How do researchers make sense of large amounts of qualitative data?


diagram of qualitative data

By Oscar Odena

In my experience of carrying out research in a number of contexts, making sense of large amounts of qualitative data is the real issue for many researchers. And that’s not surprising.

One of the expectations of social enquiry projects is that they will have a decent amount of data which helps address the research questions, and develop implications based on evidence rather than opinion. But after spending a few months collecting data, faced with all the ‘raw’ files saved in storage devices, how do researchers start analysing them, and how do they know the analysis processes are the right ones?

One of the biggest difficulties is to show to readers of research reports that the use of theories and frameworks is not tokenistic and is supported with illustrative examples from the data. Nowadays testing the framework with the data and developing implications can be assisted with specialist software.

Limits of specialist software

Using specialist software is no guarantee for theoretically inspired thinking, but these packages can assist in being systematic with the analysis, making sure no stone is left unturned when employing a particular theory as analytical framework.

Regardless of software use, making sense of qualitative data would always need to be a thorough process of reading, interpreting, testing and refining, which is repeated by the researchers until all interpretations are compared against all datasets, and the analysis validated with other individuals – this is further explained in the journal article ‘Using software to tell a trustworthy, convincing and useful story’.

Ultimately, the possibility of producing conclusive claims will depend on how the research questions are framed, as implications developed from social enquiry are normally context and time bound.

NOTE: you can find an expanded version of this post on the site. Oscar’s original post can be found here.

About Oscar:

Oscar joined the University of Glasgow in January 2013. Originally from Spain, he has conducted educational research in a range of contexts nationally and internationally, including in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Catalonia and The Republic of Ireland. More information on Oscar can be found on his Glasgow University webpage. You can contact him at



We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

Leave a Reply

About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

Recent Posts


Sign up for our Newsletter