Qualitative data analysis


At this point in your research journey, you will hopefully have completed your data collection.  The focus of this blog post is on what to do with all of this rich data.  It goes through the stages of data analysis, using an example of a research article to demonstrate the process.

Stage 1: Data Coding

It is probable that you have ‘too much’ data. This is a typical outcome of qualitative research, which if methods are used well, can produce large amounts of data, not all of which can be included or are relevant to your specific research question/topic. The first stage of your data analysis is to begin to organise all these data into a manageable form. Imagine your research as a story; in order to create an engaging tale, you will include the most significant elements in a structured way, and you may even have to omit some interesting digressions along the way to maintain a coherent narrative.

In terms of your research, you achieve this through first ‘coding’ your data into meaningful units. Coding is applied to textual data to identify and label snippets of text that relate to certain meanings or ideas. These ‘codes’ can be allocated using short, descriptive names or tags. As you code the data, try to keep in mind ideas that are central to your research question.

The codes that you apply may come through the literature you have previously analysed (deductive coding), using a ‘top-down’ approach.



However, you may also allow new ideas to emerge through the data (inductive coding), using a ‘bottom-up’ approach’.



These approaches feel different, but can be complementary rather than conflicting.  An interesting reflection by Amy Blackstone gives examples of the uses of these approaches.

For example, in our data analysis work group, I coded the interview transcript  from my previous research as follows:



Stage 2: Categorisation

2Once you have finished coding the data, you need to put it back together again.  Some have described this process using an omelette analogy; to make an omelette, you have to first break the eggs (your data) before you can combine them again in a new way, into a new dish. Others describe the data analysis process as akin to making a jigsaw; your data are the little pieces that you begin to group together to create the big picture (This group makes the sky, this group makes the trees, this group makes the buildings, etc.).

2572921732_e2c1321d2eIn our group session, we used the ‘Quality Street method’ to visual categorisation.  Incidentally, I was first shown this method by a researcher called Mary Kellett, who is founder of the Children’s Research Centre in the Open University. She has undertaken some fascinating work with children as researchers, which you can hear about from the young researchers’ own perspectives.

Categorisation involves grouping your coded text together into bigger concepts or themes. You can use these categories to complete a set, and to use each set as the basis of a chapter.  For example, the orange-coloured sweets might represent one set; pinks, reds, and purples might be a second set, and; greens and blues a third set. As we discovered in the Quality Street exercise, there are many possible ways to categorise the codes, and these will be driven by your various research questions, interests, and values, as well as by the data. You should look out for the frequency with which certain ideas occur, similarities between ideas, and corroboration, where numerous data confirm an idea as an important category.  You might also find some surprises along the way.  Categorisation, then, is an iterative process.

See, for example, how Tania de la Croix describes the coding process in her fascinating research on emotional labour and youth work (there is a link to the full article below), and how this facilitated her development of certain themes, which she reflects on in her methodology section:

Analysis started with detailed line-by-line coding to enable me to become deeply familiar with each interview, moving towards a more open and instinctive analytical approach to draw out common themes. I wrote up tentative theories as I went along, comparing these ideas within and between interviews, with relevant literature and with my ethnographic youth work practice journal. I had not expected or intended to write about love and passion and only read about emotional labour after analysing the interviews. If I had preconceptions about my findings, it was that these youth workers might be demoralised at a time of increasing control and bureaucracy combined with impending cuts and redundancies. While these aspects of workplace reform were indeed key issues for the interviewees, this made it all the more striking that love, passion and enjoyment also arose as strong themes. (de la Croix, 2013: 35)

Note that she mixes inductive and deductive coding, allowing herself to be guided by both the data and her theoretical knowledge.  Note also that she lets herself open to new ideas; she points out that she explored literature on emotional labour after she had collected and analysed the data.  In the next section, I again take de la Croix’s research article as an example of how to explore these themes for presentation.

Stage 3: Presenting Findings and Analysis

Having organised the data into codes (Stage 1) and the codes into categories (Stage 2), you are now ready to begin presenting the data and reflecting on the data. In de la Croix’s article, she presents and reflects on the data in three subsections, including:

  1. Love and passion in youth work
  2. Exploited emotions?
  3. Passion and resistance

In the first of these sections (pp.35-40), she eases the reader into the data.  This section primarily focuses on presenting the ‘feel’ of the data to the reader, and is effectively engaging.  Note how she presents findings in a generalised way:

Some focused primarily on building relationships with peer groups, talking with them and engaging them in activities such as quizzes, sports, games and even circus skills, while others worked mainly with individual young people who wanted support. Some did most of their work on the streets, whereas others used mobile youth buses and local community buildings. Although their approaches differed, they all emphasised the importance and satisfaction of getting to know an area and its people. (ibid: 35-6)

Thereafter, she peppers the section with illustrative quotes from her data.  She is not too heavy-handed with the citations, but gives just enough to evidence her arguments.  This can be difficult to get right.  If you have developed good rapport with well-chosen research participants using solid data collection instruments, then it is likely that you will have many beautiful quotes that you would like to include, but you will need to be ruthless in choosing only a few, which serve a purpose in supporting an argument or idea.  Having presented some direct quotations from her data, de la Croix makes it explicit why she has chosen to include these:

The section above includes a relatively large amount of interview data in order to build up a picture of the passion with which these youth workers discussed and engaged with their work. (ibid: 39)

In her second section (pp.40-44), she discusses the data outlined in section one with reference to theory, and in particular, to the concept of emotional labour.  Unpacking this section, she presents:

  1. An overview of the concept and the research(er) that is associated with establishing this concept.
  2. The relevance of this concept to public sector work and caring professions.
  3. Its relevance to contemporary youth work.
  4. A critique of the concept and its further development in relevant research.
  5. Reflections on the importance of the concept for understanding youth work.
  6. A vignette from her primary research that encapsulates her arguments.
  7. Final reflections to hammer home the argument.

A journal article is slightly differently structured to a Masters dissertation, so you may find it more appropriate to include parts 1-3 in your literature review chapters.  Then, when it comes to interrogating the concept with reference to your data and research findings, you will have already mapped out its meaning and significance.

In the third section (pp.44-47), de la Croix considers the ‘So what?!’ of her contribution in further depth.  She achieves this by again drawing in some illustrative quotations, by reflecting on the contemporary context, and by pointing out explicitly the implications of her research findings for  youth work practice.

Across these three sections, then, de la Croix skilfully balances the presentation of the findings with theoretical development and with reflections on youth work policy and practice through a tightly structured discussion that flows beautifully and maintains the reader’s interest throughout.  Her structure follows the Results-Analysis-Discussion format that is typical of qualitative research dissertations and empirical articles.  You don’t have to stick rigidly to this approach, but it is an effective one.  Bear in mind that a journal article is approximately 5-7,000 words.  Given that your dissertation is either 15,000 or 20,000 words (depending on the route you’ve taken into the Masters), you will have space to expand your themes and your analysis and discussion accordingly.

Over to you!

Kind regards,



de la Croix, T. (2013) ‘I just love youth work!’ Emotional labour, passion and resistanceYouth and Policy, No. 110, May 2013: 33-51.

Qualitative data analysis: Classic texts

Glaser, B. and Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Chicago: Aldine

Miles, M. and Huberman, A. (1984) Qualitative Data Analysis, London: Sage

Silverman, D. (1993) Interpreting Qualitative Data, London: Sage

Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. (1990) ‘Grounded theory methodology: an overview’ in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research, Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA


Self-care and the student experience

Hi everyone,

The focus of blog posts to date has been academic. However, I think it is timely to think about the stresses associated with student life and to reflect on the importance of self-care.

I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks, so I’m not sure how much of this will resonate.  However, I have been teaching for a number of years, and experience has shown me that this is the time of year that students struggle most, so I hope you find something of value in this post.

This is the period which you are likely to find very challenging; pressures associated with approaching deadlines are mounting and most of you are in the final sprint towards the finishing line. You may be concerned about how you will manage to get everything done, which induces anxiety and panic. If academic concerns are coupled with life-related stresses – which they inevitably are given that we each have lives outside of UCC and other commitments and family and friends and significant others that we care about – then things can quickly spiral and become debilitating. In academia, these feelings are not spoken about enough, and students may feel that they should cover over the cracks and attempt to carry on regardless. This is not ultimately helpful, and the point of this post is to address some of these issues.

Picture1It is important to recognise that these struggles are very common. Research on students’ experiences shows that these issues emerge particularly in the second year of their academic programme.  Initial enthusiasm can descend into loss of confidence, self-doubt, loss of motivation, fear, and burnout that manifest in tiredness, confusion, anxiety, sleeplessness, and sometimes depression.  They also often result in students retreating into their own cocoon, losing touch with their social networks.  This means that students can feel alienated and disconnected from others at exactly the point when they most need support. In my own student/researcher experience, I found myself in this liminal space many times, and I do know just how awful it feels.

In seeking to describe the experience, The Thesis Whisperer has referred to this mental space as ‘The Valley of Shit‘:

The Valley of Shit is that period of your [research], however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

So, in this sense you are not alone. However, recognising that these are common experiences, and thereby normalising struggle, is not particularly helpful either; knowing that others are suffering does not necessarily make the experience less isolating.  But it does offer some possibilities for reconnection.  As youth workers, and students, and researchers, you can and should lean on your ‘communities of practice’.  Don’t isolate yourself. Talk to people. Talk positively with people.  Talk to positive people.  Talk to people who make you feel good about yourself.  Talk to people whose advice you value.  Avoid ‘troubles talk’.  This will help you to get through the ‘valley of shit’, and is a good practice to develop as a student and to bring into your professional lives as youth workers.

Remember that you can talk to each other.  You can talk to me. You can talk to any of your lecturers whom you feel comfortable with. You can talk to a doctor or a counsellor.

Try to remember why you first decided to do a Masters. Remind you of why you’re doing all of this in the first place. BUT remember that you are more than your Masters; completing this programme is only one goal amongst many much more significant ones. Think about what you want to do in the future. Remind yourself of what is important.

Getting through this is not necessarily about putting more hours in, but putting better hours in.  If you are feeling stressed, then it is extremely difficult to achieve ‘flow’ (a nod to your research, Regina!) in your work-mind.  So do take breaks, but try to make these guilt-free. Go for lunch/coffee with friends. Spend quality time with your family.  Watch a silly movie (I can’t even admit to the number and names of rubbishy films I watched when studying intensively.  It’s just too embarrassing. But I did feel better afterwards!). Go for a walk. Play music. Listen to music. Make something. Play sport. Do whatever helps you to feel good about yourself. Practice self-compassion. (I should point out that drinking too much might help you to feel good, fleetingly, but it’s not guilt-free if you wake up the next day feeling far too ill to work. Just saying.)

On a more personal note, I want to emphasise how impressed I am with you all, collectively and individually. Each of your research projects is interesting and innovative and valuable. What you are doing is important and worthwhile and I KNOW that you can do it!  Hopefully you all hold this belief in yourselves too. But if you are at the point where you feel it is an impossibility, then you really do need to get in touch with me. We can work it out together.

I look forward to seeing you all again next week.  If you would like to talk to me about anything in the interim, please do get in touch.

Kind regards,







Writing literature reviews

Book_loverIn the last post, we looked at planning and the literature review. In this post, we will explore how best to approach the writing of your literature review.

I must confess that I find writing literature reviews quite challenging.  I tend to get lost in the literature because I love reading, but then find it difficult to refocus attention on what needs to be said, and in what order.  I’m not sure if that’s comforting or otherwise, but my point is that writing a literature review is difficult, and while the process of writing a literature review can be learned, it does take time and practice. I’d be delighted if you could comment below with any questions that arise in doing your literature reviews.  In this way, our learning can become more applied to our current research and we can learn from each other: a blog-based powwow, if you like!

The List

In writing literature reviews, the most common mistake is to write the review as a summary list of various sources.  The literature review is NOT an annotated bibliography. Pat Thompson (my favourite writing guru!) has written a useful post about this issue and, as she observes, ‘The List‘ form of Literature Review suggests to the reader/examiner that:

(1) it’s possible the writer hasn’t sorted out the relevant and irrelevant material they’ve read and has simply put down everything
(2) it’s possible that the writer doesn’t know how to be critical because there is no evidence in the text that they have done any evaluation, they have simply summarized a lot of texts
(3) it’s possible that this is a random selection of texts rather than a systematic survey of the field, and
(4) it’s possible that if the writer lacks the critical capacity to sort the literatures, then they may well have the same uncritical approach to their data.

The literature review will appear early in the dissertation, and you do not want to arouse the reader’s suspicions or annoyance unnecessarily.

Remember that it will be impossible to achieve everything in the first draft of the literature review and before you have completed your data collection and analysis. As I wrote in the last post, there will be a difference between your first draft (the scoping review) and the version you will include in the final dissertation (the traditional review).

Zina O’Leary, in her book, The Essential Guide to Doing Research (2004: 79) helpfully delineates between reviewing the literature and the literature review:

Screenshot 2016-02-01 17.29.00

A way of reviewing the literature is to write summaries of your various sources.  But this is only one part of the process.  The second part entails synthesising your sources (and your evaluative summaries of them) so that you can position yourself to tell the story of your research.

The Process

It’s odd thinking about the process involved in getting your literature together, as I tend to just do it and not think about how I’m doing it.  Or at least, I rarely articulate how I do it. I’ve been musing about this over the last few days and this is how I can best represent the process.  I’ve tried to break it down into small steps, so bear with me!

First, I do a preliminary search and amass as many readings as possible relevant to my topic.  I use Google Scholar for this but I also will dig deeper into journals that are most relevant to my research question.  Relevant research might be found in a variety of journals.  For example, if I want to research music education in youth work, I will search in key journals that are relevant to youth work, the sociology of youth, music studies, music education, education etc.

Second, I find it useful to choose, from this collection, a number of empirical research papers that are most like (and as close as possible to) my research topic.  I try to gather 10-15 articles that seem to be most relevant at first glance.

Third, I go through each of these papers, highlighting important themes, methods, theories, concepts, and findings.  If you are working from printed material, then it is useful to use different colour highlighter pens in this task.  You can also write keywords in the margins to keep track of different themes.  If you are using Mendeley, you can highlight the text you find interesting and add a (reflective) note to this as you are reading.  Whichever method you choose, make sure you create your bibliography along the way.

You can start with the first article and build up your themes from there.  Gradually, a number of themes will emerge, some of which will be relevant to one or two articles, and others that will be relevant to most or all of the articles.

For example, when I did this with the literature relevant to blog-based supervision, my preliminary themes looked like this:

Codes blogging

This exercise will help you to get away from ‘The List’ approach and will assist you in thinking in more thematic terms about the literature you have studied. This is exactly where you need to be.

Fourthly, I begin to group together the smaller themes into sets.  Using the above examples, my new ‘big themes’ might look like this:

Theme 1: Blogging in the classroom:

  • Types and modes of blogging activities
  • Using blogs in the classroom
  • Barriers to using blogs in the classroom
  • Advantages of blogging
  • Positive impact
  • Shortcomings

Theme 2: Collaboration

  • Collaborative writing
  • Communities of Practice
  • Making connections and networking
  • Group blogs and collaborative writing
  • Public vs private (blogs)

Theme 3: Pedagogy

  • Pedagogical theory and context
  • Rethinking pedagogy
  • Blended learning

And so on…

The smaller themes can be grouped in a multitude of ways that best suits your thinking and approach. (You may group the above ideas differently to me, and that’s ok as long as it makes sense to you). You may discard less relevant themes at this point as part of the process of refining your review.

Having grouped together the smaller themes into bigger themes, I can now begin to write with some level of confidence, to each of these themes, drawing on the evidence presented in the articles that I have read, but also evaluating this evidence as I progress (Do I agree with the arguments? Or not? Is it convincing? Are there methodological issues in how the data was collected/analysed?)

At the end of this process, you will have written to each theme that you feel is particularly pertinent to your research question.  In this way, you have:

  1. extracted relevant literature;
  2. organised the literature;
  3. prepared the literature for evaluation;
  4. organised the content of the literature into themes;
  5. written the first draft of your literature review.

Happy dance!!!

Happy dance

The beauty of this approach is that you will engage in a very similar process when it comes to analysing your primary research data, so it is very good practice.

Style and Tone

A short note on style and tone in writing your literature review. You are required to evaluate the literature, but neither should this be overly aggressive.  You need to find a happy medium.  O’Leary puts this nicely when she suggests the dinner party analogy:

The good dinner party conversationalist is neither hypercritical nor sycophantic. Rather, the consummate dinner party conversationalist is an individual who engages, learns, debates, argues, contributes, and even evolves his or her own ideas. And this is exactly what needs to happen in order for you to develop and write a good literature review. (O’Leary, 2004: 83)

It is worth thinking about this as you write, but finding the right tone for you will come with time and practice. And remember, you can and will rework your literature review a number of times before it is submitted.

Happy reading and writing!

Kind regards,


Planning and the Literature Review

giphy 2Hello everyone! I’m back to blogging after a little break. In the interim, I know you’ve been working hard on your research (as well as your other modules).  The process of writing the research proposal has hopefully helped you to focus on your research aims and objectives, which includes fine-tuning the research questions, working out your research methods, and explaining why your research questions are important for advancing youth work policy and practice. Hopefully, Assignment Two also helped you to identify, reflect on, and write about relevant literature that informs your research question.

The focus of this blog post is on strategies that will help you to plan the literature review, concentrating on two specific themes:

  • The literature review: Scoping and traditional versions
  • Organising the literature review

The literature review: The scoping review and the traditional review

It is important to remember that writing your literature review is a process that will continue up to the point that your submit your final dissertation (and even beyond if you intend to publish your research afterwards, which I hope you will do!).  N.B. You will need to factor in some time to write the final draft of your literature review after you have analysed and written up your data. This is an important point to consider in planning both your literature review and your entire dissertation.

At this point, the literature review takes the form of a scoping review.  As Pat Thompson explains:

[The scoping review] sets out to create an agenda for future research. It documents what is already known about a topic, and then focuses on the gaps, niches, disputes, blank and blind spots. It delineates key concepts, questions and theories in order to refine the research question(s) and justify an approach to be taken.

Once your research dissertation is nearing completion, you will revisit your literature review to rewrite it in the form of a traditional review, and this will be included as a chapter in your dissertation.  Again, as Pat Thompson (ibid) puts it:

[The traditional review] is somewhat like a scoping review, but its argument is not to create the space for a research project. It is to position a piece of research that has already been undertaken. In essence the reader gets what’s-already-known, plus the newly conducted piece – this research as the contribution. The literature is used to locate the contribution, the what-we-now-know-that-we-didn’t-before-and-why-this-is-important. Some texts and themes that were in the initial scoping review are omitted, and other things are now emphasized in order to make clear the connections and continuities, similarities and differences of the new research to what’s gone before.

So, the scoping review and the traditional review are similar, but whilst the former sets a frame for the research that will be done, the latter sets a frame for the research that has been done.  Note that both of these emphasise the research’s contribution to the field of knowledge, but in slightly different ways.  As Pat Thompson describes it: ‘One justifies the research to be done, the other locates the contribution in the field of completed research’.  Of course, these purposes are linked and thus there is clear continuity between the scoping and the traditional review. If, from the outset, you can identify gaps in the field of knowledge relevant to your research interests, then you can design your research question and research methods in a way that positions you to respond to that gap through producing new knowledge.  Your potential contribution therefore should frame your research strategy from the beginning and, as you prepare your dissertation for submission, your contribution should be made explicit at various points (i.e. in the Introduction, the Literature Review, the Findings and Analysis, and the Conclusion chapters).

Organising the literature review

At this stage, you will hopefully have amassed a large catalogue of readings relevant to your research question (I’ve mentioned previously the usefulness of Mendeley for organising this literature). The amount of literature on any given topic in social research can become overwhelming, so it is important to develop strategies for working through this literature in a systematic way.

Organising readings by subject will assist you when it comes to writing about the literature.  You need to seek out patterns and groups in the literature and using this process you will end up with clusters of similar/related research.  Below, I outline three approaches to organising your literature:

  1. The mind map
  2. The bucket method
  3. Storyboarding

You might find it useful to apply these separately or to use a combination of these approaches.

The Mind Map

One useful approach is to use a mind map as a method of charting out the different elements/clusters relevant to your research question.  A bare mind map might look like this:


A populated one (on motivation in this example) will look something like this:


As you read through the literature, you may happen upon some new concepts, questions, or ideas that you hadn’t previously considered.  These can be added into your mind map, which will help you to build on the structure of the literature review.  It might be useful to imagine this as a scaffolding process, whereby these clusters ‘prop up’ the central theme of your research question.

The Bucket Method

5-colored-buckets_645x400Another useful approach to organising literature is the ‘bucket method‘.  Drawing on your library of sources, the idea is to create a bucket to represent each major theme that you have identified in your reading.  For each article/chapter/book, your goal is to try to place each reading in one bucket (Some readings might be relevant to two buckets, but try to restrict them to one bucket if possible).  The ‘bucket’ doesn’t have to be real – you can use pieces of paper or flash cards to represent each reading and organise them into piles.  As you progress, you will see which ‘bucket’ is getting full and which looks a bit meagre. You may then (a) need to find literature necessary for filling the emptier bucket or (b) combine emptier buckets to create a new major theme.  Don’t overdo it on the number of buckets/themes.

bucketsOnce you have finished organising your readings, you need to sort your buckets into a hierarchy: which do you need to begin with to explain your topic to the reader?  Beginning with this bucket, you can start to write to that theme.  When you have completed a draft version of your writing on this theme, you can move on to the next bucket, etc.  We will return to this bucket method in a future post on writing your literature review.



This approach comes from Pat Thompson (as you may gather, I am a big fan of hers!).

Drawing inspiration from film director, Ridley Scott, Thompson describes the process of storyboarding as a method of mapping steps of what it is you want to achieve. Ridley Scott is a master of storyboard art, so he is a very worthy role model:


As Thompson outlines it, a storyboarding approach to academic writing (check out #acwri on Twitter) involves three key steps:

start small – the #acwri equivalent of thumbnails is a list of topics, perhaps written as bullet points, perhaps as a set of phrases on post it notes or cards – this is the stuff that needs to be covered, written in summary shorthand, organised in the right order.

amplify – the #acwri equivalent of developing a storyboard in detail is to assemble the material needed for each move in the argument. This might be through cumulative processes of free writing to a set of headings. It might be bringing together pieces or files of material  – analysed data, references, chunks of preexisting writing – around each heading.

rehearse – the #acrwi equivalent of the rehearsal could be writing a tiny text – a concise abstract – of the piece to be written. Or it could be talking through the argument with a writing mentor, peer-writing group, or with a colleague. Or it might be talking things through to yourself, perhaps while walking, swimming or doing something that doesn’t require much concentration.

And, finally, as Thompson observes:

The key to making these three steps work is to give them time. Getting sorted out for the act of writing is not something to be rushed. It may not feel as if this getting-ready-but-not-yet-writing is actually academic writing. It may feel as if it is putting off the Real Thing. Wrong.

Academic writing, like any creative act, is not simply located in the act of putting words on the page or screen. It is also all of the things that happen in order to make that particular stage of the writing go as well as it can. Sometimes you need to spend a lot of time in the “pre-writing” stage.

So that’s it for today.  I hope you have found some inspiration here that will assist you in getting out of any ‘stuck’ places you might find yourselves in. It happens to us all. The point is to develop good strategies for getting ‘unstuck’!

Kind regards,



Youth Workers as Practitioner-Researchers: Some thoughts and relevant readings

I heard a colleague of mine recently explain to a student that ‘research shouldn’t be oppressive’. That is, while we must recognise the process of doing research as complicated, arduous, and challenging, it will also (hopefully!) be something you can/will enjoy.  Undoubtedly there will be frustrations along the way, but there is also a huge sense of satisfaction in producing research that can contribute positively to young people’s lives and to youth work knowledge, policy, and practice.

On that note, I’ve been reading recently a number of articles that nicely the position of youth workers as practitioner-researchers from a strengths-based perspective. This picks up on the theme of last year’s 2nd European Convention on Youth Work, which aptly imagined youth workers as superheroes super-super-heroes!:

The Overall Feeling we are Super-super-heroes

2nd European Youth Work Convention: The Overall Feeling we are Super-super-heroes

One such example (which I have saved to your Dropbox folder) is Sinéad Gormally and Annette Coburn’s (2014) article, in which they argue that:

theory and practice in educational youth work offers a position of strength from which to undertake research. In making this assertion, we suggest cross-disciplinarity between youth work and research practices in order to build research mindedness among youth workers who, through this nexus, are well-placed to engage in practice based research. (Gormally and Coburn, 2014: 869)

This article, in particular, will be helpful to you in informing your reflections and decision-making on the purpose of your research – what it is that you hope to achieve, or the ‘so what?’ question that is so important (alongside the what, how, why, where, when, who questions that you will need to address in your dissertations).  If your research is to be transformative, with respect to knowledge, policy, and/or practice, then you need to think about what research is for. 

Cullen, Bradford and Green (2012) also point out that you should be ‘clear about your study’s focus, purpose and audience’ (5).  Since yours is a Masters dissertation, that triad is partly informed by the requirements of the University.  Beyond that, however, the research is also for a much broader audience and purpose: for young people, for their families and communities, for other youth/arts/sports practitioners, for policy-makers, for organisations, for youth work as a profession, etc.

Furthermore, Cullen at al (ibid) usefully outline five principles that characterise social research, namely, that it should be:

  • Systematic
  • Critical
  • Self-critical
  • Enquiry-centred
  • Knowledge and practice-centred

The authors explain these principles in-depth as they relate to practitioner-research, and I recommend reading these closely as you begin to position yourselves with respect to your roles as youth workers and practitioner-researchers.

References and further reading:

Cullen, F., Bradford, S. and Green, L. (2012) ‘Working as a practitioner-researcher’. In Bradford, S. and Cullen, F. (eds.) Research and Research Methods for Youth Practitioners Oxon and New York: Routledge

Bamber, J., Power, A. and Rowely, C. (2012) ‘Speaking Evidence to Youth Work – and Vice Versa’, A Journal of Youth Work, (10), pp. 37–56.

Cooper, T. (2012) ‘Models of youth work : a framework for positive sceptical reflection’, Youth & Policy, 1(109), pp. 98–117.

Davies, B. (2005) ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto For Our Times’, Youth & Policy, (88), pp. 5–27.

Gormally, S. and Coburn, A. (2014) ‘Finding Nexus: Connecting youth work and research practices’, British Educational Research Journal, 40(5), pp. 869–885.

Spence, J. and Wood, J. (2011) ‘Youth Work and Research: Editorial’, Youth & Policy, (107), pp. 1–17.

Writing is the hardest thing ever!

Given that you will by now have received some feedback on your first entries, it is timely to address a few things…

Dealing with criticism 
Version 22
I hope I have written your feedback in a tone that you find encouraging. Nonetheless, it can be disheartening to see a page marked with comments, deletions, revisions, strikethroughs, question marks, etc.  Try to remember that the criticism is well-intentioned and meant to be constructive.  I too have to face up to criticism of my writing, which is a significant part of my job, so I know how it feels.  It stings even more because we write about subjects that we are passionate about and care deeply about.  However, if you think of it in those terms, then it is even more important that we get it right.

Writing is hard
Lisa Simpson: Writing is the hardest thing ever!

Lisa Simpson: Writing is the hardest thing ever!

Writing takes time and perseverance.
It is messy and confusing and non-linear.
Every writer gets anxious and frustrated.
This is normal.
If you do comment on each others’ blogs, remember to be constructive! (I know I don’t have to say this, but a friendly reminder is no harm…)

Advice on academic writing
Calvin and Hobbes: Academia, here I come!

Calvin and Hobbes: Academia, here I come!

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that more complicated language is better; you don’t want your reader to have to struggle through  over-embellished jargon.
Edit and revise to make your writing clear and concise.  Think about your sentence structure and phrasing. Practice! Read paragraphs aloud if it helps.
You will find some very good advice on academic writing online.  Rachel Cayley’s Explorations of Style blog, for example, underlines the importance of:

Searching and Reading

Today’s post is focused on searching for literature and reading the literature. Of course, this focus also relates to writing, since good writing skills are dependent on your abilities (1) to locate important, reliable, and relevant literature, and (2) to read extensively and critically.  Sound, convincing research is built upon social theorists’ and expert researchers’ contributions to theoretical knowledge in your given academic field; the metaphor of ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is often used to describe the researcher’s position.

As you progress, you should aim to create a ‘core’ body of literature, and this should guide your literature search from the outset of your research project.  As you read, you will also find that the ‘core’ may shift, and you may pursue certain trajectories as your research interests and research questions become more finely tuned.  So, in this post, we are more explicitly concerned with building up your core body of literature.  In future posts, I will address how the literature review should be structured, but for present purposes, we will focus on searching for literature and reading the literature.   At the end of the post, I will set you a task to work on towards developing the literature review component of your dissertations.  This task will also help you in developing your research proposals further.

Searching for literature

Finding important, relevant and well-written research is a skill in and of itself, which takes time and practice to develop. There is a hierarchy to academic literature that should guide your search.  Rugg and Petre (2004: 59-60), for example, identify the ‘pecking order’ as follows:

  • Encyclopaedia entries (invited contributions written by experts in the field) and top academic journals (rigorously peer reviewed)
  • Middle-range journals (peer reviewed but [possibly?] by less esteemed experts)
  • Specialist newsletters and trade journals (These are perhaps less relevant for youth work research)

Whether a journal is considered ‘high’, ‘mid’, or ‘low’ quality is highly contested.  I won’t get into the politics of it in depth here, but recognition of the increasingly commercialised nature of academic publishing and some recent scandals have problematised the system.  Nevertheless, it is important that you search extensively through academic journals, since peer-reviewed articles are still considered the most reliable and rigorous sources.  You will find a useful guide on searching for journal articles on the UCC Library website, and there is a journal search guide that has been designed specifically for Applied Social Studies students that is worth spending time on.

Books are variable in quality, dependent on the publisher, the editors’ ‘expert status’ etc. Some may be quite prestigious, but others may be poorer quality.  Textbooks can be useful, but they are generally lower status for researchers at postgraduate level, since they are usually targeted at an undergraduate student audience and their content is more generalist.  Saying that, some high quality textbooks are hugely valuable, particularly when you are just dipping your toes into a new academic field.  In summary, do read books, but read them critically, evaluating their reliability at all times.  Take note of the different conventions for referencing a monograph or a chapter in an edited collection.

Social researchers, in particular, may also rely on ‘grey literature‘.  This includes reports, official publications, doctoral theses, conference proceedings, etc.  Again, quality is variable, but this kind of literature might be important in informing the social/youth policy dimensions of your arguments.

Websites and online sources should be treated with caution.  There may be little or no quality control.  The same goes for newspaper and magazine articles.  Use these only where absolutely necessary, and these should never be considered part of the ‘core’ body of literature.

Planning your literature search

There are a number of different approaches that you can take when searching for literature.  This guide, from De Montford University, usefully identifies some of the more typical approaches as follows:

  • Systematic (searching for all relevant information)
  • Retrospective (find the most recent material and work backwards)
  • Citation (check references from useful articles, books and reading lists)
  • Targeted (narrowly-focused on a tightly defined research topic)

As the De Montfort guide notes, you will likely use a mixture of these approaches.

Using keywords

Again, the De Montford guide helpfully explains how to search using keywords.  There is no point in reinventing the wheel: check out their advice on pages 4-5.

Building your reference list

It is vitally important that you take careful note from the outset of the various sources you access.  These will not all necessarily be included in the final bibliography, since you will include only the sources (direct quotations and paraphrased ideas) that are explicitly referenced in your dissertation. Keeping a careful list of all sources will help you to avoid plagiarism, which is a serious academic offense.  UCC Library now has access to Cite Them Right Online, which is an excellent resource for managing your references. Another useful free service, which is particularly helpful for managing pdf versions of articles, is Mendeley.

This also allows you to ‘cite while you write’ using a Word plugin.

The best way to figure out Mendeley is to play around with it yourselves.  If you’re struggling we can organise a tutorial session on this.

Reading the literature

The next task, which I outline below, is designed to encourage you to find relevant, credible literature, which will inform the refinement of your research proposals and the first cycle of the literature review process.  First, I will explore the literature review a little, and then I will explain your assignment.

What is the literature review for?

In research dissertations, the literature review normally appears towards the beginning of the work, and usually after the Introduction chapter.  As Rugg and Petre (2004: 56) explain, the literature review chapter ‘sets the scene’ for your research.  Firstly, it enables the reader to place your work within the field of knowledge, and points to references you have read which allows the ‘skeptical’ reader to check up on your understandings of the literature.  Secondly, it assures the reader that you have ‘done your homework thoroughly’ (ibid), which encourages one to read on. This means that a comprehensive and well-referenced bibliography is crucially important. 

The literature review process

Crafting the literature review is an iterative process.  That is, the process entails:

  1. developing a topic
  2. reviewing the literature relevant to your topic to see how it is treated by others
  3. refining your topic
  4. reviewing the literature again in light of that refinement.

You will typically go through a number of these cycles as your research question becomes more focused.  At the end of this process, you should be able to position your research relevant to related literature within the field, and you should be able to understand and articulate (1) what is the significance of your research, (2) what gaps in knowledge your research addresses, and (3) how it contributes to the field.  We will return to discussing the literature review in future posts, but for the moment this is enough to keep in mind as you begin your search for literature with a view to fine-tuning your research question.

Reading the literature: Assignment

Your next assignment is to:

  1. Locate three empirical studies that relate to your research question. These should be articles that you have not yet cited in your research proposal.
  2. Write a review of each article.
  3. Write a brief summary of how these articles, collectively, inform your thinking about your research question.
  4. Optional: Practice using Mendeley with these three articles only.  Learn how to import .pdfs into the system, how to correct bibliographic information, how to insert a citation as you write, and how to insert a bibliography.

As you are reading the articles, think about the following elements:

  • Rationale: How well is the research rationale defined?
  • Theory: Is the study grounded in previous research through a literature review?
  • Methodology: Are the methods of data collection and the analytical procedures well-defined?
  • Findings: Is evidence provided? How adequate is it? How is it organised?
  • Contribution: How well does the work advance our knowledge of the subject? How do the findings contribute to the discipline and how well is this contribution identified and explained?
  • Style: How well organised is it? Is there clarity of expression?
  • Hint: Your next task will be to revisit your research abstract and proposal.  The purpose of this exercise it to get you searching, reading, thinking, clarifying, and writing.

And remember:

Good luck!

References and Useful Sources

Petre, M., & Rugg, G. (2010) The unwritten rules of PhD research. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education

Applied Social Studies Library Guide: http://libguides.ucc.ie/content.php?pid=679052&sid=5629064

How to undertake a literature search and review for dissertations and final year projects, De Montford University, Leicester: http://www.library.dmu.ac.uk/Images/Howto/LiteratureSearch.pdf


If you look to the right-hand side of my blog, you’ll see various links, which are called ‘Widgets’.  These are handy tools.  If you go into the ‘Customise’ menu, you’ll see ‘Widgets’ in a pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the screen.  These allow you to add useful links to other social networking sites.  You can place these as ‘Footers’ or on the ‘Sidebar’ (Mine are on the side-bar).  I’m using it, for example, to link to my Twitter account, to list ‘Tags‘ that I’ve used, and to highlight blog posts that I like and blogs that I follow.  The blog posts I’ve highlighted thus far are about blogging in youth work/as youth workers.


Writing your dissertation abstract


Your first task for your blog is to create an abstract for your research project.  Abstract-writing is an important skill in academic research.

What is an abstract for?

Typically, an abstract is written for three distinct purposes:

  1. As an introduction to your dissertation/thesis;
  2. To apply to an academic conference; or
  3. To provide a short summary of your research article, which precedes a longer article in an academic journal.

Writing an abstract is challenging, since it requires to you be very specific in addressing a number of key questions about your research topic.

What is included in the abstract?

Typically, the abstract will answer the following questions:

  1. What is your research question?  (What is the research problem? What is the background to the research?)
  2. How did you approach the problem? (Theoretical framework/research methods)
  3. What did you learn? (What were your key findings?)
  4. Why is this important? (So what?)

The length of the abstract will vary.  For a dissertation introduction, the abstract will be usually not more than one page in length (roughly 350 words).  In the case of a conference abstract or article abstract, the word length is generally limited to 150-250 words.


It is useful (if a little consumerist!) to imagine your abstract as an advertisement for your research.  Therefore, your abstract should be interesting and informative.  You want your audience to want to know more about your research.

Aim for less of this:


And more of this:


Your abstract will be (and should be!) rewritten numerous times as you progress.  Keep the different versions/iterations, and you will see your own understanding and expertise as a researcher develop over time.

The art of brevity

A useful lesson to be gained from abstract-writing is also the importance of being concise and to-the-point.  There is little space in the dissertation for waffle, and therefore every word should count.  We’ll discuss this in greater depth in future posts, when we look at sentence and paragraph construction, and methods for achieving a clear writing style.

First steps

Given that you are just starting out, the questions I am asking you to address in your abstract are slightly different, namely:

  1. What is your research question?  Try to state your research question in one sentence.  This can be framed as a question (Why is…? What is…? How is…?, etc.) or as a statement (An exploration of…, An evaluation of…, etc.)
  2. How do you intend to approach the research? Proposed research methods – given that we have not yet examined different research methods in great depth, these can be more generic, i.e. qualitative/quantitative approach, interviews/focus groups/case study/action research, etc.)
  3. What do you hope to find out? Do you have a hunch/hypothesis? Again, just an indication of what you hope to achieve is fine for now.
  4. Why is this important? (How does this research matter – for young people, for youth work(ers), for youth policy, for communities, for social justice, etc.)

Your next task will be to write your first research proposal draft.  Think of the abstract as a scaffold for the proposal; this is the foundation for the next step in developing your research idea.

Deconstructing an abstract

You can learn from others by unpacking abstracts relevant to youth/youth work.  For example, see:

Palasinski, M. (2013) ‘Turning Assault into a “Harmless Prank” – Teenage Perspectives on Happy Slapping’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(9), pp. 1909-1923.

The article describes the ways in which 41 adolescents from three large English cities discussed the phenomenon of happy slapping, which is typically defined as recording a physical assault on an unsuspecting victim on a camera-enabled phone for Internet upload. Using discourse analysis, the construal of motivations for its creation and watching is explored, elaborating on social, cultural, and legal implications. The identified repertoires (creation of comedy, denial of grievous bodily harm, accomplice-witness ambiguity, and reflection of postmodern culture) caution against attributing happy slapping just to boredom, as the mainstream British press does and puts spotlight on other factors, like seeking originality and keeping “pranks” under control. Concluding with the apparent similarities between the discursive worlds inhabited by unconvicted adolescents and convicted offenders, this study provides a theoretical platform for further research on the subtle and intriguing overlap.

Can you identify:

  • the research methods used? Hint: The abstract includes information about the research sample and the method used to analyse the findings.
  • the aim of the research (What does the author want to know?  What is the research problem?)
  • the main findings and their thematic presentation?
  • the author’s indication of the significance of these findings?

Useful resources: 



Fun stuff on the art of brevity: