This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
Coding and Starting Cases
This week our class made some steps towards learning how to code cases for the project. A few of the students in our class have done this before but many have not, including myself. The very minimal experience I have with coding comes from one assignment for a different class with Dr. Loadenthal where I coded and analyzed the language in a Nike ad. In sum, project members have various levels of experience with this kind of work.
In one of our weekly readings, it was explained: “In larger and complete datasets you will find that several to many of the same codes will be used throughout. This is both natural and deliberate because one of the coders main goals is to find these repetitive patterns of action and consistency in human affairs as documented in the data.” (Saldana 2015, 6)
The project has a team spreadsheet where we code certain information about a case that the project has deemed relevant to the dataset over time. One of the things that I found interesting was that we code for veteran status of the crime’s perpetrator(s), and I actually found a couple cases within a short period of time where the assailants were American veterans in some fashion. Relative to the Saldana piece is the fact that along the way, socio-political violence was determined by the project to be committed by veterans as a repetitive and consistent pattern, and therefore one we continually include in the data set. This is especially interesting to me because I tend to think of veterans as a group that would be defending against evils like violence in the name of a socio-political motive. However the patterns of data must argue against this logic or else the variable veteran status would not be recognized by the project as important or coded in the team spreadsheet.
This week we also looked at how to start new cases, to add a new row of data to our team spreadsheet that will then later be coded. This is my first time doing this task as well, though it proved to be fun. To start a new case you go into the team drive and read one of the many files containing information on a certain case. Then once you have a good idea of the substance of the case you do more research attempting with court documents and news sources to find specific variables that we have coded for on the team spreadsheet- of which there are multiple like charges facing the defendant, the defendant’s plea to those charges, and known aliases of the defendant. I find this activity to sometimes be challenging for various reasons.
In my opinion there are some variables that are particularly easy to locate- like the defendant’s plea- because often available court documents or other resources will have it listed in a straightforward manner. However I think that sometimes finding the information that you need for the codes is difficult because depending on the type of case and the variable you are searching for you have to take a holistic approach and analyze all the sources and data you have compiled together. An example of this is for the coded variable ‘reason for inclusion’.
One of the major critical lenses through which to look at a case when determining whether it should be included in our data set is analysing the following: it must either conform to one of the following major prototypes 1) the act that occured in the case furthers political violence, extremism, or terrorism or 2) There was some fashion of the state (the US government) explicitly associating the actions in the case with extremism or pushing a message, usually a violent one, in pursuit of a distinctive ideology. The reason I believe that this can be hard to assess is that it can be up to the team member to determine if something was a state speech act or if something is really in furtherance of political violence- these are often subjective or disputed calls amongst various interpretations. With practice, though, this gets easier to decipher.
Relatedly, in Rich, Brians, Manheim, and Willnat’s chapter in Empirical Political Analysis, there is discussion of the fact that some data is harder to find and takes more extensive work than other data to access (2018, 211). I have found this to be true when searching for our data because high profile cases (like a 9/11-related case I analyzed previously) often have far more sources that are easier to access than say a lower profile or older case because these records are harder to dig for and may not even turn up any results. For instance I had a significantly easier time finding data on a 9/11-related attack than on an abortion-related extremist case that occurred in Wisconsin in 1999. Little things like these can make some data harder to get to than other data as Rich et. al noted.
Saldana, Johnny. “Chapter 1: An Introduction to Codes and Coding.” The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers”, 3rd ed., Sage Publications, 2015.
Brians, Craig, et al. “Chapter 12: Comparative Methods: Research Across Populations.” Empirical Political Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods”, 9th ed., Routledge, 2018.