contextual knowledge do re-users of qualitative research need
to access in order to make sense of the original data?
Let’s begin by drawing a distinction between two kinds
1. Descriptions of the substantive context of a study -
the myriad kinds of knowledge about the local field of study
that the originator needs to draw upon in order to interpret
and analyse the data.
2. Descriptions of the methodological context - the guiding
frameworks, means and processes through which the study
This section of the guide explores both these two kinds of
information, taking issues of methodological context first
and substantive context second.
In relation to originators’ work, it is clear that
only substantive context is likely to be fully analysed and
documented in a routine way, since it is something that they
need to examine in order to make sense of their data. Methodological
context, on the other hand, is less likely to be fully documented
The extent to which methodology is documented in an original
study will depend on how reflexive originators are being about
their methods. It is possible that a detailed ‘warts
and all’ account of methodological decisions and reflections
is made available for deposition, but it is more likely that
methodological information will be confined to standard, ‘official’
descriptions of the project’s methodology of the kind
provided in final reports. These often read along fairly well
established lines (such as defining the field, sampling, negotiating
access, gaining consent, and so forth). It is clear, however,
that these ‘public’ accounts may provide little
in the way of insight into the messy actualities of fieldwork
and research relationships. Yet this kind of detailed methodological
information is of considerable value to re-users; in fact,
we would argue that it is essential.
For example, it’s clear that methodological context
is not only about the whys and wherefores of technique and
process, but also about the case-specific and complex relationships
that are negotiated between the researcher and the participants
during the course of research. These include consideration
of differentials in power and status, the contingencies of
planned and chance interactions, along with many other variables.
When we archive our data for others, we cannot ‘account
for’ this necessarily complex and particular aspect
of context in any simple or straightforward way. We cannot,
certainly, wish it away, for the quality and nature of the
dataset is to a large degree dependent on its specifics. That
is, any qualitative data-set will necessarily be generated
within the parameters of particular research relationships,
such that the data cannot be seen as detached from or independent
All of this suggests that context does not comprise a set
of static circumstances that the originator is ‘surrounded
by’ in the course of study. Instead, as Holstein
and Gubrium (2004) argue , context can be better thought
of as ‘a fluid, socially emergent constellation of contingent
factors that are “worked up” – not just
encountered - in the course of everyday interaction’.
All originators can do is to ensure this elasticity is ‘stopped
in its tracks momentarily to allow for description and analysis’
309), through providing a rich account of relevant factors
such that subsequent re-users can understand the conditions
under which the data were generated and the conclusions drawn.
As we will show in what follows, the existing guidelines on
providing documentation do not in our view recognise this
fluid quality of context sufficiently clearly.
There appear to us to be three major issues that questions
of context potentially introduce into the debates on re-use:
1. How should we ensure that we provide an appropriate,
reflexive and useful representation of the project’s
2. How should we document the wider, substantive context
of the dataset – such as information of a socio-historical
3. To what extent should we take re-use into account as
we are generating our data and assembling the data-records?
The first two questions both regard documentation –
how to ensure that the necessary kinds of knowledge and information
are communicated to subsequent re-users. The third one concerns
methodological process itself and opens up a number of quite