Translating in a Fishbox - A few reflections sparked by Silver & Woolf's CAQDAS Pedagogy

After looking at my curriculum on question generation using QDA software, Daniel Turner (founder & director of the QDA software company Quirkos) pointed me to a recent article on CAQDAS pedagogy  by Silver & Woolf. I was happy to see that the discussion around QDA software and teaching is picking up – and I think the article is a must-read for anyone reflecting on their own teaching strategies and teaching experiences.

Daniel asked me whether I think that my curriculum is complementary to Silver and Woolf’s approach. I think it is – so I jotted down a few thoughts.

Translating between Strategy & Tactics / Functionalizing the tool’s options and the method

To put it in Silver/Woolf’s terms: I developed this curriculum in order to practice one form of translation between tactics and strategy, i.e. a “process of translation between the units of analysis that comprise each individual analytic task, and the affordances of the software features (Gaver, 1991)” (2015: 11). I was glad to read that their distinction of tactics and strategy aims at the same phenomenon and process as the distinction that I have made between Option, Method and Function (Schmieder 2009; Schmieder 2014, and in abbreviated form in this blog post): The option is the framework of concrete actions that the software provides qua design (‘tactics’), the method is the epistemologically and ontologically guided strategy or procedure (‘strategy’). Functions, then are concrete method-driven steps or actions a researcher takes when using a QDA software ('translation'). Using software means functionalizing options and methods – I believe that this, in essence, resonates with Silver & Woolf's process of 'translation'.

Creating a Methodological ‘Fishbox’

Silver and Woolf mention that one challenge in QDA software training is the increasing diversity across users and uses of the software – this includes methodological diversity. As they rightfully point out: A one-size-fits-all approach is highly problematic in this learning context (or in really any context of qualitative methodological training).

My curriculum is aiming at a task that – while inherently analytic – can be distinguished from ‘analysis proper’. It is about brainstorming, critiquing, and refining questions for qualitative interviews. To be perfectly clear here: I believe that all stages of qualitative research are analytic – because they should be driven by reflexivity, openness, and the goal to create intersubjectivity. But there is a difference between analyzing one’s questions in order to generate a research instrument, and the analysis of interview data (and the analysis of one’s questions in the latter context).

The curriculum aims at how to create powerful questions for qualitative interviews. The workflow by Helfferich (2005) & Kruse (2014) that I am adapting for the generation and iteration of questions is very streamlined. Thus, the heterogeneity in terms of different methods and uses of software observed by Silver & Woolfe is consciously eliminated by design here. This creates what Gee (2003) calls a ‘fish tank’ and a ‘sand box’: A fish tank is a simplified (in this case: methodological/procedural) system, and a sand box is a safe place for experimentation. The curriculum is embedding software use in a simplified methodological context. However, this is a context that also yields a tangible product in a relatively short amount of time (5-15 hours): A question guide that can be used after the workshop. Here, I see another intersection with Silver & Woolf’s approach: it emphasizes the creation of a product. Their analytic planning worksheets are tangible things; they are micro-guides aimed at the translation between tool and method; they are invaluable sources for methodological reflexivity, and they are products that can be shared and discussed with others – which makes them even more powerful as pedagogic devices.

Learning how to Translate

The relative lack of complexity of the question generation process is the reason why the curriculum should not be seen or used as a general introduction into MAXQDA, or QDA software in general. The curriculum’s goal is primarily to create a product – using software is the consciously added value. My goal with this particular curriculum was to ‘sneak in’ software use by design. I found that this is a great opportunity to expose researchers (especially graduate students) to analysis software before they have generated data; before they see their deadlines for analysis upon the horizon; before they commit to a specific software uninformed; before they experience how the fundamental process of functionalization/translation feels and works; before they use software for the first time in the context of a very stressful, professionally precarious situation.

I find Silver’s and Woolf’s metaphor of translation very useful here: Because the question generation curriculum is actually aiming at practicing, and becoming familiar with this very process of translation – in the context of a very bounded, concrete, product-based process. In this sense, I believe that my approach greatly resonates with Silver & Woolf’s experiences and suggestions around QDA software pedagogy. The curriculum brings a chance to practice translating before being plopped into a strange country.

The curriculum is a vehicle for experiencing, and exploring software within the context of a rather strict analytic procedural framework. The process of creating a question guide is the primary focus; software is merely a tool in this process; I see this as an opportunity to expose learners to software in a context where they would not expect it. This frees them from typical insecurities around qualitative analysis. Given the strict procedural framework, it allows them to explore features of the software without fears sparked by ‘methodology angst’, high-stakes research grants, or products vitally connected to their professional trajectory.


Gee, J. P. (2003) What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, Palgrave Macmillan: New York

Helfferich, C. (2005). Qualität qualitativer Daten. Manual zur Durchführung qualitativer Einzelinterviews. (2nd ed). Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag

Kruse, J. (2014). Einführung in rekonstruktive Interviewforschung. Weinheim: Juventa

Schmieder, C. (2014): Zur Wahl von QDA-Software. Hintergründe, Funktionalität, Hilfestellungen (Guest Chapter). In: Kruse, Jan: Einführung in rekonstruktive Interviewforschung. Weinheim: Juventa.

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

Silver, C. & Woolf, N.H. (2015). From guided-instruction to facilitation of learning: the development of Five-level QDA as a CAQDAS pedagogy that explicates the practices of expert users. In: International Journal of Social Research Methodology. DOI:10.1080/13645579.2015.1062626

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