Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Data collection

Posted by Heather Yoeli

What follows is the hypothetical transcript of a conversation I’ve had a few times recently:

COLLEAGUE Heather, hello! Where have you been for the last few months and why didn’t you reply to that email I sent round about the night out?

ME Hi! Sorry I’ve not been around. I’ve been busy with fieldwork with participants, and have been interviewing people for my PhD.

COLLEAGUE Great! So you’ve finally started data collection, then…

ME (awkward pause) Well, I’ve been interviewing people…

COLLEAGUE But that is data collection, surely. Have you begun data analysis yet?

ME (awkward pause) Ummm… but how’s your study going? Have you heard back from the Ethics Committee yet? And how’s your partner getting on with the new job?

Research participants or human beings?

Ever since I began this project, I’ve had a niggling and non-specific aversion to the term ‘data collection’ being used to describe my research activities. Sometimes, though, words reveal more than we realise.

The OED defines data as:

Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis; the quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer … things known or assumed as facts, making the basis of reasoning or calculation

Similarly, the FreeDictionary defines data as:

1. Factual information, especially information organized for analysis or used to reason or make decisions.

2. Numerical or other information represented in a form suitable for processing by computer.

3. Values derived from scientific experiments.

And the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize website provides an excellent explanation of the relationship between data and information and knowledge.

From these three sources, we could surmise the following:
  • Data is fact
  • Data is that which we collect for our research
  • Data is collected for analysis and for use 
  • Most of our thinking about data is informed by the quantifiable, and by our use of computers
Certainly, then, the concept of data collection as integral to the PhD process presents a challenge for PhD studies like mine, which seek to be as qualitative, as theoretical, as participatory, and as participant-led as possible. The term data collection presses the question of what we might be taking from participants, of what we might be doing with what they have given us, of what ownership of and control over what they have given us our participants might retain, and of therefore what responsibilities we might have towards them. As fellow human beings, my participants are more than simply pseudonymous nodes with attitude codes on an NVivo database.

What common terms in research, or in public health, make you uncomfortable?


  1. Hi I have not previously thought this way about qualitative 'data', but you have a point.I have previously drafted a similar concern blog about the term 'pre-diabetes,' but then decided it didn't matter sufficiently to progress. However I agree words can be powerful so we should be thoughtful about their use.

    1. You should write the post on pre-diabetes. I hear lots of people use it all the time and would like to know if it's a sensible concept or not.

  2. I agree: you should write it. Within the fields of critical linguistics and discourse analysis, there's a lot of discussion about how out choice of words really do make an impact on how people perceive specific health conditions...

  3. OK. Thank you. I will put this on my to do list - on condition I am guaranteed a comment.