FSD Bulletin

Issue 22 (2/2007)

ISSN 1795-5262

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FSD Bulletin is the electronic newsletter of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive. The Bulletin provides information and news related to the data archive and social science research.


Finnish Social Science Data Archive
E-mail: fsd@tuni.fi

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Three Potential Destinies of Qualitative Datasets

Ph.D. and religion researcher Tiina Mahlamäki

Tiina Mahlamäki, Ph.D. and religion researcher who is in charge of archiving in the Department of Cultural Research at the University of Turku.

At best, the relationship between an interviewer and interviewee resembles friendship. The relationship may be long and rewarding. An interview entails intimate interaction, a dialogue where the interviewee shares his/her life story, experiences and feelings with the interviewer. What we are talking about here are unique experiences of a unique person - which are at the same time personal data. The intimate nature of the interaction and potentially sensitive issues often make researchers feel they must promise that no-one else will use the data and that the data will be used for that particular research only. Thus, incidentally, an agreement on the use of the data is made. A binding agreement.

After the research has been completed, the researcher may have documentation of a number of intimate interviews. This is the point at which he/she may begin to ponder what is going to happen to this valuable and unique data. There are (at least) three scenarios.

The best way is to take the possibility of archiving into consideration from the very beginning of the research. Detailed agreements can then be made with the interviewees on how personal data will be processed, used, re-used and archived. For example, the researcher may make an agreement with the interviewee that personal identifiers will be removed when the data are archived, after which the data can be re-used for further research. In most cases the interviewees are happy to see that their thoughts matter and that they can contribute to scientific research.

Filling in boring forms and going through relevant legislation may well cause some disruption to the intimate interaction. On the other hand, the procedure will make it possible to archive the dataset, preserve unique cultural heritage, and enable future researchers to use the data. Preserving our cultural heritage and acting as the custodians of the nation's collective memory have often been seen as the most important goal of archiving.

Usually, however, the researchers resort to the Heideggerian laissez-faire approach, just leaving the data where it happens to be. Be it on a shelf in their office, in the wardrobe at home or in the attic of their holiday home. All these are typical physical locations of a qualitative dataset. Processing the data for reuse will be left to their offspring, with the probable result that valuable datasets, collected with great effort, will disappear altogether.

The third solution, extremely rare in real life, is to follow the law to the letter. The existing Finnish laws decree that data containing personal identifiers must be destroyed after the research has been completed. In this case the researcher destroys all audio recordings, transcriptions, field diaries and notes containing personal identifiers on completion of the research.

I have yet to meet a single researcher who has actually done so.