Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

'Is This Thing Working?'-The Challenge of Digital Audio for Qualitative Research

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

'Is This Thing Working?'-The Challenge of Digital Audio for Qualitative Research

Article excerpt


This paper examines some of the common assumptions about the status, creation and use of audio recordings in qualitative social science research. In particular it will look at its representation within archived data collections. It will be argued that within research practice audio is often overlooked and relegated once text based material is produced. Except for a few notable exceptions it is routinely undervalued. Possible reasons for this view of audio material will be discussed. Some elements of the relationship of sound recordings to text will be examined as well as its relationship with methodology, consent and confidentiality. The challenges and prospects for digital audio as an archivable and re-usable resource will then be used to illustrate wider issues in re-using and archiving qualitative data.

The number of national data archives continues to grow, as shown by the website of support organisations such as the Council of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA 2009). However few have committed to the archiving and sharing of qualitative research data. Exceptions to this can be found in the United States, Finland and Australia. In the United Kingdom the Economic and Social Data Service, and in particular ESDS Qualidata promotes the archiving of such research as well as providing general guidelines on the creation and management of qualitative research. Many of the ideas discussed in this paper have been developed through work for ESDS Qualidata--the qualitative service of the UK Data Archive. The ability to effectively archive qualitative research has been based on developing rigorous systems for controlling access to collections by the UK Data Archive. This is outlined at length on the UK Data Archive website and elsewhere (Bishop 2005). Whenever data sharing or archiving is discussed in this paper, it is therefore presumed it is in the context of such systems of access control and user registration.

Despite the domination of data archiving by quantitative archives the corpus of qualitative research data available to researchers is steadily growing. A review of what is available in the case of the UK Data Archive shows that, like its international counterparts, it is predominantly text based consisting mainly of interview, focus group and field observation transcriptions. Audio recordings are rarely deposited. However, there is traditionally a longstanding relationship between recording technology and qualitative methods (Lee 2004) so this absence is puzzling. Reading qualitative interview transcripts made available through archives suggests that it is common for the first exchange between researcher and respondent to be an oblique reference to the recording equipment; 'I'll just check this is running ...' or sometimes the less confident '... is this thing working?' But once it is confirmed everything is operating properly the captured audio, the initial raw research material, is seldom mentioned again. The same attitude persists when multi-media research is offered for archiving and textual material becomes the focus of attention. Audio recordings created in the course of the project are routinely withheld, unavailable or destroyed. When considering research practice, from the position of archiving and sharing research data, perhaps the same question 'is thing working' could be posed.

There is evidence, as Lee (2004: 881) observes that:

   Within the qualitative tradition there is a sense in which the tape
   recorder (sic) has come to be seen less as a device for recording
   sound and more as a means of producing text.

Of course there are some notable exceptions to this pattern. For example, research in disciplines such as conversational analysis, oral history and socio-linguistics, place a greater value on audio material and use it extensively throughout their research practice. Nevertheless even in these cases doubts about the suitability of archiving audio data persist and are exposed by the limited amount of audio being archived. …

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