Qualitative archiving: engaging with epistemological misgivings.
Abstract: In this article it is argued that epistemological concerns about the archiving of qualitative data are mis-directed. Almost all interpretive data makes either an implicit or explicit claim to knowledge in a broader context than the research project on which it is based. The ability to re-interpret these data in the light of changing broader contexts is entirely consistent with the project of interpretive and constructivist epistemologies which frame reality as socially constructed and contextually contingent. The increasing reflexivity of qualitative research can only assist the future researcher, providing it serves its aims of articulating and deepening the understanding of the original research environment and the motives of researcher and participant. The decision to re-interpret data should be one based on professional skill rather than epistemological barriers. Qualitative researchers should view the project as one for the long term, rather than as a short-term threat to the validity of their primary analysis. These arguments are made separately from ongoing debates about the ethical and confidentiality concerns of qualitative archiving.

Keywords: qualitative archives, epistemology, reflexivity, interpretivism
Article Type: Report
Subject: Qualitative research (Ethical aspects)
Knowledge, Theory of (Research)
Data libraries (Ethical aspects)
Author: Walters, Peter
Pub Date: 03/22/2009
Publication: Name: Australian Journal of Social Issues Publisher: Australian Council of Social Service Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Australian Council of Social Service ISSN: 0157-6321
Issue: Date: Spring, 2009 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 310 Science & research Advertising Code: 91 Ethics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia
Accession Number: 222315600
Full Text: Introduction

As research funding organisations in Australia and elsewhere become more prescriptive about the treatment and storage of research data, a debate has developed about the suitability of qualitative data for archiving and re-analysis in the future (Broom et al. 2009). To date this debate has revolved around two central questions: firstly the epistemological suitability of qualitative data for reuse by unknown users at a future time; and secondly, the ethical and privacy considerations of making sometimes sensitive or compromising data available for future use. In this article I focus on the first of these two questions which centres on the claim by some researchers that qualitative data are not suitable for use by researchers in the future as they are the product of unique contextual synthesis between researcher and research participants. I argue that epistemological concerns about the suitability of qualitative data for future use are an unnecessary distraction from the second question of consent and the protection of research participant confidentiality covered elsewhere by other authors (e.g. Heaton, 2004; Parry & Mauthner, 2004; Richardson & Godfrey, 2003).

The qualitative tradition in the social sciences can be defined in broad terms as an interpretivist project that is an attempt by researchers to achieve an understanding of the social world from the perspective of those who experience it (Schwandt 2000). This lies in contrast to the quantitative project, which for the most part seeks to provide causal explanations by the abstraction and incremental analysis of nomothetic evidence. In addition to the distinction from quantitative social science, the interpretivist project plays host to a number of different epistemological standpoints, and although there is a large methodological literature on these different epistemologies, the majority of research output does not labour the reader with an explicit ontological or epistemological declaration.

However, what is central to all interpretive social science is the idea of context, which can be understood as the set of conditions under which qualitative research takes place. These conditions include macro socio-structural factors such as temporal location, political climate, geography and cultural conditions and tensions. These macro-contextual factors are either implicitly or explicitly manifest in the micro contextual features of qualitative research including the biographical characteristics of the participant and the researcher; the qualities of their relationship; the circumstances, including stage management of the research site; and, the nature, funding and objectives of the research project. All these factors, macro and micro, contribute to a unique set of spatio-temporal circumstances for each qualitative research endeavour. However, as I will argue below, it is the micro- contextual or first hand aspects of qualitative research which are emphasised by those who use context as an epistemological barrier to the re-analysis of qualitative data in the future.

A loss of context: the critique of archiving

The epistemological aspect of the archiving debate, regarding the suitability of storing qualitative data in an archive accessible to others, has for the most part centred on the legitimacy of qualitative data once it has been removed from both its original context, and also from the control of those researchers who were responsible for the original design, implementation and analysis of a particular qualitative research project. Moore (2007: 4.2) describes an 'almost obsessive attention to context' in the literature on re-use of qualitative data, and that without first hand experience of this context, another researcher risks misrepresenting that data, or 'just getting it wrong'.

Critics of the archiving of qualitative research projects question how much of the sense of this context can be retained through storage of textual, visual or aural artefacts of research; and then the epistemological appropriateness of using data generated in the course of unique interaction between researcher and 'subject' for other purposes. According to Mauthner et al. (1998: 742), qualitative research 'celebrates the reflexive role of the researcher', who becomes a major part of the research context and, as distance lessens the memory of collusion between the researcher and research subject, the data become useful only as a historical record, or for comparative methodological purposes, rather than as a new source of data for fresh analysis and theoretical integration (see also Corti 2000; Parry & Mauthner 2005).

Heaton (2004: 60) refers to the same micro-contextual problem of the researcher 'not having been there' in the secondary analysis of qualitative data; and according to Dale (1988: 15), 'it seems unlikely that the re-analysis of either interview transcripts or field notes by an outsider could give more than a partial understanding of the research issues'. In a similar vein, Denzin (2009) argues that the production of qualitative research should be viewed as a performance within which the third party is permitted to watch rather than to become a part of, in contrast to the treatment of research as a 'commodity' to be packaged and sold. According to Denzin, to make data available to future researchers implies that qualitative data are to be subjected to a positivist paradigm, that there is a particular truth in the data waiting to be discovered by other researchers. He adds that as qualitative researchers:

We perform our interpretations and invite audiences to experience these performances, to live their way into the scenes, moments and lives we are writing, and talking about. Our empirical materials can't be fudged, mis-represented, altered or distorted, because they are life experiences. They are ethno-dramas (Denzin, 2009: 151).

Similar concerns were expressed during recent focus groups with Australian academic researchers carried out in 2007 and 2008 by Broom et al. (2009). For example, a senior lecturer summarises, in an informal way, similar epistemological concerns to those expressed by other authors:

Now, you draw a picture for yourself and if someone comes over and says well that's a nice frog, well it wasn't a frog at all. How upset can you be that they've got that reading, because they've misread all of the contextual clues and cues and so forth? Well the same thing happens, you know, when other people look at your data set, it's trying to de-contextualise something that's so contextualised that what are they going to find there? Well they might find something that actually is wrong, fundamentally wrong because they've misread contextual clues [italics added] (Broom et al. 2009: 1170).

It is this concern that another researcher will arrive at an 'incorrect' interpretation that I will explore in the remainder of this paper. I will argue that any properly documented qualitative material can and should be made available to future researchers, ethical considerations notwithstanding.

Qualitative research and the wider context

Much of the criticism surrounding the epistemological suitability of qualitative research for re-analysis at some unknown time in the future assumes, theoretically at least, a constructionist epistemology. This epistemological standpoint frames knowledge generated in the research process as a situated achievement of researcher and participant, a unique event, inseparable from its spatio-temporal circumstances. The role of the researcher in this paradigm is to access the lifeworld of the research participant and to attempt to provide a reading of it as part of the analytical process. It is to offer a construction of the participants' constructions (Schwandt 2000). In his discussion of the interpretive project, Charles Taylor describes this process of researcher construction and the creation of a 'correct' or 'good' interpretation as the one which 'makes sense of the original text: what is strange, mystifying, puzzling, contradictory is no longer so, is accounted for' (1994: 182). It is uncontentious to claim that the original researcher, engaged with the subject matter of the research, and with firsthand insight into the research participants and environment of the original research project should be the best placed to make this reading at that particular time and place.

It is also uncontroversial to say that qualitative researchers almost never limit their research conclusions to the narrow confines of the actual research context. To do so would deny research its social scientific consequence. In all social research, the researcher is required to attribute a level of relevance to the reading of a particular context, in other words, to take the meaning created within the research context and apply it more widely. Despite the standard or text book characterisation of qualitative research as a methodological approach that is more concerned with communicating the nature of context than it is to generalisation, almost all qualitative research appeals to a set of contexts beyond the one in which it is actually produced. The word 'generalisation' carries with it positivist overtones for many interpretive researchers and it should be stressed that in this case, it differs from that of quantitative research where a statistical probability that a certain phenomenon will reproduce itself in a particular population is offered. The type of generalisation made in qualitative research is what Williams calls 'moderatum generalisation' (Payne & Williams 2005; Williams 2000) and is by its nature modest and context-driven, but what it does achieve is to:

... make clear the meaningful experiences of actors and specifically why they believe the world is the way it is and if these experiences can become moderatum generalisations then they can form the basis of theories about process or structure (Williams 2000: 221-222).

Flyvbjerg (2004) makes a similar argument about the generalisability of interpretive research by emphasising the 'concrete' nature of knowledge generated in a case study and its value as bedrock for subsequent theory generation. The strength of the qualitative case study lies in its ability to produce a context-rich vehicle for understanding a particular social phenomenon or process. However, for it to be valuable as social science, it must also be capable of producing theoretical generalisations based on that experience. That is, to take a range of data and by leaving them in their proper context, synthesise them into a logically coherent and plausible narrative or argument (Mason 2002) that has direct use in the understanding of other similar situations, or a wider horizon, in different times and places (Ruddin 2006). In the act of interpretation the research project becomes an exercise in sense making, with reference to structures, concepts or tropes which must, by necessity, have an existence outside of that particular research act. This is in order to communicate meaning to a third party (the reader), but also to engage with those who have gone before them, such as other researchers and theorists.

If these generalisations are to be made, then logically, authors must also acknowledge that macro-context is manifest in the micro-circumstances of their research act. While the original researcher might claim to have privileged access to this micro-context, the macro-context is in constant flux, particularly as conditions of late or post modernity become more pervasive. The ability to revisit qualitative data in light of social change may allow the future researcher to attribute those participants with a degree of prescience about future social conditions that the original researcher was in no position to understand.


To claim, as the critics of qualitative archiving do, that a future researcher is liable to make a 'wrong' interpretation of their data is to deny the changeability of this wider context and also, to lay claim to an immutable objective 'truth' in the original data and interpretation which is inconsistent with the anti-objectivist epistemological foundation to which the same qualitative researchers would lay claim.

The fact that qualitative researchers do make theoretical generalisations underlines the project of qualitative research as one that both recognises the existence of wider social context in the micro-context of a research project and then in turn makes claims about that wider context in light of the analysis of that research context. To acknowledge the presence of a wider social and cultural meaning in a research context the researcher cannot then claim to have absolute privilege of access to the interpretive keys to unlock meaning in that research situation. Many of those symbolic meanings, tropes, metaphors and linguistic constructions are also available to other researchers working with those socio-structural phenomena, and are open to further or different interpretation. Research participants, including the researchers themselves carry with them wider meanings and messages about context which future researchers, with their own access to socio-cultural meaning and the benefit of hindsight should be able to access. To argue otherwise is to imply that the only claim that can be made about a research project is an understanding of the processes by which meaning was constructed in a particular or singular context, rather than to draw any claims or lessons to other contexts in time and space (Schwandt 1994).

The purpose and limits of re-analysis

New insights into existing qualitative data may not be that interesting after only a decade. However, consider the implications of current access to original qualitative material on school leavers in the 1950s; or Chinese immigrants to Northern Australia in the 1890s; or the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. It is unlikely that researchers from these eras would have been interested in the same conclusions that we might with the benefit of hindsight and changed socio-cultural norms and expectations. The loss of privileged interpretive insights of the original researchers would be more than compensated by the ability of future researchers to challenge past and present assumptions and reflect upon the process of social change.

The purpose of the argument so far has been to demonstrate that interpretive data are firstly context dependent, and that based on this context, they are then generalisable, in a 'moderatum' and theoretical way to further related contexts in time and space. However, this being the case, why then should the original raw material of this analysis, such as interview transcripts, audio records and other data, be subject to further analysis by other researchers at a later date? The response to this question rests on the basis that the claim to a more general application to other contexts, which is a characteristic of qualitative research, does not sit well with a simultaneous claim to the impossibility of further or different interpretation of the same raw material with the passage of time. As Lincoln and Guba note 'there is a preoccupation in much of the literature on qualitative research to distinguish the endeavour from the positivism that distinguishes much quantitative research. The ontological focus of these claims is that realities are 'multiple, constructed and holistic' as opposed to the single and empirically tangible reality of the positivist paradigm (Lincoln & Guba 1985: 37).

If this is the case a significant part of that reality construction rests with the original researcher who, in good faith, brings to bear the contextual features already listed above into play to provide a reading of a research situation.

Context itself, nevertheless, is mutable and the temporal circumstances of a research project are subject, and entitled to, different readings over time. The truth claims of a particular research act must be read on the proviso that they are taken in a particular time and place. In this case the axiom the 'benefit of hindsight' is more than a wistful conceit. It is the means by which sense can be made of social change and may require a revisiting of primary data in the light of contextual changes. The origins of a phenomenon not yet known to the original researcher/s and therefore not incorporated into the original analysis may offer themselves to a subsequent researcher many years, or decades, into the future. The same data then have served two (or more) different purposes during their life. In the ontological and epistemological spirit of interpretive research, neither is 'wrong'. A claim to the impossibility of re-interpretation of an archived context-dependent, or local, truth is a denial of the mutability of truth/knowledge. This multiplicity of perspective is central to the epistemology of those who, at the same time, claim primacy of their own interpretation. This contradiction is important to note, as serves to preserve the singularity of a particular interpretation 'in aspic'. It is not necessary to 'disprove' or demolish the previous researchers' work. Indeed neither is inherently weaker or stronger than the other--the later analysis requires the earlier one for its coherence. The data have been put into service for differing ends, perhaps acting as a 'commodity' as Denzin (2009) has warned against, but with fungible meaning. It is consistent with a constructivist epistemology that the context is revisited and knowledge is re-contextualised (Morse 1994) or re-incorporated with the benefit of intervening developments in that field, process or phenomenon.

Hammersley (1997) makes the observation that the potential in the archiving of qualitative material allows interpretive research to make knowledge claims about social change, which is currently dominated by longitudinal statistical methods. The ability to compare the changing contextual circumstances over time of a particular phenomenon might give far greater cause for optimism or pessimism than an abstract probabilistic or correlational exposition of the same phenomenon. There is also the possibility of using the same analysis and perhaps the same conclusions drawn by a previous researcher to take a different (or more daring) epistemological standpoint, drawing inferences and theoretical possibilities that a previous, more objective or empirically naive researcher may have been reluctant to undertake with the same data. Again, this is not to say that secondary analysis can or should be used for 'verification' or indeed even critique primary analysis on its own terms. The secondary analyst can argue for a more convincing version (of the truth), rather than a 'more correct' interpretation but this argument must be based on improved access to wider contextual data, the wisdom of hindsight and perhaps a more sophisticated method. An argument by a subsequent researcher based on better insight to the data on the same terms used by the original researcher is unlikely to succeed.

The benefits of reflexivity

The stage management of a research site: the gender, age and socio-cultural background of the participants as well as the researcher, make a contribution to what is said and done and, perhaps more importantly, what is not said and done during the course of a research interaction. Accordingly, the participant's construction of events can be influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the nature of the research environment created by the researcher. For example, the female adolescent victim of sexual assault might be prone to respond in different ways to a middle aged male academic than she might be to a female interviewer closer in age and life experience to her. In turn, the skill and capacity for empathy of the respective interviewers might also mitigate in unexpected ways.

While this has always been the case with qualitative research, researchers are increasingly inviting the reader to participate in the reflexive process of generating research data, where the researcher is careful to reflect back on the conditions of the research and they ways in which they may have affected what was said and done (Mason 2002). Mauthner et al. (1998: 742) claim that in qualitative research 'for some time the processes and products of data analysis have been seen as a reflexive exercise through which texts are negotiated and where meanings are made rather than found'. This reflexive project in interpretive research is the result of a movement to acknowledge and retain the role of the researcher as an actor in the construction of research text or data.

A further criticism of the possibility for qualitative archiving has been made on these grounds: that a process whereby 'the researcher and the object of study 'affect each other mutually and continually in the course of the research process' (Alvesson & Skeoldberg 2000: 39) is not amenable to further interpretation by an outsider. Research output becomes the reflexive joint construction of data by the participant, who crafts her or his discourse, responses and motives according to the perceived nature of the research project; and the researcher who crafts the project according to her/his own ambitions, theoretical proclivities and the nature of the participant. It could be argued that this is the case for all social research, but that in quantitative research it just happens with considerably more distance between researcher and object. Those wary of the re-analysis of qualitative data believe that only the original researcher can communicate the intended meaning from reflexively constructed research, as the only one privy to that reflexive process. This is almost certainly the case and this is why it would be futile to re-analyse qualitative data with a view to either replicating findings or indeed testing the validity of the research on same terms as the original researcher. In any case, as Hammersley (1997) reminds us, the pressures of time on contemporary researchers is such that it would be very unlikely that anyone would be able to devote the considerable time or funds required to simply verify other researchers' analysis using the same data.

However, in accord with the project of interpretivism and particularly constructivism, that reality is socially constructed and contingent, there remain other reasons to re-read original data. The first of these is what C Wright Mills (1940) termed 'vocabularies of motive' where 'Motives vary in content and character with historical epochs and societal structures' (Mills 1940: 913). Motives can be attributed equally to researcher and research subject and the nature and linguistic construction of motives for participation, the linguistic framing of research questions, emphasis on particular themes and the absence of other themes all provide important analytical signs to the way in which social phenomena were framed and understood when the original research took place. These linguistic constructs are manifest in language tropes, expressions, displays of patronage or submission or dismissal and can be attributed to both research object and researcher alike. If treated as more than just expressions of the narrow research context they can provide subsequent researchers with important windows into prevailing social forms or processes, allowing future researchers to analyse not just the original data, but the original project.

The self conscious and recorded reflexivity of the original researcher and subject can only assist the future researcher to achieve this. This researcher reflexivity becomes all the more valuable if, as Riach suggests:

It seeks to escape the 'self-fascinated observation of the observer's writings and feelings' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:72) through developing the notion of epistemic reflexivity, where the processes of objectification we undertake as researchers become the focus of analysis itself (Riach 2009: 359).

The reading of spatio-temporal cues is greatly enhanced by the professional reflexivity of the original author and the disclosure of research subject's reflexivity, along with thick and evocative contextual cues relating to environment and era. The very project of interpretive research, particularly those strands which support the existence of multiple and context dependent realities cannot argue on epistemological grounds for the future re-analysis of qualitative data in light of future perspectives and new theoretical lenses. By making data immune from secondary analysis the researcher is reifying one version of reality despite the constant flux in the wider contextual setting that informs that research. If the reflexive project is true to its ideals then the full and research-focussed reflexive revelations of a research project can only add to the value of this data in the future.

The challenge to future researchers then becomes one of professional skill and judgement rather than an epistemological quandary. Fielding and Fielding (2000: 679) in a pragmatic vein argue that 'researchers are used to tracing the mediating effects of reflexivity in primary data analysis and we believe that the recovery of contextual features in secondary data analysis is a practical rather than an epistemological matter'. If the original researcher can provide contextual pointers such as original research questions and focus, the genesis of the project including funding sources, the method of recruitment or identification of research participants and the stage management of the research environment, then the future analyst should have further basis upon which to make a professional judgement about the worth of original research for her or his current concerns. This provides a focus for re-analysis, rather than re-analysis based on the same assumptions.


A research paradigm consists of an epistemological, ontological and methodological worldview or metaphysical belief system (Guba & Lincoln 1994). It is a personal view of the way in which the social world is and can be accessed and ultimately can only be argued on that basis. There are concerns that have been raised about the epistemological grounds for the archiving of qualitative data, some of which I have addressed in this article. These objections are made from a constructivist perspective, which respects the mutability of meaning with context, but at the same time attributes the analysis of a particular micro context with an immutable truth, denying its relationship with a wider social context. While interpretive researchers might make claims about uniquely constructed context dependent realities and the contingent nature of these mutually-constructed realities, in practice, almost all qualitative research makes claims to a wider context through theoretical generalisations, through appeals to existing social processes or as further examples of a social phenomenon. In other words, a claim is made by the researcher to a more credible or convincing (as opposed to more correct) version of a particular truth or version of reality, which the reader of the research is encouraged to accept on the basis of a research endeavour conducted in a particular micro context. By so doing, they (and their research) become players in a wider debate that does not cease with the end any particular research project.

Even the most avowedly constructivist or anti-foundationalist research project must contain a message or an idea that can be taken beyond the context of the research act. The existence of knowledge, social structures and tropes that are shared before and beyond the research moment is essential for qualitative social science to retain purposive legitimacy and knowledge generated using these meanings should be available for ongoing interpretation.

It is on this basis that qualitative research must be open to further analysis in the light of new context, when the process or category of phenomena addressed by the original research is in need of further or different theorising. The loss of special interpretive insights of the original researchers should be more than compensated for the ability of future social scientists to challenge our assumptions and reflect upon the process of social change. The full and professional reflexivity by the original researchers will make the task more fruitful for future researchers. Earlier ways in which a complete project was planned and executed can also only assist future researchers. Successful archiving of qualitative material requires a cultural shift on the part of those researchers who might at this stage remain wary or resistant. This should not be seen as a short-term project. The archiving of data with full and generous contextual material (Corti 2000), done in the understanding that their own research should not be subject to 'verification' of the original research questions and conclusions will go some way to achieving this.


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