Some thoughts on how to use NVivo effectively

Kelle (1997) sounds a useful note of caution in an insightful discussion of the history of CAQDAS software:

 The newly developed software programs for computer-aided textual analysis became tools for data storage and retrieval rather than tools for ‘data analysis’. Nevertheless, terms used quite frequently in the ongoing debate like ‘computer- aided qualitative data analysis’ or ‘software program for theory building’ carry implicit connotations of computer programs as tools for the analysis of textual data which could be compared to software packages that perform statistical analyses.

While the boundary between data retrieval and data analysis has blurred somewhat as subsequent generations of CAQDAS software have become ever more sophisticated, it is helpful to recognise the important distinction between organising and analysing data at the outset. As with most software packages, many researchers only use a small selection of the tools offered within NVivo and many use it solely for the former function of organising the data which accumulates within any qualitative research project. On this level the software can be extremely useful: it is simply quicker, easier and cheaper to organise and manage large collections of qualitative sources using specialist software than is the case with any analogue alternative (Welsh 2002).

In the same way that a word- processing package does not dictate whether you write a novel or a sermon, QSR software does not determine nor constitute a method despite some

literature that links the software to grounded theory. (Crowley, Harré and Tagg 2002: 195)

This is an important point though one which does risk overstatement. Using NVivo can predispose researchers towards certain techniques or approaches to analysis but, if and when this happens, it is a consequence of how the software is being used rather the software itself. As noted earlier, many researchers only use a small fraction of the functionality offered by the software. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with doing this. Indeed it would be difficult to understand what such a statement would mean, though a vague sense that one is using the tool in the ‘wrong’ way can be a common experience involved in working with complex software packages, particularly when getting started. It is helpful to confront this at the outset and proceed from an understanding of what the software can do and what use you want to make of these functions. Reflecting in the way helps us avoid what is a surprisingly common misconception about the role such software plays in research practice:

The misconception that the software does something (a notion of some automated process of analysis) is not uncommon. The question of who is in charge, the software or the researcher, is tellingly reflected in enquiries such as ‘Will it let me. . . ?’ It is sometimes forgotten by those new to qualitative software that any lack in its ability to do something in particular certainly does not preclude them from including such strategies in their research. It is always possible to leave the software to one side and use other means as well—to get out of the car and perhaps walk, cycle or a take a boat for parts of the journey, as it were. It must be emphasized that, although the limitations it imposes continue to decrease, the researcher is not a hostage to qualitative software (Crowley, Harré and Tagg 2002: 195)

One of the most important things to remember about NVivo is that it is a collection of tools. While it might be difficult to make an informed decision about which of these to apply without some prior knowledge of the software, it is nonetheless a choice to be made by yourself and/or your research team. In my experience, it often doesn’t occur to people that NVivo can be used in some entirely mundane ways tied to the practical demands of the project you’re working on e.g. using a node or collection of nodes to collate material intended for a particular journal article you will be working on.


Crowley, C., Harré, R., & Tagg, C. (2002). Qualitative research and computing: methodological issues and practices in using QSR NVivo and NUD* IST.International journal of social research methodology5(3), 193-197

Kelle, U. (2004). Computer-assisted qualitative data analysis. Qualitative research practice, 473-489.

Welsh, E. (2002, May). Dealing with data: Using NVivo in the qualitative data analysis process. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 3, No. 2).


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