playing about with data


Not everything we do in our research has to have a definite end point. Sometimes it’s good to set aside all those anxieties about ‘getting through and getting done’. We might even like to take some time to simply play about with our data. Experiment. See what happens. Perhaps there are new insights to be gained from temporarily ignoring deadlines and producing drafts.

If you are prepared to take a bit of a risk, and take some time out, then here are a few suggestions to stimulate a bit of data play.

  1. Gather together a set of random household objects and place them in a bag. Close your eyes and pull out three things. Open your eyes and see what you’ve chosen. Now write about your data in the light of these three things – what data does each of these objects bring to mind? Why? How are these three objects related? How might your data be related in the same way?
  2. Move away from your usual writing place to a new public space. Listen to what the people around you are saying. Write down phrases that catch your attention. Now choose four of these fragments. Which of your data seems to fit with them? How? Why? Do they marry together? Can you write a half a page which makes these phrases and data into a meaningful story?
  3. Make a list of the emotions you feel when you are reading through your data. Ask yourself what there is in the data that led you to these feelings. Now do some free writing about your emotional responses. Read your writing back. Is there anything here that offers a new angle on future analysis?
  4. Make a list of the significant events that appear in a section of your interview data, things that you have been told happened. Write these as scenes to be filmed.
  5. Look at some of your emerging analysis and make a list of the data that you are leaving out. Write an elegy for the data you are thinking of letting go.
  6. Consider the notion of regret. What is there about your data that might cause you or your informants regret? Free write about what these regrets might tell you about what you can and can’t say from your data.
  7. Find an online photo of an art work you like. If this was a representation of some of your data, what would it be saying? Why this data and not others? What is the resonance between the data and the work? What does this say to your next move in analysis?
  8. Find a place in interview data where you remained deliberately silent. What would you have said if you could? What might have happened if you had spoken?
  9. Take a section of your data and make a list of all the relationships that appear. Now free write about one of those relationships. Imagine putting those involved in the relationships into situations different from those you have information about. What happens and why?
  10. Take two interview transcripts with two different people. Imagine they are having a conversation. Write the dialogue.

I am sure that you can think of loads of other playful things you might do with your data.

Of course, none of these exercises are the same as the formal procedures that most of us are expected to use in analysis. None.

But it is sometimes the case that doing something a little out of the ordinary can alert us to other possibilities, and to how our expectations shape see what we see in our data.

Taking a new position, expecting nothing, being open to something novel and offbeat may just produce a new line of thinking, a line we weren’t anticipating.

Equally, it may not. But then you don’t know that until you’ve tried shaking your usual approaches about, just a bit.


Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, play and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to playing about with data

  1. Ciaran Sugrue says:

    Many thanks for these suggestions. While, as you indicate, they are not what we are supposed to do with data, they are nevertheless important potential source of other and additional perspectives


  2. Sue Dymoke says:

    Lovely ideas here Pat for broadening and deepening research perspectives. Many of these can be great starting points for writing poetry too.


  3. Kat says:

    Wow, this is very cool! I love the idea of getting creative and just broadening our minds past what we already see.


  4. Monique says:

    I love these suggestions! They would definitely help us do better analysis. Unfortunately, deadlines and academic rigor don’t permit us to learn in this way.


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