Process Coding 101 🖍️

A Plain-Language Explainer (With Practical Examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewer: Dr. Eunice Rautenbach | April 2024

Qualitative coding and analysis are areas that often leave students feeling a little confused – but it doesn’t have to be that way! Here we’ll explore a popular inductive coding technique called process coding. We’ll unpack what it is, which types of research aims it’s well-suited to, and how to approach it, along with loads of practical examples. 

First things, first – let’s talk coding.

To understand process coding, we need to first take a step back and define what exactly we mean by coding more broadly.

Simply put, qualitative coding is the process of categorising and labelling textual data. The act of coding lays the foundation for identifying themes and patterns within your data, and ultimately, extracting insights from it. In other words, coding is the first step in the broader qualitative analysis process.

When it comes to qualitative coding, you can take an inductive, deductive or hybrid approach. In other words, you can allow your codes to emerge from the dataset itself (this would be inductive) or you can approach the dataset with a pre-determined set of codes based on an existing theory or theoretical framework (this would be deductive). Alternatively, you can take a hybrid (or abductive) approach, blending the two.

The right coding approach for your project will depend on your specific research aims and research questions – if you’d like to learn more, check out this blog post.

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Now, process coding…

With the foundation laid, we can now dig into process coding specifically.

Process coding is an inductive coding technique (in other words, a bottom-up approach), which focuses on actions, events, and processes. In practical terms, process coding typically involves coding verbs and gerunds. That is to say, words ending in “-ing” – for example, running, jumping or singing.

Let’s look at an example or two see process coding in action.

In a study examining the implementation of new educational policies, you might use codes like ‘implementing reforms’, ‘training teachers’, or ‘updating curriculum’.

In a study analysing the experiences of patients navigating long-term medical treatments, you might use codes such as “suffering, complying or recovering”.

In both cases, these process-centric codes would then help you to track the processes, actions and stages that are relevant to your core research aims.

As you can probably see, process coding’s focus on actions can help you to understand the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of various activities and phenomena. Therefore, it’s well suited to studies where the research aims and questions involve understanding processes, sequences, actions and changes over time.

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How to “do” process coding

As with any form of inductive coding, the first step is to collect and compile your dataset – this could take the form of interview transcripts, field notes or secondary data such as policy documents.

From there, you’ll start with an initial read-through to familiarise yourself with the dataset. This read-through will help you understand the overall content and context of the dataset as a whole (as opposed to getting tunnel vision on one or two portions of the dataset). From there, you can note down any initial patterns that you notice and start developing some codes, based on these patterns.

Once you’ve created an initial list of codes, you can start your second reading and begin applying the codes to your dataset. As you do this, you’ll likely notice new potential codes emerging, and so you’ll build your code list as you go, cycling back and forth to apply these new codes as you go.

Once you’re comfortable that you’ve applied your codes in a consistent fashion, you can start refining your codes and grouping them into meaningful categories – this process is called “code categorisation”. Importantly, these categories should reflect larger processes or sequences of actions that are significant to your research aims. Let’s use an example to see what this looks like in practice.

Assume you’re undertaking a study exploring how small businesses adapt to technological change.

Here you might have codes such as “evaluating needs,” “researching options,” and “planning integration”. These codes could be categorised as “the preparation stage”.

Similarly, codes such as “implementing technology,” “training staff,” and “integrating systems” could be categorised as “the implementation stage”.

Once you’ve applied your codes and categorised them into logical groups, your dataset should, in principle, be ready for analysis. This might take the form of something like thematic analysis or content analysis, depending on your specific research aims. If you’re keen to learn more about these analysis methods, check out our explainer video below.

Key Takeaways

We’ve covered quite a bit of ground here, so let’s do a quick recap.

  1. Process coding is an inductive coding technique that focuses on verbs, gerunds and action-related terms.
  2. It’s well suited to studies where the research aims and research questions involve understanding processes, sequences, actions and changes over time.
  3. Undertaking process coding involves an initial read-through, followed by code development, application and categorisation.

Of course, process coding is just one of many techniques, and it can be combined with other coding techniques for a more multi-dimensional analysis.

If you need a hand coding your qualitative data, be sure to check out private coaching, as well as our “done-for-you” qualitative coding service.

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This post is an extract from our bestselling short course, Qualitative Research Bootcamp. If you want to work smart, you don't want to miss this.

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