Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Archiving Qualitative Data in Australia: An Introduction

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Archiving Qualitative Data in Australia: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Introduction

The prospect of the digital archiving of qualitative data for re-use and analysis by other researchers is now a distinct reality in Australia following the development of similar facilities in the UK, the US and Finland. While these archives are now well-established and have become reasonably well-accepted among the scholarly community, their development has not been uncontroversial and has stimulated much debate about the desirability and feasibility of archiving qualitative data on ethical, epistemological and ideological grounds (Hammersley, 1997; Mauthner, Parry and Backett-Milburne, 1998; Moore, 2007; Parry and Mauthner, 2004; 2005). Such debates have done much to improve the practice of data archiving by making it more sensitive to the distinct characteristics of qualitative data and to the particular needs and concerns of qualitative researchers. At the same time, the very real prospect of data archiving has induced researchers to take stock of their own practices and to re-examine deeply held views about the nature of qualitative research, the way it is conducted, and the claims to truth and knowledge that can be generated from it (see Broom, Cheshire and Emmison, 2009). In this sense, the development of an archive--regardless of its controversiality--adds much to the debate, and therefore the advancement, of the practice of qualitative research.

Here in Australia, similar debates are beginning to emerge following the expansion of the Australian Social Science Data Archive (ASSDA) at the ANU in order to provide a storage and retrieval facility for a broader range of research data. ASSDA has been archiving quantitative survey and demographic data since the early 1980s and currently holds over 2000 datasets which are available for researchers to use, subject to a range of different access conditions. With no equivalent archiving facility currently in operation for qualitative data, one of ASSDA's key priorities has been to establish the Australian Qualitative Archive (AQuA), which will be housed at The University of Queensland as part of a distributed ASSDA network. The development of AQuA has been accompanied by a process of consultation with the qualitative research community, involving a series of focus groups in 2007 to 2009, various workshops at meetings of disciplinary associations and, more recently, a discussion paper outlining the key issues under consideration (Cheshire, 2009). The feedback we have elicited so far indicates that the Australian qualitative community is equally reticent about data archiving as its overseas counterparts have been, and that the concerns over depositing and sharing data are very similar to those already articulated elsewhere.

The papers in this special issue contribute to the debates about qualitative data archiving in two key ways. First, they represent one of the first opportunities among Australian researchers to comprehensively engage with the issues arising from qualitative data archiving and to begin this dialogue in the Australian context. In addition, however, they also contribute to the international debate on data archiving rather than simply rehearsing what has already said before. The inclusion of papers from British scholars in this special issue--Libby Bishop, Natasha Mauthner and Odette Parry, and John Southall--all of whom have worked or written extensively on qualitative data archiving means that this collection also represents the next stage of thinking on these issues more broadly. As the papers indicate, this thinking is becoming increasingly sophisticated and has moved well beyond the polarising debates between qualitative archive believers and skeptics to consider the philosophical and scientific terms on which we engage with these issues (Mauthner and Parry, this issue). It is important to note that virtually all the papers are underscored--explicitly or implicitly--with a model of qualitative research practice that emphasises its interpretive character and the centrality of the researcher-researched relationship. …

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