Ivory Tower Writing #17: Analytic memo-taking

This post covers a research-specific writing method known as analytic memo-taking, a skill useful for processing qualitative data.

For those who deal with a lot of qualitative data (e.g. from newspapers, interviews, speeches, and oral history), processing the vast amounts data into something readable requires a degree of skill and a lot of patience and perseverance. One of the ways to ease the burden is by writing analytic memos.

Analytic memos are basically short write-ups, often never exceeding one page (this, of course, is relative to your research), in which you as the researcher record your thoughts/impressions/interpretations. Analytic memos should not be confused with actually writing a draft or manuscript, but your draft will very likely use sentences or substance from your analytic memos.

Why write analytic memos?

The short answer: it is a very helpful tool in interpretive research methods.

Long answer:

Think of yourself as an explorer in new territory. Forgive the colonial analogy, but imagine that you have been tasked by the Crown to record the habits of the native population and understand their customs and traditions. Now, this means you would need A LOT of data, such as political linkages, political structure, gender roles, and so on, to produce something that can be used by the Crown for their colonial policy. Suppose that you have been tasked to understand the population’s political structure, specifically, their elite-mass relations.

Every day, you observe their political behavior. You make notes in your journal. After a long week of observation, you now have a lot of data recorded. But it is still jumbled and haphazardly arranged. You need to organize and interpret it. So, you write down a short memo, where you note down your interpretation of the data you have gathered.

By engaging in this reflective and interpretive exercise, you may be able to spot important gaps in your knowledge, which may lead to you observing things from a different angle. Or, you may also be able to spot your pre-conceived biases and work to mitigate inserting your biases into the final product. For the most part, it serves to make sure you are on track.

How to write an analytic memo

Continuing from our previous colonial analogy, to understand the local population, you live among them, as many anthropologists have done before you, and closely observe their political behavior. Every day, you write an entry in your journal, describing what you did that day, what you observed, and anything interesting you found. After a month, you now have a notebook full of notes and diagrams. This is called raw observational data.

However, you cannot write an article or a book using raw data. You need to process the data. You purchase a new notebook, but this time, you use it to write analytic memos. From the raw data, you categorize and classify it (also known as coding). Since you are observing political structure, you take raw data indicating instances when you observe relations between elites and the masses. You write this down in your second notebook as a short note (e.g. “Relations tend to be egalitarian, though in some cases…”). And there you have it, a short analytic memo.

There is no inherent structure to the analytic memo as each person has their own method and style. Just make sure the memo has these general elements:

  1. A categorization method (could be as simple as assigning numbers or specific codes to notes; this helps with identification and tracking)
  2. A summary of the data being analyzed (I find this helps with writing the bulk of the final product).
  3. An analysis of the data based on your own interpretations/impressions (this is purely subjective; it is where you have complete freedom to write)
  4. A conclusion (Optional, but I like to have it there anyway)

There is also no specific length for an analytic memo, but there’s usually a 3-page rule of thumb. Beyond that… you may need to work on your summarizing skills.

On style, one important thing to remember: the ony audience is yourself. Write an analytic memo in any style you feel comfortable with; it’s for yourself, not for other people (that’s what your first draft is for).

Benefits of analytic memo-taking

As a research tool, analytic memos are very helpful in making sense of raw primary qualitative data, especially those gained through interviews, focus group discussions, and other forms of direct observation. They help you organize the data into something more meaningful and allow you to track your own progress.

Consider the following example of a short analytic memo after going through raw qualitative data on an IR simulation I ran two years ago. I’ll tag specific parts to make it clearer.

[Summary] Gleaning from the data, many students felt that the simulation helped them enhance understanding of theoretical concepts and their application. A majority of students also felt the duration of the simulation ought to be longer and more “dynamic”. [Thought] Does this necessarily mean IR simulations should be standard practice in IR pedagogy? Just because enhanced understanding is reported, this needs to be cross-checked with other pedagogical methods. Furthermore, there could also be sampling bias, as students were not obligated to fill in the post-simulation survey. It is also uncertain whether “enhanced understanding” applies to students who already have a strong grasp of theory and the simulation only served to affirm their previous notions; difficult to ascertain whether students with poor comprehension actually achieved any meaningful gains. Also, self-reporting method is dubious; should be replaced with more structured pre- and post-simulation evaluations to test enhanced understanding claim.

As you can see, some of the language is a bit technical. That’s just the way my brain works when going through data. But in the [Thought] section, you can see how my thought process works when I analyze a specific finding in the qualitative data; I’m uncertain of my own hypothesis. And after reflecting on it, I’ll be able to move on to deciding whether I should re-run the simulation with tweaks or leave it be. Over time, I’ll be able to track the progress of my project.

The memos may also be processed into a finer, short piece of writing. Many of the commentaries that I have written here or elsewhere are actually compilations of shorter memos I scribbled in my notebook. If you’re bent on increasing your profile, this is a great way to churn out academic writing without relying on cocaine.

As a side benefit, whenever your supervisor asks about your progress, you’ll at least be able to show them your memos.

Conclusion

Analytic memos are a great way to keep your research project in order and to help you make sense of the endless stream of qualitative data coming your way. Furthermore, as an interpretive exercise, it also allows you to identify and check your work for your own preconceived biases. The memos, though intended for personal use, may also be re-purposed as commentaries or other forms of writing; they’re very versatile. In sum, if you deal with a lot of qualitative data, writing analytic memos is perhaps a required skill.

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