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Boston youth justice research project: Themes in coding

Sandeep Jani is a member of the Boston Youth Justice Research Project Team. Today he explains how the research group worked with themes in coding.

Themes in Coding


by Sandeep Jani

Dealing with different Interviewees

During this project we have interviewed a diverse array of individuals in order to gain a sense of the events that made the mid-2000s a special period for the Boston youth activism movement. Interviewees worked in the movement in different capacities, some were youth activists at the time, others were adult allies, some were funders, and others were external to the movement. Interviewees also come from various walks of life, some were born and raised in Boston and were a product of the Boston Public School system (BPS), while others moved to Boston from somewhere else. The youth activists we interviewed are adults now, some graduated or are still in college, while others stayed around and are working. As a result of the different experiences of the interviewees, the interviewees explained the course of events during the mid-2000s in different ways. It was our job as researchers to find common themes and understandings from all these interviews. For us to come up with themes, we first have to have to code the interview transcripts, and from the coded interviews, we were able to come up with themes.

Interview coding

This is where using MAXQDA became important, in that while different words were used by the interviewees, we were able to go through each interview and code each interview. These codes include key organizations (e.g. REEP, BYOP, TCS, UYYW), key events (such as the Atlanta Social Forum), great quotes, youth issues, mentoring, youth-adult relationships, elitism (where one of the codes was Harvard), politics, etc. These codes are inferred by the interviewee with various phrases and sentences. So, when an interviewee discusses addressing the Boston City Council, we would code this as Political Dynamics. Or when an adult ally discusses why they have taken interest in the cause of the city’s young people, we can code this as Motivation and/or Youth-Adult Relationships. Once we have the interviews coded, we can then work decipher what themes have arisen from the codes we developed.

Boston Campaign Bottons Campaign Buttons from Boston

Discovering themes

With MaxQDA, we were able to create an Excel spreadsheet of the various codes and see the different phrases that were used with each code. MaxQDA made this a very simple task, as we were able to export the codes to Excel, and then copy and paste the different codes with their associated phrases. As a result, we could read what different interviewees said, in regards to the codes we came up with. Through organizing the different phrases by code into an Excel spread sheet we were able to then develop an understanding of the themes we want to use and how to organize the story we want to tell. This part of figuring out what themes have arisen in the interviews and the story we want to discuss, is a product of our research group splitting up in pairs and discussing what we each have taken from the interviews, and the chart of phrases. In this part of the process, MaxQDA became a valuable tool in our conversations, helping each of our pairings develop a better understanding of the themes we wanted to illustrate in our report and to our organizational partners. We ultimately came up with three themes: Collaboration, Impact, and Youth Leadership & Power. Each pair was able to organize the codes and highlight the phrases which exhibit these three themes. Matt and Kim, who illustrated the theme of collaboration, were able to highlight the importance of collaboration in the movement by quoting Seth Kirshenbaum of the City School:


“…..some slogans like, ‘It’s not about me; it’s about us.’ And, ‘No reppin.’ That was a big thing right around that time, no one repping. I think even that first meeting, I think they framed it. There’s no organization, like we’re not reppin any organizations.”


Perri and Elena were able to show the impacts the movement had on the youth activists by quoting Carolyn Infante, a Latina woman from Boston who now attends Union College, where the student body is primarily white and affluent:


“ general, the whole event influenced me in everyday life, the decisions that I made, how I personally fight against oppression, against stereotypes especially here at school and Union is a very privileged school, very classists for lack of better words. Being able to share my perspectives with people and also being able to be at this school and not go crazy at times, I think that a lot of it has come from things that I’ve learned in the movement. A lot about fighting against oppression, how to do that, what it looks like. Things from every day interactions from very much like, a lot of times when we go to the privileged school, people stick within their own race and I’ve made it, at least part of my personal mission, not to do that. I’m very involved in school, in different clubs and in a lot of different activities with a lot of different people.”


Sandeep and Luke were able to come up with the theme of youth power and leadership, through finding quotes from young people and allies alike illustrating how the you were able to exert their power and question the status quo. The following quote by Shaka McPherson, highlights how the movement was able to train the youth to be aware of unfairness in the status quo:

“ went to Harvard for a weekend and I was the only young person in the room and …this is disgusting. How are you going to have a conversation about young people, I’m the only one that got invited…whenever…the youth question comes up…you all look at me like you’re a young person, I’m like, I’m 21.”


Through using MaxQDA to code interviews, exporting those codes into an Excel spreadsheet, and then organizing the codes and phrases, we were able to have a constructive discussion among our research team to understand what themes we can come up with from our interviews. MaxQDA was an instrumental tool in us having these key discussions.

More articles about student experiences and research processes

The Boston Youth Justice Research Team

Prof. Mark R. Warren
Sandeep Jani
Elena Dowin Kennedy
Luke Kupscznk
Perri Leviss
Matthew Poirier
Kimberly Williams

Community Partners

Boston Area Youth Organizing The City School Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project

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