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‘Coming in cold’ to international Qualitative Secondary Analysis (iQSA)

Written by Emil Borgselius


In this blog, Emil Borgselius reflects on joining an iQSA project midway as a postgraduate sociology intern as the only researcher without prior acquaintance with the reused data.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

The iQSA project is an ongoing programme of methodological development in methods of international data-sharing and reuse, or international Qualitative Secondary Analysis (iQSA) by a team of researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of Aarhus (Hughes et al, 2021). This programme has been ongoing since early 2020. In the following blog piece, I will reflect on the process of joining iQSA mid-project, with the hope of foregrounding some of the concerns others might experience in similar future studies. How to enter an unfamiliar academic study as a postgrad sociology intern? How does one approach methodologically and analytically complex issues when first having to familiarize yourself with other people’s old data? Finally, what does it mean for the project that one out of five researchers has this significantly different point of departure?

Coming in cold

I was invited to join the iQSA-project by my MA internship supervisor, Professor Vibeke Frank. There were two challenges to my participation. As I was on an internship lasting only 5 months, my involvement was time limited. Furthermore, there had already been multiple workshops and a paper published and so I was new to a well-established team and project. As part of this programme. I was to participate in the preparatory work for a series of workshops in May 2022. These were being convened because we had the iQSA spearhead, Kahryn Hughes, on a visiting fellowship at the Centre for Alcohol and Drug Research, Aarhus University.

Using pen portraits

When conducting qualitative secondary analysis (QSA), providing transparency and context explaining why specific cases were chosen is of great importance (Irwin 2012). Kahryn (2021) suggests a pen portrait is “an overview of the interviewee, with details from what other people have said about them, if any, what sorts of documentation relates to their interview, and how many times they may have been interviewed. The purposes of a Pen Portrait for iQSA are to provide enough detail on somebody so that we get a feel for who they are, and how they relate to our datasets.” In close collaboration with Vibeke Frank, I gained access to a former research project Exchanging Prevention practices on Polydrug use among youth In Criminal justice systems (EPPIC) from which we both chose an emblematic case person as the subject for writing up a pen portrait.

‘Coming in cold’ made this a particularly demanding task. My expectation was that to write the pen portrait, I would have to spend significantly more time acquainting myself with the data than the others. I worried that my pen portrait could be off the scope required for the workshop due to my limited experience with both the dataset and iQSA. To overcome my temporal and epistemic distance to the dataset (Hughes et al, 2021) and to avoid failing to provide adequate context that could be important for the other researchers, I worked immersively with the data (e.g., thematic coding) before the writing process and had ad hoc discussion sessions with Vibeke – who worked with the same dataset.

Familiarisation and data ‘noise’

A key element in my work with iQSA has been a dual-tracked familiarisation process. The compressed timeframe of my participation necessitated simultaneous familiarisation with iQSA principles and my data. Surprisingly, it soon felt advantageous not having worked with the data previously. I realised that this was an efficient (and intense) approach as I felt my confidence and curiosity rise. From discussing with Vibeke, I learned that my familiarisation process did not demand the same filtering of “noise” from original analyses – and not just in terms of analytical perspectives. I was also less emotionally attached to the data which especially became clear during the workshops where we delved deep into potentially emotionally triggering details while uncovering analytical themes.

Avoiding over-exposure to prior ideas

For the same reasons, it seemed like the best way forward to not read papers produced from data that we reused. Consequently, my analytical ideas in the pen portrait felt raw, yet guided by the analytical foci decided a priori by the research team. On the other hand, it did make me question whether it would have elevated some of my insights if I had actually met the case study participants and experienced them as more than merely written subject material. The implications of differing familiarity with the case persons were an ongoing topic of discussion as some of the other research team members had not met the case persons either, but as PI only led the projects. Coming in cold might have amplified the occasional feeling of having less or inadequate knowledge regarding iQSA and lacking specialised knowledge (e.g., regarding marginalized populations). Even though workshop analytic approaches were systematic, the open discussion base at times made it challenging for me to contribute and become accustomed. Due to the topics of conversation shifting frequently, at times, I felt slightly detached and uncertain about the actual purpose of the theme being discussed. My positioned self-conscience, therefore, fostered a certain contribution shyness during the workshops even though it at all times felt like a safe environment to discuss and ask questions.

Final reflections

So, is coming cold an advantage in iQSA?  On the one hand, engaging with unfamiliar data in the context of iQSA provides some “uncontaminated” insights. On the other, ‘coming in cold’ calls for a more time-consuming process of data familiarisation. This is important to consider because if the time-saving aspect is a motivation for a data reuse study, iQSA may lose one of its main advantages (Chatfield 2020). Moreover, assuming it makes a difference to come in cold, how do we ensure epistemological coherence if one or several researchers work with reused data that is new to them while others work with data they are already familiar with?

Being part of the iQSA-project was a challenging and playful process that ultimately broadened my horizon regarding the extent to which secondary qualitative data reuse may be useful to research. Discovering how such data may be (re)analysed across widely differing contexts of time and space has been truly inspirational. In my view (i)QSA holds vast unfulfilled potential and it is therefore a hope of mine that it will gain increasing attention and influence among scholars in the years to come.


Chatfield, S. L. 2020. Recommendations for Secondary Analysis of Qualitative Data. The Qualitative Report, 25(3), 833-842.

Frank, V.A., Rolando, S., Thom, B., Beccaria, F., Duke, K. and Herold, M.D. 2021. Editorial DEPP: drug-experienced young people in contact with the criminal justice system. Understanding the challenges and working towards solutions. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy28(1), pp.1-6.

Hughes, K., Frank, V.A., Herold, M.D. and Houborg, E., 2021. Data reuse across international contexts? Reflections on new methods for International Qualitative Secondary Analysis. Qualitative Research, p.14687941211052278.

Hughes, K., Hughes, J. & Tarrant, A. 2022. Working at a remove: continuous, collective, and configurative approaches to qualitative secondary analysis. Qual Quant 56, 375–394

Irwin, Sarah & Winterton, Mandy. 2012. Qualitative Secondary Analysis: A Guide to Practice. Timescapes Methods Guides Series 2012 Guide No. 19.