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GuidesResearch methodsUntangling the qualitative research codebook: a guide to crafting your own

Untangling the qualitative research codebook: a guide to crafting your own

Last updated

27 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

A qualitative research codebook outlines the codes or categories used to organize and analyze data in a qualitative study. It's a tool that helps researchers to systematically identify, classify, and interpret patterns in their data and to establish reliability and validity in their analysis.

Researchers from various disciplines use qualitative research codebooks, including:

  • Sociology

  • Psychology

  • Anthropology

  • Education

  • Business

The most effective use of codebooks is in studies that employ methods such as:

The qualitative research codebook provides a clear and consistent coding framework. This enables researchers to identify patterns and themes in the data and draw meaningful conclusions about their research questions.

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What is coding in qualitative research?

In qualitative research terms, coding is the process of identifying, categorizing, and labeling important ideas, concepts, and patterns that emerge from the data. This process is essential in analyzing qualitative data.

Different types of coding techniques can be used in qualitative research, including:

  • Open coding: this is the initial stage of coding, where the data is broken down into small pieces and given initial codes based on the meaning and context of the data

  • Axial coding: the initial codes are combined, reorganized, and connected to form larger categories or themes

  • Selective coding: this establishes a comprehensive theme to integrate and explain the relationship between all codes and categories

Coding in qualitative research can be done using software programs such as:

  • NVivo

  • ATLAS.ti


These software programs allow users to create and manage codes, categories, and themes. The coding process is iterative—as the data is analyzed, the researcher may modify, add, or remove codes to reflect new insights or to refine the analysis.

How to create a codebook for qualitative data

Creating a codebook is vital in coding qualitative data. It provides a structured, consistent framework for organizing and analyzing the data.

Here are the steps to create a codebook for qualitative data:

  1. Begin by reviewing the data to identify the key concepts, themes, and patterns that emerge. This may involve reading through transcripts or notes, listening to audio recordings, or watching video recordings.

  2. Based on the themes and patterns emerging from the data, identify the codes you will use to organize it. These codes should be concise and descriptive and capture the essence of the themes and patterns.

  3. Define each code in clear and specific terms, including examples of what the code does and does not include.

  4. Develop a coding hierarchy specifying how the codes are related. This can involve grouping similar codes under broader categories or creating subcodes related to specific themes or concepts.

  5. Once the codebook is developed, review the data and assign codes to it based on the guidelines and criteria specified in the codebook.

  6. Refine the codebook as needed, based on feedback from coders or changes in the research question. This step keeps the codebook accurate and relevant throughout the coding process.

Following these steps, researchers can ensure the coding is accurate and consistent, capturing the key themes and patterns that emerge from the data.

How do you determine what codes to use?

Determining what codes to use in qualitative research involves the following steps:

  1. Review the research question to ensure the codes used are relevant and aligned with the research goals. This involves identifying the key concepts, themes, or phenomena that are interesting to the research.

  2. Conduct a preliminary data review to gain a broad understanding of the topics covered and identify potential codes or categories. You can read and review the data multiple times and note recurring patterns or themes.

  3. Develop an initial coding framework based on the preliminary review of the data. This framework should be flexible and allow new codes or categories to be added as the analysis progresses.

  4. Apply the initial coding framework to the data. This involves coding the data line by line or segment by segment using the identified codes or categories.

  5. Refine or modify the coding framework as the coding progresses to capture new insights or patterns that emerge from the data. This process may involve adding new codes or categories, merging or splitting existing codes, or redefining the codes.

  6. Ensure consistency and rigor by establishing clear definitions and guidelines for each code or category to apply the coding framework consistently.

The process should be flexible, transparent, and well documented to ensure the credibility of the research findings.

Automated vs. manual coding of qualitative data

Automated and manual coding are two different approaches to coding qualitative data.

Manual coding consists of:

  • Reviewing the data

  • Identifying key themes or concepts

  • Assigning them to a code or category

This process requires a high level of attention to detail and is performed by a human coder. Manual coding offers a more contextual data analysis, as the coder can consider the specific context and meaning of the data.

Automated coding involves using software programs or algorithms to automatically identify and categorize key themes or concepts in the data. Automated coding can be faster and more efficient than manual coding. It helps identify patterns and relationships that may not be immediately obvious to a human coder.

The choice between automated and manual coding will depend on several factors, including:

  • The research question

  • The size and complexity of the data set

  • The level of detail and nuance required for the analysis

In some cases, both approaches may be used. Automated coding can be used first to quickly identify patterns or themes, then manual coding is employed to further refine the analysis and capture the context and meaning of the data.

Tips for coding qualitative data

We’ve put together some top tips for coding qualitative data:

Use a codebook to keep track of your codes

A codebook is a document outlining the coding framework for a research project, including the codes and categories you will use to analyze the data.

Using a codebook is essential for keeping track of codes and categories in qualitative data analysis. It helps ensure the coding is consistent and transparent and facilitates collaboration among research team members.

Avoid commonalities

It's vital to avoid relying solely on surface-level commonalities when creating codes. While it may be tempting to group text segments sharing a similar topic or idea, this approach can overlook crucial nuances in the data.

Consider multiple perspectives when coding the data. This includes the point of view of the research participants, the research team, and the broader literature. This can help ensure the coding is grounded in the data while considering wider theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

Capture the positive and the negative

Use a coding framework that covers the positive and negative aspects of the data. Capturing both aspects of the data can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomena being studied.

Reduce data—to a point

By reducing the data to a manageable size, while still preserving data richness and complexity, researchers can generate a more accurate analysis without becoming overwhelmed by the data that needs analyzing.

Identify key themes and patterns emerging from the data, and focus on coding data relating to these key themes and patterns. This can reduce the data that needs to be coded while still capturing the most important aspects.

Cover as many responses as possible

Develop a comprehensive codebook that covers all possible responses to the survey questions to ensure the data is analyzed comprehensively and systematically.

Covering as many survey responses as possible can help researchers generate a more accurate analysis of the survey data. It can also provide valuable insights into the research question being studied and help identify areas for further research and exploration.

Group responses based on themes, not wording

Grouping responses based on themes rather than wording can make sure similar responses are categorized together, even if they are expressed using different words or phrases.

Use multiple coders to review the data to minimize the risk of overlooking themes or biases in the coding process. This approach can help identify patterns and themes that may not be immediately apparent and provide valuable insights into the research questions.

Make accuracy a priority

Prioritizing accuracy can help ensure the data is analyzed in a thorough, reliable manner.

Develop clear guidelines for the coding process, including definitions of each code and specific criteria for applying them. This can ensure all coders are using the same criteria and the coding is consistent across the entire dataset.


What is codebook thematic analysis?

Codebook thematic analysis is a qualitative data analysis method. It involves creating a codebook or set of codes to identify and analyze themes in a data set. This approach is systematic and rigorous in analyzing qualitative data and can identify patterns and relationships in the data.

What is thematic coding?

Thematic coding is a qualitative data analysis method that identifies and categorizes patterns or themes in the data. It can identify themes across multiple data sources, such as interviews, focus groups, and open-ended survey responses.

What is a data dictionary vs. a codebook?

Data dictionaries and codebooks are both tools used in data management and analysis, but there are differences between the two.

A data dictionary provides information about the structure and content of a dataset.

A codebook provides information about the coding schema used in qualitative data analysis to ensure the qualitative data is systematically and consistently analyzed.

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