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Boston youth justice research project: From Questions to Codes

Matthew Poirier is a member of the Boston Youth Justice Research Project Team. Today he explains how the research group created codes for their analysis with MAXQDA.

Moving from Research Questions to Codes


by Matthew Poirier


The process of moving from research questions to codes was a deliberative process that occurred in our class setting. When Professor Warren introduced the concept of coding to us, he encouraged us to think about the process as one that was iterative in nature, and realize that our codes would evolve. I think this was to encourage us to realize that codes could and would change as we learned more about our data. As a project team, we had developed our research questions, and created interview protocols looking for data on those research questions. Here, it was important to look at both the research questions and some initial readings of the transcripts themselves to seek to define our codes as part of our process.

Boston Research Team

Members of the Research Team

Coding inspired by interview questions

By way of example, we really wanted to understand the nature of youth power in Boston during the early 2000s, and so we asked, “How did youth emerge as leaders and build power?” A direct interview question that resulted from this research question was: “Tell me more about your role in the [youth justice] movement.” And so it was natural that one of the codes we developed was called “role in movement”, where we looked at how youth alumni defined their own roles in the movement. We wanted to know if the youth saw themselves as leading the moments that our research partners viewed as significant.

A further research question we developed for this project was to examine how this time impacted the youth who participated. This was a clear part of our research partners’ desire to do this research, and it lead directly to the follow up probe to the above interview question where we asked “Did your participation in the movement change you in some way?” This naturally brought about the code of “Youth Impact”, which we defined as how the movement impacted youth personally through participation in the movement. It’s where we captured some of the most powerful statements of the youth movement beyond the time to a real powerful impact on them as adults and the paths that they chose. We could see the code in action, pulling those key pieces of data from the interview. It was an exciting development, and one that we as a research team could really see across the interviews, and one that we felt really worthy of pursuit.

Refining the code system

The research questions really were guide posts as we moved through developing the codes. A careful reading and re-reading of select interview transcripts gave us the ability to refine the codes, and ensured that the code system we developed reflected the interview questions we were interested in pursuing. Feeding the codes back into the interviews allowed us to see that our research questions were providing a set of reliable codes. By keeping the research questions ever present, and by developing a coding system largely derived from our research questions, we really strived towards our own form of internal validity.

We all felt that the time and effort that we spent on this part of the project was well spent, and really allowed our research project to open up for us. MAXQDA facilitated this process by allowing us to see our codes in action, and we used MAXQDA to test code several interviews. Re-reading the test interviews, we refined our coding system, completing that iterative coding path that Professor Warren had encouraged us to use. It was a distinct advantage of the approach we learned within this project, and one for which that MAXQDA was enormously beneficial.

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