Mainstreaming Qualitative Archives

Written by Dr Kahryn Hughes

Timescapes is launching a blog series to promote, enhance and develop the sharing and reuse of archived qualitative longitudinal data using expert insights from across all associated disciplines. In this brief interview, Dr Kahryn Hughes, Director of the Timescapes Archive, sets out the importance of mainstreaming methods of data reuse, particularly Qualitative Secondary Analysis (QSA), and how the Timescapes Archives blog will support this.

What is your vision for the Timescapes Archive blog series?

Archives become points of opportunity for people to communicate. The aim for this blog is to begin dialogues across different disciplines, with the broad range of people involved in building, using and contributing to archives. Contributions will deal with questions such as what we think of as evidence, what sorts of methods we might use, or challenges for data reuse, but also what sorts of facilities an archive should have and what technical difficulties or ambiguities this might produce. That was my thinking for the Timescapes Archive blog: that it becomes a space for dialogue over time and the dialogue becomes the basis for the formulation of new types of communities.

This blog is also an opportunity for people from different disciplines to discuss potential gaps in archiving, or the services provided by archives, and to flag up opportunities in new ways of building archives, or of using the archived data. Blogs are intended to be accessible and the Timescapes Archive Blog has the potential to act as a point of connection, and to signpost to great resources on the Timescapes archive website.

Tell us what you mean by ‘archives as communities’

This idea of archives as communities builds out of work by Bren Neale and Libby Bishop, and their work on a ‘stakeholder’ model of ethics. This model recognises that everybody involved in archives has different ethical concerns in relation to how data is archived and reused. Data producers, depositors, curators, re-users are all engaging with archives in different ways, and the ethical concerns and emphases for people involved at different points in the lifetimes of archives and archived data differ.

Bren and Libby also developed the language of ‘data stewards’: this is the idea that everybody has different responsibilities towards data depending on what their relationship is to those data. Thinking of the lifetimes of data, and the different people involved in producing, curating or using them, helps us think through how archives can be the basis for very diverse sorts of relationships between people - in person such as in in-depth interviews, or between researchers in a research team, or relationships where the connection is solely through data reuse.

Treating archives as communities get us to consider two things: the various relationships in research and how they are enhanced or extended through concerns around data archiving and data storage through curation, management, and protection. It also gets us to think about relationships over time and what those archives may come to represent.

How do you see the process of archiving and reusing while maintaining the integrity of how those stories were originally laid down?

This is such an important question. There is the power to systematically misrepresent participants, and this is rightly a concern in data reuse generally. However, that’s the same for primary research as well as for secondary analysis. In research, we’re always moving away from data in time, such as from the beginning of an interview to the end of it. We lose that immediate personal connection with the people who generated those data and this has prompted concerns that by losing the personal connection, we lose the ability to faithfully represent the people who provided those accounts.

But working at a temporal remove shouldn’t be seen solely as a form of deficit. Working with the original stories or accounts that people produce allows us to work not only within those data but also with all the outputs from data originators. We might not want to work solely with one data set. We can work across datasets, across repositories, across what I would describe as different evidentiary terrains. This means we’re likely to be working with multiple accounts, gathered at multiple points, by lots of people. Representation therefore becomes less about individuals and more about research concerns.

Research always involves sifting different forms of evidence, including other people’s literature, research fieldwork, conference findings, cross-disciplinary evidence, statistics, anecdotes and so on. This means that personal accounts we might be drawing on from archived data do not stand on their own. They always form part of a broader intellectual corpus – and it’s here that we need to pay attention to how personal accounts are framed and treated; it’s here that misrepresentation is likely to occur.

Why is it important that archives and QSA form part of a qualitative researcher’s toolkit?

Lina Dencik and her team have developed the language of datafication: where all human digital transactions are captured and ‘datafied’. In turn, these data are used to create our physical and other environments. However, not everybody has access to being researched and not everybody has access to digital capture which means that they are missing from this digital picture. In the context of social sciences research, if we don’t pay attention to representation, then we can be guilty of a double silencing of already marginalised groups, including those who are digitally marginalised.

In developing archives, we need to reconsider quite traditional ethical practices such as deleting sensitive data produced in research with vulnerable groups, or considering how not archiving these data is somehow a form of protection. Instead, given the struggle for social and research participation for marginalised groups, and their exclusion from transactional digital data, it becomes doubly important to preserve their accounts. This is an important issue because archives tend to be hugely white and middle class.  Keeping data archiving and methods of QSA on the agenda is essential for the preservation and reuse of qualitative research data. Treating these as important social documents helps to retain connection with social research histories that are all too often obscured, lost or overlooked.

Bibliography

  • Hughes, K., Hughes, J. and Tarrant, A. 2021. Working at a remove: continuous, collective, and configurative approaches to qualitative secondary analysis. Quality and Quantity. (0123456789).
  • Neale, B. 2020. Data Management Planning : A Practical Guide for Qualitative Longitudinal Researchers. , pp.1–63.
  • Neale, B. and Bishop, L. 2012. The ethics of archiving and re-using qualitative longitudinal data: A stakeholder approach. Timescapes Methods Guides Series, Guide No. 18. 9248(18).
  • Neale, B. and Hanna, E. 2012. The Ethics of Researching Lives Qualitatively Through Time.

Author

Dr Kahryn Hughes
Dr. Kahryn Hughes is Associate Professor, at the University of Leeds. She is Director of the Timescapes Archive, Editor-in-Chief of the BSA Sociological Research Online, and Senior Fellow of the...
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