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Starting Out with Qualitative Secondary Analysis during Covid-19

Written by Dr Annie Irvine, Claudia Coveney, Maria Mansfield, Karen Tatham


Dr Annie Irvine joins the blog team to discuss starting out with Qualitative Secondary Analysis (QSA). Drawing on the Welfare Conditionality Archive in Timescapes, Annie discusses developing a QSA research proposal on welfare benefits and mental health during Covid-19.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

Starting out in QSA

I'm a qualitative researcher in the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health at King's College London. I work on a research programme that explores the relationships between precarious employment, conditional welfare benefits and mental health. I started the role early in the Covid-19 pandemic, and it wasn’t feasible to start building up any research collaborator partnerships or begin any new empirical data collection whilst we were still in and out of lockdowns, especially on such potentially sensitive topics. When I discovered that the Welfare Conditionality Project had been put into the Timescapes Archive, I couldn't quite believe my luck to find that all of the qualitative interview material had been made available (Dwyer et al., 2020; Stewart et al., 2020). Around half of their study participants had experienced mental health problems. And so I began to wonder whether using this rich archive of qualitative longitudinal interviews during Covid-19 I could derive useful insights into how different conceptualisations of mental health might influence people’s experiences of and interactions with the UK benefits system.

Using archives: pragmatism and exploration

Drawing on Anna Tarrant’s insights on using archives to develop new research projects, my initial plan was to:

determine the feasibility of using existing qualitative data generated by other researchers to support and potentially enhance the development of a conceptual framework for a new empirical study” (Tarrant, 2017: 599).

There was an element of happenstance and pragmatism in how I came to consider a QSA project. It seemed like a bit of a gift really, to be able to access the Welfare Conditionality archive from my desk at home and to use this as a starting point to look at some of the questions we were wanting to ideally explore in an empirical project. Very quickly, however, I came to realise the value that can be found in QSA. Preliminary exploration of the Welfare Conditionality data showed what a huge resource this is, and that there was scope for a ‘full-blown’ study. From the helpful resources on the Timescapes website, my understanding of QSA grew, and opened my eyes to its value as a distinct methodology; it hadn't occurred to me that a QSA could ‘stand alone’ as a study and bring something new out of the data.

Finding focus and establishing the feasibility

It’s a recognised gamble to undertake QSA: you don't know what's going to be in the data so there's always a risk that you can't answer your question. But thanks to the Welfare Conditionality team’s publications, I felt confident that this would be productive. Also, because it was so straightforward to apply to Timescapes and begin to scope out the data set, I was able to dip into the data, pilot a few approaches to data extraction, and establish that there was enough material to go ahead with a full research proposal. I worked with colleagues at the Centre for Society and Mental Health to develop the QSA idea into a full research grant proposal, which is now under review. Ironically, if we’re successful, the project will end up starting after the lockdowns that kicked off the whole idea have ended!

A challenge was finding myself getting pulled into wanting to do a full analysis of all the themes in the interviews. I needed to find clarity and precision for my novel research questions, a process of development that Tarrant (2017) calls “getting out of the swamp” of data. Writing the research grant proposal made me really clarify my thinking, and engage more deeply with the methodological and ethical literature around QSA. It also made me think critically about the possibilities and limits of QSA, as I had to develop realistic impact plans; who to engage from outside of academia and how, and how to make the method convincing and persuasive to policy and practice end users.

Archives as communities: the primary research team

A huge benefit has been the contacts I have had with the primary research team. I was initially apprehensive when the QSA literature strongly advised making contact with the primary researchers. Would they be irritated by my getting in touch out of the blue? I felt quite conflicted about these issues of ownership and the associated practical, emotional and intellectual labour. As Weller and Edwards (2022) note in this blog series:

a sense of ownership can emerge from the emotional and intellectual connections fostered through the temporal resources, commitments, and care researchers invest in the relationships that are central to the production of qualitative data”.

Initially, it sat quite uneasily with me that I might seek to generate research funding and publications out of someone else’s data set. It is certainly essential to acknowledge the original study team at all stages of a QSA project (Coltart et al., 2013). I could not have been more pleasantly surprised. One of the Welfare Conditionality Co-Investigators got in touch with me spontaneously showing real interest and enthusiasm for my proposals. The team have shared as much further context as they can, within the bounds of anonymity, and were keen for me to understand how they constructed the sample and what all the different variables relate to in the longitudinal metadata.  It has been a real boost, to know that other people are interested in my project and would like to see it come to fruition.

Reflections on data reuse through QSA

Navigating a path with QSA has been a fantastic learning journey so far.  For a researcher, the Timescapes application process is so straightforward - I’d say less than a day’s work in total - and the archive managers are extremely supportive and responsive (as well as offering opportunities such as this blog!). An immeasurable amount of effort goes into a multi-year longitudinal study like the Welfare Conditionality Project, not to mention the additional labour of anonymising and preparing metadata for archiving. I’m so thankful to the Welfare Conditionality team for allowing others to access their data and use it to build on their findings and pursue new research themes. It shows a real generosity and commitment to knowledge-making, to be willing to allow someone to take your data and use it in a different way.


Coltart C, Henwood K. and Shirani F (2013) Qualitative secondary analysis in austere times: ethical, professional and methodological considerations. Historical Social Research, 38(4): 271-292.

Dwyer P, Scullion L, Jones, K, et al. (2020) Work, welfare, and wellbeing: The impacts of welfare conditionality on people with mental health impairments in the UK. Social Policy & Administration 54(2): 311-326.

Stewart, A. B.R., Gawlewicz, A., Bailey, N., Katikireddi, S. V.  and Wright, S.  (2020) Lived Experiences of Mental Health Problems and Welfare Conditionality. Working Paper. University of Glasgow, Glasgow.

Tarrant A (2017) Getting out of the swamp? Methodological reflections on using qualitative secondary analysis to develop research design. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 20(6): 599-611.

Weller, S. and Edwards, R. (2022) Ownership, Connectedness and Archives: Changing Perceptions Over Time. Timescapes Blog, 31 January 2022.