August 24, 2017, by Stuart Moran
“What is a qualitative researcher to do…” – Digitising a Newspaper Archive
Dr Christian Karner, Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences talks about the role of his newspaper archive in his research and the positive impact of digitising it:
“What is a qualitative researcher to do when faced with an already enormous and continuously growing corpus of data? Guided by their self-definition as social scientists in search of particularistic patterns of meaning, values and interpretations of the world, many qualitative researchers nonetheless take on vast amounts of information. Put differently, exploring the social world qualitatively does not automatically translate into small sample sizes and narrowly delineated, fixed bodies of information.
As a qualitative sociologist specialising in issues of nationalism and national identities in our era of global interconnections, these issues have been near the top of my research agenda for quite some time. For 15 years my main empirical interest has been the contemporary politics of national identity in a particular part of Central Europe. The various methods of data collection I have employed in this context have included the ongoing, near-daily collection of relevant media materials. And within those, a particular focus has been on readers’ letters published in one particular country’s most widely-read newspaper. On average, on any given day the newspapers in question publish three pages worth of letters written by readers on a range of political news and topics. Multiply this by 365 (i.e. days in a year) and by 10 (i.e. for the number of years, during which I have been paying systematic attention to these readers’ letters as a source of readily available, publicly circulating materials), and one gets a fairly clear sense of the size of the resulting ‘archive’.
Over the years I have of course done much more than merely collect these enormously interesting materials, in which so-called ‘ordinary citizens’ (as opposed to those more powerful and more readily able to access and reach a public realm of discussion and decision-making) partake in debate, offering their experiences, perceptions, evaluations as well as their preferred and proposed responses to the social and political world around them. In other words, for a qualitative social scientist interested in how people experience a rapidly changing world and how they argue over competing political blueprints for (re)shaping this world, these materials are a gold mine. Close and continuous (thematic) analysis of these data accompanied by careful contextualisation, as required for all qualitative research, have been my principles and my approach all along. A qualitative researcher’s close contextual knowledge notwithstanding, such a project also runs into obvious difficulties: namely how to ‘handle’ a corpus that keeps growing, every day… Put simply, whilst I certainly know what is in the corpus (i.e. thematically, politically, rhetorically), finding in each case the most illustrative, most recent or perhaps the most surprising examples in such a large body of data gets ever more challenging, the longer the project continues.
This is the challenge our recent digitalization of this particular collection of data has taken on and met very successfully. Over a period of many weeks nearly 10 years’ worth of such materials were scanned. The resulting digital version of this collection of materials now allows for quick keyword (and other) searches, which make the qualitative researcher’s life incomparably easier. Almost instantly pointed towards all instances of a chosen theme being covered in the corpus, the researcher can now be sure that this vast and still growing collection is indeed always ‘mined’ systematically. What is more, this is a clear example of ‘traditional’ and digital skills working in close synergy. Keyword searches require the contextual insights and piecemeal accumulation of ‘local’ knowledge qualitative research always demands. The digital dimension, meanwhile, ensures that a vast amount of information becomes and remains manageable.”
If you are interested in digitising paper based research data please get in touch with the Digital Research Team.
Please note, this work is being conducted in full consideration of the copyright principles of “fair dealing/usage”. There is only one clipping per newspaper being scanned, with only one digital copy being stored, and the archive is to only be used privately for non-commercial personal research.
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Stuart Moran, Digital Research Specialist for Social Sciences