If you check out the websites of the companies selling QDA software, you will come to the conclusion: Of course! I do have to spend that kind of money, otherwise I can’t do the analysis I want to do. It is not surprising that you might get this impression – of course the companies want to sell their products.
Word processors: Everybody’s qualitative data analysis software
Many (if not the majority) of qualitative researchers probably do not use commercial QDA software – although this does not mean that they do not use software (like mapping tools and word processors) during analysis. See the following articles for specific descriptions of how to use a word processor to facilitate tasks featured in QDA software:
Ryan, G.W. (2004). Using a word processor to tag and retrieve blocks of text. Field Methods, 16(1), 109-130.
Nideröst, B. (2002). Die technikunterstützte Analyse von qualitativen Daten mit Word. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(2). Available at: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/861 [Date of Access: October 1, 2008].
Carney, J.H.; Joiner, J.F. & Tragou, H. (1997). Categorizing, coding, and manipulating qualitative data using the WordPerfect® word processor. The Qualitative Report, 3(1). Available at: http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR3-1/carney.html [Date of Access: October 1, 2008].
Getting groceries with the Ferrari?
Depending on your data, your personal working preference and your method, you can easily work with a freeware program and a word processor. A fancy Ferrari is nice – but you don’t necessarily need one for getting your groceries. Depending on the road circumstances, the Ferrari might even be a bad choice.
The freeware available (for a list, see http://caqdas.soc.surrey.ac.uk/Resources/NewLinks.html) will often restrict you in more obvious ways than commercial packages – you might, for example be only able to import a more restricted text format (such as .txt). Also, the freeware programs are mostly tailored to their programmer’s needs, so they might not offer the features you are looking for.
Programs like OpenCode or WeftQDA, for example, are useful for basic ‘coding’, in order to roughly structure texts (e.g. in order to prepare them for closer discussion in an analysis group). But as soon as your method requires you to structure text more finely, or if your set of data exceeds a certain amount size, they lose their efficiency, and you might consider one of the more pricy packages.
Restrictions as incentives for reflection
The very obvious restrictions of freeware are not a disadvantage. Using freeware can help you getting familiar with the general function of QDA software. Write down the options you miss when using a freeware program – with such a “wish list”, you can test other QDA software more precisely.
Using freeware helps you understand the frustrations and limitations connected to working with any kind of QDA software. Monitor yourself when using freeware: How do I deal with this frustration? How do I modify my data, my expectations, and my methods? Such thoughts aid your reflection process – and might help you decide whether you want to use QDA software at all. The simplicity of freeware tools can also imply a fast learning curve –and since the software is free, it can be helpful to avoid a digital gap between research teams. If you use freeware not within an educational or academic context, you should contact the developers in order to discuss the commercial use of the product they provide.