Brief Thoughts on the Interaction between Method and Tool

Three elements are at play when software is used to do qualitative research: Options, Methods, and Functions. (cf. Schmieder, 2009; 2013 forthcoming).

I see Methods in this model as research strategies derived from epistemological frameworks, or, as C. Wright Mills (2000, p. 57) put more generally, as "...the procedures used by men trying to understand or explain something". Methods manifest in research-in-practice; they are the strategies according to which data is transformed and handled.

Options are the features as provided by the software. Software is a designed space (cf. Saillard, 2011), it provides a set of tools and a certain framework for interconnecting the tools; still, the agency lies with the researcher, because she or he chooses whether or how to use the tools. Consequently, the term Option is chosen in order to highlight a high degree of voluntarism and flexibility.

Functions, lastly, are the concrete method-driven steps or actions a researcher takes when using a QDA software. When we use software, we both functionalize the Options and the Methods. Options are functionalized by using them in a certain way due to the user’s method-driven intent. At the same time the Method is functionalized, because it manifests in the form of concrete (software-based) steps of work. The function is both shaped by the affordances and restrictions of an epistemologically grounded procedure and by the designed environment provided by the software.

Based upon this model, three major issues when using QDA software can be identified: a) The hybrid Function is not broken off into Methods and Options, thus creating a workflow that is not mainly method-driven (cf. Carvajal, 2002); b) the functionalization of the Method through the tool is dominant. This would be the case if researchers used a certain option of the software because it is there and easy to use, not because it is methodologically necessary or viable (cf. Weitzman, 2000); c) the functionalization of the Option through the Method is dominant. This is only problematic if the tool does not easily accommodate the implementation of the method. If this is the case, ‘tweaking’ the use of the software may afford great time investments, and may lead to workflows that actually inhibit efficient research. This would be the prototypical case where switching back to manual methods or other software solutions would be advisable.

These three issues can impact the quality of a research project greatly. Thus, creating low-risk environments where learners can practice combining Method and Option seems crucial. The model introduced above illustrates that software use in qualitative research is a deeply methodological process; accordingly, software can be used as a stimulator of methodological reflections.


Carvajal, D. (2002). The artisan’s tools. Critical issues when teaching and learning CAQDAS. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3(2). Retrieved from:

Mills, C.W. (2000[1959]). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford [...]: Oxford University Press.  

Saillard, E. K. (2011). Systematic Versus Interpretive Analysis with Two CAQDAS Packages: NVivo and MAXQDA. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1) Retrieved at: 

Schmieder, C. (2009): Technik der Legitimation – Legitimation der Technik. Eine qualitative Studie zur Verwendung von MAXqda in qualitativem Forschen. Retrieved from: 

Schmieder, C. (2013, forthcoming). QDA-Software und Qualitative Methodik. In J. Kruse, Einführung in rekonstruktive Interviewforschung. Munich: Fink. 

Weitzman, E.A. (2000). Software and qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin / Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (p. 803-820). Thousand Oaks: Sage. 

Thumbnail image via flickr creative commons by _sarchi ; image sharpness and color hues were changed, image was cropped.