CAQDAS: Computer-Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software

January 26, 2018

The term CAQDAS was developed by the directors of the CAQDAS networking project at the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. It is somewhat lengthy as compared to ‘QDA Software’, a short form that can also be found in the literature. The latter stands for Qualitative Data Analysis software and may be responsible for some of the misunderstandings and misconceptions related to CAQDAS.


Software simply cannot analyse data for you, it just supports you in the process. You are still and need to be in charge of the analysis. The question, you may ask is: “If the computer doesn’t do the coding, then what it is good for?”

Software, used appropriately, offers the possibility to verify or falsify ideas, hypotheses, theoretical constructs or models at any stage of the research process because the data can easily be accessed, they can effortlessly be grouped and regrouped, compared and contrasted. It is no Your thoughts about the data are likely to be different at various stages of the analysis process and modification of codes and concepts is an inert part of qualitative data analysis. But not only is this an advantage. With the aid of computers, this process can also easily be documented and the steps of analysis can be traced.


Looking back at nearly 30 years of qualitative computing

The first programs developed for the purpose of supporting qualitative data analysis were THE ETHNOGRAPH ( and Nud*ist. THE ETHNOGRAPH was first commercially launched in 1985. Thus, we can look back at a history of nearly 30 years of computer supported qualitative data analysis. At the beginning of the 1990s, a number of additional software packages were launched like Nud*ist 3 , MAX, HyperResearch and ATLAS.ti.


At this time, all programs were DOS based and offered basic code and retrieve functions. Nevertheless, they were not all the same. The developers or designers often were researchers who needed computer support for a particular project. As a consequence, the requirements posed by the data at hand, the research questions and the chosen methodological approach guided the development and the design of the software. The study motivating the development of N4 for example included large amounts of open ended questions from a survey. This necessitated a tool that allowed for automatic data processing on the basis of command files. The first version of MAX was originally also developed to support the analysis of open-ended questions in survey questionnaires. However, the features of Nud*ist 3 and MAX were not the same as the methodological approach differed. MAX was designed to support the methodological approach of case-oriented quantification based on the works of Max Weber and Alfred Schütz. The development of ATLAS.ti was guided by project needs as well as by a combination of various methods, i.e., phenomenology, hermeneutics and Grounded Theory. This heritage is still obvious today in certain features like the “code groups” or in menu labels like “open coding”. Thus, there is a story to tell about all programs and their development. Let me tell you an anecdote that led to the development of one of the pioneer programs The ETHNOGRAPH.


John Seidel, a sociologist by training, developed THE ETHNOGRAPH while he was working on this Ph.D. thesis. At the time, personal computers were not as widespread as today. Software for statistical analyses ran on large main frame computers and in order to obtain results, it was necessary to type in an appropriate syntax to tell the computer what to do. This was not the same as programming software but very similar to it. John worked as an assistant in the research lab supporting statistical applications, but for his Ph.D. he collected qualitative data. His raw data consisted of around 2000 pages of transcripts. All readers that have conducted a qualitative data analysis by hand know what this entails. Piles of paper need to be ordered and sorted, cut into smaller units, pasted onto different papers according to themes, sorted and ordered again, and so on. John, while in the midst of making sense of his data, however lived not alone. Two cats shared his house. They loved to stroll around the stacks of paper, though not always respecting that there was a particular order to them that should not be messed up. Before a catastrophe could occur (at least from the view point of a Ph.D. student), John utilized his skills gained from working with main frame computers to literally move his piles of paper from the floor into the computer. This resulted in the development of THE ETHNOGRAPH 1.0. Fellow students and colleagues were amazed to see that computers could also be used to support qualitative data analysis. When demonstrating his software and creating an output of segments sorted by selected code words, they gathered around the dot-matrix printer to celebrate the wonders of computer technology. Based on popular demand, John continued to develop the programme that was originally intended to only serve his Ph.D. research. Version 2 was made available to colleagues and friends, version 3 was the first commercial version released in 1985.

In 1995, Prein, Kelle and Bird provided an overview of twelve CAQDAS programmes; Weitzman and Miles (1995) described ten programmes. Today most of them still exist, joined by a number of new packages.


With increasing development of CAQDAS, some diversification has taken place. The main features of CAQDAS in the early days of qualitative computing were the code and retrieve functions. Today a number of the programs have become quite sophisticated and offer a variety of other features. There are still software packages that offer just basic code and retrieve functions, some of them are distributed as freeware. For certain groups of users such packages are entirely adequate offering all the functionality they need. For more information see:


For an overview of how the world of CAQDAS looks like today and in which direction it is heading, see: Qualitative data analysis software: The state of the art. Special Issue: Qualitative Research in the Digital Humanities, Bosch, Reinoud (Ed.), KWALON, 61, 21(1), 34-45.


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