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CAQDAS at a Crossroads: Controversies, Challenges, Choices

Updated: May 15

It was a good crowd of 350-400 delegates. A few people have asked me what I spoke about so here’s a brief summary.

You can also watch a short interview with me recorded at the conference.


In a keynote you have the luxury of discussing a topic of your choice in a decent amount of time – in this case 45 minutes. I took the opportunity to reflect on the current state of the CAQDAS field, including the challenges we face in an increasingly digital world and how these can be addressed. So I called my talk "CAQDAS at a crossroads: controversies, challenges, choices".


I started with a little insight into my personal trajectory with CAQDAS. I reminisced about my early forays with qualitative analysis at school and as an undergraduate, when I used highlighter pens, scissors and blu-tac, and my first experimentations with trial versions of CAQDAS when as a cash-poor Masters student I didn't want to purchase a software license.

Later, being "in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time" - the Sociology department of the University of Surrey in the late 1990s - meant I met Nigel Fielding, Ray Lee and Ann Lewins, who set up the CAQDAS Networking Project in 1994. From 1998 I joined their pioneering endeavors to provide independent advice, training and ongoing support in the use of the full range of dedicated CAQDAS packages. This was the beginning of an incredibly fulfilling professional and personal relationship with Ann in which we co-taught hundreds of CAQDAS workshops, supported thousands of researchers, and published two editions of our book Using Software in Qualitative Research: A Step-by-Step Guide. If it wasn’t for Ann I wouldn’t be where I am now.


I then gave a brief potted-history of the CAQDAS field, from the pioneer packages of the 1980s (NUD*IST, the Ethnograph, ATLAS.ti,  WinMAX and HyperRESEARCH), the packages that emerged subsequently (including Transana, QDA Miner, Dedoose) to the most recently released versions (including Quirkos and webQDA).

There were two main points.

  • Firstly I emphasised that dedicated CAQDAS packages are not new. CDs became available only a few years before the first CAQDAS packages and how many people still routinely listen to CDs these days? I asked for a show of hands and there were four, whereas there were around 30-40 hands for those who undertake qualitative analysis manually, without using dedicated CAQDAS . I leave this to you to ponder what this tells us about the adoption of technology in qualitative circles?

  • Secondly I emphasised that we have lots of choice between and within CAQDAS packages. They each have pros and cons, but there is choice, and for those who want to use software to facilitate their analysis there is a suitable product out there.


However, the use of CAQDAS is neither ubiquitous nor uncontested. I therefore went on to discuss some of the common controversies that surround the field.

  • I pointed out that many of the critics’ concerns are directly refuted by CAQDAS advocates. For example when critics say CAQDAS distances one from data, advocates say its use brings us closer to our data.

  • When critics say CAQDAS homogenises analytic methods, advocates say it is flexible and adaptable.

  • When critics say that CAQDAS encourages inappropriate quantification, advocates say it encourages transparency in the process, and that anyway, the numbers CAQDAS can produce need not be used in an analysis.

  • When critics worry that the use of CAQDAS mechanises analysis, taking control away from the researcher, advocates stress that they do remain in control of what is done, to what extent and for what purpose, because they are the ones operating the tool.

I stressed, however, that even CAQDAS advocates are not unequivocal in their advocacy.

It is important to recognise controversies and to open-up discussion between advocates and critics. They often don’t talk directly to one another. Sometimes it’s like they live in different worlds. This is a shame because our new digital world increases the importance of open and honest debate about the role of CAQDAS and other technologies. 

For  more discussion on debates about CAQDAS see my last blog post.


Many who choose not to use dedicated CAQDAS packages are not particularly critical of them, they just like getting their hands on their data, they like the tactile nature of working with paper and pen. They like using coloured highlighter pens. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, CAQDAS advocates haven’t all thrown away their highlighter pens!

But as researchers and teachers we have a responsibility to adequately prepare the next generation of qualitative researchers to undertake high-quality analysis, and for them, technology is a reality not a choice.

As a community of practice we must reflect on this. It is inevitable that CAQDAS packages will continually have an increasing place in our professional practices simply because new generations of researchers are comfortable with technology and expect to use it for analysis. It is inevitable that technological developments will provide new options for handling and analysing data. It is inevitable that trends in mixed methods, the use of big data, visual methods and cross-disciplinary collaborative research alter the types of digital tools we need.

Individual researchers, teams of researchers and the community at large working in different disciplinary, cultural and national contexts will have different opinions about CAQDAS and they will make different choices. But the challenges we face in adequately preparing our students for undertaking analysis in a digital world are similar…


Adequately preparing students for high-quality analysis in a digital world is not without challenges - for both learners and teachers. After choosing  which package to learn, students are faced with a proliferation of software tools. Most CAQDAS packages are initially daunting because there seem to be so many choices.

Then there is the time it takes to learn. CAQDAS is not yet into university curricula in a way that enables students learn at a suitable pace. And they typically need ongoing support throughout their studies. They’re learning how to do analysis at the same time as learning about the software, and this is difficult.

Teachers also face challenges. Deciding whether to teach method or technology first is a common dilemma. Many teachers also report feeling ill-prepared to teach CAQDAS because of the demands of keeping up to date with the ever increasing new features. And then there is the time available to teach. There is seemingly never enough time.

Over the past 20 years I have watched students struggle, and continually reflected on how best to teach these technologies in appropriate methodological contexts. This has resulted in Nick and myself developing a CAQDAS pedagogy that transcends methodologies, software programs and teaching modes.


I finished my keynote with the core principles of Five-Level QDA and how they  represent a solution to these challenges. I’m not going to repeat here the theory of Five-Level QDA, but in the keynote, to illuminate the central importance of distinguishing between strategies (what we plan to do) and tactics (how we plan to do it), I used a gardening analogy. This involved apple trees, chainsaws, secateurs and nail scissors, amongst other things. The point was to emphasise that that we must choose the appropriate tactics for our strategies.


Five-Level QDA is not rocket science. We’re not really saying anything new.  Five-Level QDA isn’t a new or different way of doing analysis. What it does is unpack the processes that expert CAQDAS users undertake unconsciously and express them in an explicit way, so that students and researchers new to CAQDAS can learn how to harness the power of their tools quickly, without the years of trial and error that we went through. 

CAQDAS packages are incredibly powerful. The basic answer to the question “what can CAQDAS packages do?” is that “they can do what you need them to do”. They have hundreds of features.

We have to harness their power for our purposes. That is the challenge, both for teachers and learners.

Five-Level QDA means we can teach methodology and technology concurrently. But it is also adaptable so that methodology and technology can be taught in whatever sequence is deemed appropriate. It can be taught in workshops, over a whole semester, or online.


I called this keynote CAQDAS at a Crossroads: Controversies, Choices and Challenges. There will always be controversies around the use of CAQDAS, and these debates will only increase as the assistance technology provides continues to increase.

The choices of software packages will also continue to increase. As will the choices we have between different tools within software packages. Those choices are good because it is with choice that we gain flexibility, and with flexibility we gain power.

But controversies and choices mean we have significant challenges in learning and teaching the appropriate use of software within different methodological contexts. Rather than continually focusing on choices and controversies, we need to address these challenges so that they are not barriers to researchers and students.

Those of us who have developed expertise in qualitative software have a responsibility to pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

Five-Level QDA is about choosing appropriate tools at appropriate times and myself and Nick welcome the opportunity of working with colleagues to implement this pedagogy in different contexts.

Because, no one wants to feel like this…


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