The application of psychoanalysis to data analysis

Data analysis is an ongoing circular process requiring multiple revisions. Analysis commenced during data collection and was aided by keeping reflective notes enabling secondary extensive analysis and reflection. For example, in the early field notes given below I noted the untidy office and inside-out jacket of the service manager. I pondered frequently on the significance of this. It was only at the end of the data analysis phase that its relevance as a metaphor for service disorganisation and the exposition of what normally is unseen or unconscious became significant.

“For extensive interpretation of meaning, rich and nuanced descriptions in the interviews are advantageous, as are critical interpretive questions during the interview” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009, p. 216). This necessitates detailed verbatim descriptions. However Hollway and Jefferson (2000) argue that the commitment in social science research to represent interviewees’ voices can eliminate distinctions between description and theoretical interpretation emphasising the need to analyse the data with a theory of the subject, including reflexivity to assist in the analysis. Therefore I did not commence data collection until I had conducted a careful review of the literature relating to transference, social bonds, Lacian discourse, psychoanalytic interview techniques and the organisation of mental health care. This enabled the application of psychoanalytic theory in data analysis. Equipped with knowledge of previous research, pertinent theory and appropriate skills I was able to gather and analyse data from an informed perspective. Reflexivity is not a substitute for utilising theory but it can strengthen a theoretical conviction (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000). For example, in the first set of field notes made following a meeting with a service manager, the chaotic approach to organisation and inside-out nature of the unconscious, which emerged in subsequent data, were presented as if written in the office space and on the body of the manager:

I met with the service manager. It was a number of months since I had been there to meet the previous service manager. There were a lot of boxes filled with papers, reports and files scattered about, X told me that they were having a clear out, tidying things up. We discussed the research project. I was very aware throughout the meeting that the X’s suit jacket was on inside out.

(Moore, 2012)

Second stage analyses led to the emergence of threads of information and recognition of commonalities in participants’ perceptions and were added to the texts. This process of additions to the text differs to coding which is frequently used for the management of “a mass of unstructured data” (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000, p. 68). By making additions the researcher is enabled to understand the data in relation to a total situation. For example, in the previous quotes from two participants, one notes their fear of speaking and the other the misuse of power in speaking. Second stage analysis allows for the commonality in these threads to be analysed regarding the total situation and the underpinning psychoanalytic discourse theory. “The structuralist movement, which started in social anthropology' and linguistics, emphasise that meaning could only be understood in relation to a larger whole, whether it be the culture, the sentence or the narrative” (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000, p. 69).

A third phase of analysis was conducted as transcripts were reread with identified threads, with commonalties and reflections in mind. This repetitive process of reading, rereading and condensing data into coherent threads allowed for immersion and the identification of connections between different data sources in a bottom-up approach. Similar to Hollway and Jefferson s (2000) approach, five elements of the data were drawn together, which resulted in the emergence of psychoanalytic formulations:

  • 1 Verifiable information in the interview transcripts (references to external sources,job titles, service structures);
  • 2 The free associations of interviewees (what they said when left to give unstructured narratives);
  • 3 Shared cultural assumptions of the interviewer and interviewees (nurses are usually female and doctors are usually male);
  • 4 Sociological knowledge (from the literature reviewed and the researchers experience);
  • 5 Psychoanalytic knowledge (from the literature reviewed and the researchers experience).

All stages required awareness of subjectivity, however this third stage required extra vigilance to ensure that in manipulating the data the researcher remained inclusive of all data related to the research question and true to psychoanalytic discourse in generating findings. Returning to the example of the participant who feared to speak, in the nuance of her language she describes speaking to the nurses because ‘being feminine they could calm you’, a shared cultural assumption about nurses. However a percentage of the nursing staff were male, which she addressed by saying feminine instead of female. This economy of language captures psychoanalytic theory relating to unconscious process, identified by Lyth (1988) in relation to the nurse equated to the mother and aspects of the social bond, discourse and desire as identified by Lacan (1969/2007). Subjectivity is managed by ensuring that analysis is verified against social reality and relevant literature. In psychoanalysis the analyst is slow to offer early interpretations. By adopting the psychoanalytic position of quiet presence, the researcher is free from drawing early conclusions, conducting linear analysis and even suggesting to participants possible conclusions, which potentially bias the information they disclose. Consequently the social reality of service disorganisation evidenced in policy documents, the observation and interviews and the first set of field notes relating to the service managers office had to be repeatedly explored to ensure the analysis was verifiable against existing psychoanalytic theory.

Conclusion and recommendations

The matching of two traditions, ethnography and psychoanalysis, is not a new approach and has its roots in Freud’s work dating back to the 1920s (Wallace, 1983). Lacan’s (1969/2007) discourse theory and researchers concerned with the unconscious (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000; Kvale, 1996; Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009; Lyth, 1988; Main, 1957, Parker, 2005) provide support for this joint methodological approach designed to uncover unconscious elements of relationships in the social setting of a mental health service.

My advice for those interested in approaching research from a psychoanalytically informed way is firstly, to familiarise oneself with the site of the research, particularly with regard to the culture, language and symbols. Secondly, it is essential to acquaint oneself with an in-depth knowledge of psychoanalytic theory prior to commencing data collection, in particular how concepts that are key to your research aims and questions are explained.

While the methods I used, and are discussed here, are common to other qualitative approaches to research, the psychoanalytically informed interview in particular, is dependent on the application of psychoanalytic theory in its design, implementation and analysis in order to uncover unconscious elements in the speech and actions of human encounters. I suggest to readers that they practice and become comfortable with being detached and non-directive in interviewing, along with tolerating silences. Do not be too quick to ensure that you immediately understand the meaning of what the participant says by probing but instead encourage her or him to tell their story using non-directive but encouraging comments.

With regard to non-participant observation the researcher is required to be as unobtrusive as possible, yet be prepared to explain the research and your presence. By maintaining quiet presence at the periphery one can fully observe and capture elements of conscious and unconscious interactions. Additionally the researcher must be mindful of not having an influence on the work being undertaken in the organisation and be respectful towards service occupants, particularly when the opportunities for valuable data collection may create a dilemma. Detailed notes of what has been observed should be kept during the phases of data collection as what may not seem significant at the time could become relevant during data analysis.

Data analysis should be accepted to be an ongoing process of reading and rereading data from all sources, including reflections, to facilitate identification of connections between the different strands. This will allow for a total analysis of the total situation, as required. Finally, the researcher, particularly in the latter stages of data analysis must be vigilant so that all data relevant to the research question is used in generating the findings. I caution the reader at this point to manage their subjectivity to maintain openness to emergent findings and psychoanalytic concepts within the literature.


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Chapter I I

The politics and ethics of research into ‘wicked’ social problems

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