Is (MAX)QDA actually a method?

No, it’s not. Granted, QDA-software is far from methodologically neutral and strongly influences the way we design our research. However, it is not a method in itself and we always need some external “building plan”(a method) to guide us.

I am currently reading “Analyse qualitativer Daten mit MAXQDA” (Analysis of qualitative Data with MAXQDA) by Stefan Rädiker and Udo Kuckarzt (Rädiker; Kuckartz 2019) and to be honest, I did not expect too much. I am using and teaching MAXQDA for years, so what can it possibly tell me? As it turned out, right in the first chapter I stumbled upon an interesting question: “Is MAXQDA actually a method?” they ask. Even more surprising was their answer: yes, it sort of is. – “MAXQDA is not a method!”, I always warned my students. So I was more than a little surprised. Let us have a look at their arguments.

Is MAXQDA a method?

Rädiker and Kuckartz  (2019, p. 12) compare the suggestive power of QDAS to the bread in the oven that cries “Take me out!” in the fairy tale of Frau Holle.

Rädiker and Kuckartz open this subchapter (Rädiker; Kuckarzt 2019, p. 10-12) by comparing two extreme positions:

First, QDA-software forces researchers to use a certain method that promotes working with categories and neglects more interpretative approaches. Therefore, people just do what can be done easily with QDA-software and subconsciously apply a “universal method” no matter if it applicable or not (e.g. Glaser 1992).

Second, they mention a contrary position, it sees QDA-software as a method-neutral “tool”. According to this perspective, QDA software is used within the context of many different methods and does not prescribe a specific way of using it (e.g. Kelle et al. 1995).

Rädiker and Kuckartz close that part by concluding that the “tool metaphor” is too harmless and that QDA-software is rather a method because it strongly suggests a specific way of usage (Rädiker; Kuckartz 2019, p. 11).

MAXQDA is not a method

Seen under this light their arguments and conclusion are very reasonable. However, my warning to students that MAXQDA is not a method is situated in an entirely different context.

Historians (such as me) often struggle with finding or even just naming a specific method for their research. That was, in fact, the reason why I turned towards Qualitative Content Analysis some years ago.

When I warn people that MAXQDA is not a method, I mean that they cannot put “MAXQDA-method” into the methods chapter of their paper. MAXQDA – like all QDA-software – is a tool. It does not tell us how to use it. Instead, I argue, we will have to think for ourselves (and/or choose a proper method) to find a valid way to apply it.

A toolbox with methodological implications

Granted, Rädiker und Kuckartz are right, this “tool” is strongly suggestive on how to use it. Still, I cannot see how MAXQDA (a software) can be a method. Also Qualitative Data Analysis I would rather define as a “technique” or an “approach” than as a method by itself. Although we might consider MAXQDA to be a “tool” this does not mean that we are blind to its methodological implications.

Just think of the saying: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Therefore, a tool is never methodologically neutral. A hammer is made for hammering; QDA-software is made for applying codes/categories. But even if we have a hammer, some nails and a pair of wooden planks, we will still need a construction manual (method) that tells us how to assemble the pieces and how to use our tools. Then, depending on the instruction within that manual, we can build very different types of furniture.


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