Becoming a New Optimist

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on something completely different from my usual PhD research.

I was recently commissioned to do some analysis by Kate Cooper of the ‘New Optimists’, a not-for-profit organisation interested in humanity, sustainability and food insecurity. Kate wanted a ‘rough-and ready’ linguistic analysis of several hours of conversation arising at a Birmingham Food Council workshop on the theme of food insecurity in Birmingham.

Yesterday I presented my analysis at a thoroughly enjoyable, innovative and thought-provoking debrief with Kate and her team.

My brief for the project itself was both exciting and scary. Kate didn’t have any specific research questions for me, preferring, rather, that I ‘follow my nose’. She did, however, express an interest in hearing some of the more marginalised themes that came out of the
workshop, and also what was ‘missing’; what feasibly could have been discussed, but wasn’t. This freedom was a little unsettling but it appealed to my postmodern sensibilities. Here was an opportunity to make some unconventional methodological choices. Here also was a challenge: to analyse quite a large amount of data quite quickly, yet pay attention to marginalised and potentially silenced voices.

Though my initial thoughts were to use a corpus tool like Wordsmith or AntConc as a ‘way in’ to this data, I decided in the end to stick with my old friend NVivo. I was pleased to find that NVivo has some basic tools that rival its quantitative counterparts. Though it does
all sessions all groups word frequencynot offer the same precision and statistical counts, what it does offer was more than enough for my purposes, allowing me to engage quickly with my data, whilst keeping an eye to qualitative detail. I was able to generate quick lists of the most frequently occurring terms and see them at a glance in striking wordclouds like the one shown here.

feedI was particularly impressed with how easy it was to create a personalised ‘stoplist’ (a list of words I didn’t want to include in my search). Nvivo also dealt well with my data in their original Word formats and created some fantastic ‘instant’ visuals like the one above, but also word ‘trees’ like this one, showing the word ‘feed’ in context.

I identified some marginalised themes by comparing the most frequent words of individual group discussions versus the set of transcripts as a whole. As for ‘missing’ themes, I was able to pinpoint some words and themes that could feasibly have been discussed by liaising with Kate, looking at previous analyses of Birmingham Food Council meetings, and conducting a good old-fashioned google search for ‘emergency food aid’, which led me to some words commonly associated with the workshop topic. In the end, in my analysis I conclusion diagramwas able to draw attention to some of the ‘key themes’ of the workshop, but also some ‘outliers’; marginal or atomised discussions that were often innovative and challenged conventional thinking. I created a diagram to summarise these findings, which includes some of the ‘ghost themes’ that could have been but weren’t discussed.

My work for the New Optimists has been a refreshing and enjoyable experience. It made such a change to go from proposal to presentation in a few short months, rather than several years! It gave me an opportunity to try out some of the things I’ve learned during my PhD studies in a different context and also to immerse myself in a completely new topic for a time.

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2 Responses to Becoming a New Optimist

  1. Kath McNiff says:

    Thanks for the great post Jai – sounds like a fun project. I can imagine that these short turn-around times will become more common as we try to deal with the increasingly fast pace of data generation. Love your word cloud!

  2. jaimack says:

    Thanks Kath. Indeed, I would be happy to see things going that way! It certainly keeps everyone engaged and stops work being ‘out of date’ before it’s even finished!

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