questioning is/not coding

Even though doing grounded theory involves more than coding, in other words, coding is still a (if not the) definitive feature of the method/analysis. Again: how could it not be? Our guiding experimental question, then, was not “How can we do something other than coding?” but rather “Can we expose, encounter, and rattle coding structures from beneath, to ab-use them into coding-and-opening, maybe?” Can we ground theory with the ground mined under?

We think we’ve made a start. One semiotechnic we invented for the ab-use of coding is to replace, in effect, a code with a question. Contributors to each PECE instance build up sets of “shared structured analytics,” consisting of any of a number of individual questions. The set is always expandable; any contributor can add any question to any shared analytic. The structured analytic “Querying Analyses of Collaboration and Approaches to Data,” for example, has among its 13 questions: "DISCURSIVE RISKS: What are the epistemic assumptions of the analyst of collaboration?” There may be any of a (growing) number of responses to a given question, associated with any of a (growing) number of artifacts (articles, more ephemeral texts, photographs, recorded interviews, analysts' memos, etc. Any of these can be re-organized around any of the others; a user can display all (public) responses to any question for any artefact, or all sets of annotations for any artifact, or all annotations from any one contributor.

What does this look like in practice? And why practice it? Writing around those questions produces what we and other semiotechs would call a “use case,” a labor-intensive elaboration of the work and thought (and unthought) that occurs when a user interacts with data-objects that should have many of the elements of good ethnography, and is then used creatively to inform digital infrastructure building:

So I went to, found the Timmermans and Tavory article I’d put up there a year or so previously, probably in violation of copyright law strictly construed, and started re-reading it and highlighting certain passages I wanted to come back to again, all in a frame of mind of building toward writing about our differences with grounded theory, “qualitative data analysis” more broadly, codes and coding, and the like. Basically, working toward parts of the present essay. Eventually I had some half-baked thoughts that I wanted to get in — ok, probably more like 85% baked since I'm old — to archive, use, share. So I click the “annotate” button, and then I have to choose a set of shared analytics from a drop down menu that appears. It’s a long list, with the loosest organization, if any. Most of them I hadn’t ever seen, and I'm vaguely annoyed as pick a set from the list, click “continue," and then look at the next long and semi-organized list of questions. I do this a couple of times, backtracking up (?) the logical levels until I find one of the questions from one of the lists that’s close enough to what I imagined I wanted to write about. Select. "DISCURSIVE RISKS: What are the epistemic assumptions of the analyst of collaboration?” I start typing in the blank box but am already thinking about how I wasn’t looking for a code with which to categorize, a set to put another member in, but was already in a space of disjointness and uncertain translation: "well I was going to write about coding and data ideology but there weren’t any questions that used those terms but “epistemic assumptions” seemed pretty close although not exactly and then there was that DISCURSIVE RISKS in solid caps up front linked by a colon: huh discursve risks i guess are like epistemic assumptions which may be a kind of data ideology but what about where ab-use comes in and maybe I should just add my own question no I like where this seems to be going…” And I continued typing. Save and Finish. Because that took a lot of time, and I need to be done because I am late for something else.

Coding is there, but it never quite settles down fully, flickering between partial translations, retaining some of its originary openness. Going with another's question, rather than one's own habitual coding, subtle and creative as that may be, is a way to swerve slightly from your semi-intended path, or to begin to re-style one's style -- or at least to keep that possibility open.

We think that’s actually a good start toward the ab-use of codes — good enough, anyway, as any good pragmatist would say, to be worth continuing to work and play with. Worth continuing to experiment with.


Mike Fortun


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