The coding frame

The coding frame is a classification scheme that offers a numerical score for every possible answer to an item (see Sample 4.2 on page 100). The minimum number of categories is two, as with yes/no questions or gender data: 'Yes' and 'male' are usually coded '1,' whereas 'No' and 'female' are coded '2.' For some open-ended questions (e.g., What foreign languages have you learned in the past?) the coding frame can have many more categories - in fact, as many as the number of different answers in all the questionnaires. With such items the coding frame is continuously extended, with every new language mentioned by the respondents being assigned a new number.

The coding frame of eveiy item will need to have a special category for cases when no answer has been given (e.g., because someone overlooked the item or intentionally avoided it) - such missing data are often coded '9' or '99' (rather than '0,' which can be confused with several other meanings).

With closed-ended items the coding frame is usually very straightforward: each pre-determined response option is assigned a number (e.g., 'strongly disagree' = 1, 'disagree' = 2, 'neutral' = 3, 'agree' = 4, 'strongly agree' = 5). The coding of open-ended items, however, often goes beyond mechanical conversion and requires a certain amount of subjective interpretation and summary on the part of the coder. Here the task is to condense the detailed information contained in the responses into a limited number of categories; thus, the assigned codes can be seen as shorthand symbols standing for the longer replies (Jolliffe, 1986). Ongoing decisions will need to be made about whether to label two similar but not completely identical responses as the same or whether to mark the difference somehow. For example, if the question concerns preferences for Sunday afternoon leisure activities, it is up to the coder to decide whether 'walking the dog' and 'going for a walk' should be marked the same or not.

Finally, depending on the actual method used to enter the questionnaire data into a computer file, the coding frame may also contain, for each item, a specification of where the information will reside within a computer record (Wilson & McClean, 1994) - this point will be discussed in Section 4.2.

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