy, Outlinely, and a few other apps can do all the same things. 

P. Kerim Friedman is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan. His research explores language revitalization efforts among indigenous Taiwanese, looking at the relationship between language ideology, indigeneity, and political economy. An ethnographic filmmaker, he co-produced the Jean Rouch award-winning documentary, ‘Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!’ about a street theater troupe from one of India’s Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs).

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