5 hidden gems in your qual data

by Jun 13, 2018Discourse Analysis

Hey, researchers! Here are 5 things you didn’t know were in your qualitative transcripts or raw data.

Those transcripts are lit up like a Christmas tree if you know what to look for. All the items below come from discourse analysis, which is expressly designed to uncover the psychological and cultural issues which manifest themselves in naturally-occurring speech, writing and conversation. I work with research agencies to help them extract more value from their qualitative data and I am running a new masterclass in discourse analysis, hosted by the Market Research Society, from June 2019 (https://www.mrs.org.uk/event/training-courses/discourse-analysis-masterclass-jun19). Now, here are some discursive manoeuvres. All the screenshots here are from Twitter but you will find the same linguistic machinery in interview and focus group transcripts, in ethnography and on other social media platforms.

1. Contrast pairs.

The conversational equivalent of the binary opposition in semiotics. Sometimes both halves the pair are present, sometimes only one half is present and the other is left implicit. A key thing to notice about contrast pairs is that the two halves of the pair are never given equal status. One half always comes off as better. In the example below, a contrast pair accomplishes the unusual feat of making ‘overweight’ seem like a favourable condition.

2. At first I thought … but then I realised …

A way for people to relate stories of slightly unbelievable things and make them more plausible. The purpose of ‘at first I thought’ is to acknowledge or orient to a common, ordinary, normal belief that most people might hold. When this is accomplished and the speaker has demonstrated that they are not crazy, they can then get to the main point of what they want to tell you. When someone uses this formulation, they are telling you that they are anxious that you might not believe their tale.

3. Three-part lists

The three-part list, whether it is visual, as in semiotics, or verbal as we see in the example below, is reliably treated by audiences as signifying inclusion or completeness. It is used by both consumers and brands to convince recipients that there is ‘enough’ evidence for something or to demonstrate that the speaker has thought of everything. In this example, the speaker cites three pieces of evidence to support a politically contentious hypothesis. (1) I am treated better. (2) Men pay attention to the sound of high heels. (3) You do better at work.

4. Communicating unexpected events using ‘turned’.

‘And then he turned round and said to me’. In ordinary conversation, ‘turned’ often signifies something unexpected. While frequently unpleasant, there are occasional positive examples, e.g. ‘He was a terrible employee when he first started, but he turned it around.’ In the below example, the speaker helpfully prefaces ‘turned’ with ‘miraculously’ to emphasise the point.

5. Active voicing

Common in speech, very common in written conversations, as on social media platforms. Active voicing is when someone speaks in the voice of another person. Different from reported speech which uses ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ tags, active voicing makes a lesser claim on truth (the recipient is to understand that this is an approximation, not a verbatim quote) and by doing so, makes it possible for speakers to present certain versions of reality in a more convincing way, approximated for greater rhetorical effect. Active voicing may use the tags ‘I’m like’ and ‘he’s like’ because ‘like’ implies approximation rather than accuracy.

All these linguistic features and many more shed new light on what research participants are trying tell you and they can be easily converted into marketing copy for brands. Don’t forget, that the new Market Research Society training course in discourse analysis begins this summer


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