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Using NVivo for Humanities Research

Published by Rebecca Dowson

The Digital Humanities Skills Workshop Series continued on Tuesday, October 30 with the workshop, “Using NVivo for Humanities Research.” Facilitated by Graduate Peer NVivo Facilitator, Esteban Morales, and DHIL Fellow Kandice Sharren, this workshop explored the possibilities NVivo represents for humanities research and introduced participants to the basics of using it. 

About NVivo

NVivo is a software package available through the SFU Library that helps with the organization and analysis of unstructured data. In other words, it is a digital tool for qualitative analysis that lets you analyze and visualize trends in your research materials. It allows you to analyze a large number of documents, including those in different file formats and even different types of media. Example materials include:  text-based documents, audio-visual material, social media posts, and quantitative data sets. NVivo also enables collaboration by storing projects and allowing different team members to access it from different computers.

By importing documents and then marking them up systematically (what NVivo calls “coding”), you can identify gaps and patterns in your research aided by visualization charts, models, and diagrams. The “nodes,” or thematic categories that you use to code your research materials, allow you to identify and track areas of interest across all of your documents. It is important to note that, although NVivo does make it easier to systematically analyze your research materials, the process of preparing it for analysis is not automated and requires the researcher(s) to develop a consistent method of coding their data.

The workshop

After walking through the basics of NVivo, participants were assigned one of three texts to use as a sample project. The sample projects included an interview with two long-time residents of North Carolina, a review of Haruki Murakami’s 2017 novel Killing Commendatore, and Zadie Smith’s short story, “Crazy They Call Me”; each was accompanied by an image related to the text. Working individually, participants coded their documents and performed provisional analyses of them, including word clouds and word trees.

Assigning different participants to the same text illustrated how the kind of analysis NVivo enables is still subjective and relies on your interpretation of your data; different people working on the same documents had varied results, based on what elements of the text they deemed important.

In humanities research, NVivo can be useful for tracing speakers’ attitudes towards different subjects in polyvocal pieces. Take, for example, “Crazy They Call Me,” an imaginative piece about jazz singer Billie Holiday inspired by a collection of Jerry Dantzic’s photos. Spoken by a second-person narrator, the story comments on the alienating experiences of performance, fame, and racial violence by assigning dismissive and judgemental opinions to an ambiguous, all-encompassing “they.”

Coding for the second-person narrator and “they” of the title alongside negative, positive, and neutral statements and thematic elements of the story allowed participants were able to find and patterns in the characters’ attitudes towards various subjects, ranging from the song “Strange Fruit” to Holiday’s chihuahua, Pepi. While Smith’s story is only a short example, integrating NVivo into the note-taking process can help produce sustained but detailed close-readings of longer texts.

Further information

If you missed this workshop but are interested in learning more about integrating NVivo into your research, the Research Commons offers regular workshops and consultations.

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