One of the blogs I follow on a regular basis is Jeffrey Keefer’s Silence and Voice which is currently concerned with some issues related to research design and formulating of research questions in the wider context of auto-ethnography as methodology and identity construction as the subject of interest. Recent posts I found very interesting and commented on are the one on broader research design questions and the one on auto-ethnography and reflexivity which are worthwhile having a think over – they provide very good ground for some reflection on dilemmas and politics entailed in the underlying epistemological questions of research-related decision-making.
I am fascinated by the way crowd-sourcing can work in academic blogging, it’s a great way of engaging broader audiences and gaining some insights from outside immediate areas. I like and do value the fact that academic bloggers, busy with studies and work, research and other things, take the time and effort to reflect publicly online, open up to questions and critiques – and respond to comments and ideas. Personally, I enjoy the challenge to think about issues and see whether I can contribute some ideas and to what extent I need to improve on gaps and communication of insights.
Jeffrey’s research made me recall some podcasts featuring Stuart Hall et al. debating questions related to identity construction. They form part of the Open University’s post-graduate course D853 Identity in Question which I studied in 2008 – the interviews cover Lacanian Theory, Language Approach, subjectivity and legal definitions of personhood as well as some comments on Michel Foucault’s genealogical perspective. They last 2 to 9 minutes and deliver some great food for thought. I also came across James Schirmer’s paper on Scribd which I recommend as thought-provoking read in this context The Personal as Public: Identity Construction/Fragmentation Online
This year’s annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Internet Research 10.0– Internet: Critical will be held 7-10 October 2009 in Milwaukee, WI, USA. I will be attending the preconference workshop on Multidisciplinary Internet Research which participants were asked to prepare for. The preparation covered a list of [early-stage] research questions, theoretical and methodological frameworks and key literature drawn upon in the reflection on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research design.
The workshop organisers have set up an already quite comprehensive wiki which is available on sociotech.net and contains my summary that is also available on Slideshare where you will be able to find a transcript of the 2-pages PDF. The wiki will be updated in due course, so keep watching if that field interests you.
This belongs to the revision of social research strategies, I am going to summarise the key differences between inductive and deductive research approaches – but first what they’ve got in common. Both strategies are rooted in a positivist assumption in terms of epistemology and ontology. The underlying empiricism, i.e. the notion that only knowledge gained through experiences and senses is acceptable, is implemented by rigorous testing. Enlarging the number of instances observed (samples) increases plausibility and the number of regularities being identified. The accumulated ‘facts’ provide basis for general laws of cause and effects. Those are depicted in models as dependent (predictor) and independent (outcome) variables.
Inductive theory is being derived from the observations made. This approach cannot test hypotheses but generates them. In contrast, deduction is theory-driven, it’s based on preconceptions and aims to overcome the limitations of induction. It puts theories to the test, that means hypotheses can be falsified and disproved. The aim is to move closer to the truth, hence the gradual elimination of false theories implies that theories tested and not disproved can only be considered provisional.
Ideally, a deductive approach starts with a theoretical framework (for instance based on Erving Goffman’s ‘stigma’ or Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘social capital’) and the formulation of hypotheses. Usually, this includes an alternative hypothesis (also called experimental H., which states the effect assumed) and the null hypothesis (which states the effect is absent). What follows is the data collection which delivers findings that either result in confirmation or rejection of the null hypothesis and a subsequent revision of the theory.
In practice, though, deduction often entails an element of induction and vice versa. This is rooted in theoretical reflection once the data has been collected or the desire to establish conditions which allow the theory to hold (or not). This continuous weaving back and forth between data and theory and is called an iterative strategy, particularly evident in qualitative research which takes a grounded theory approach and a way to add to the validity of research. In quantitative research, it is advisable to carefully distinguish between the more complex development of theory and the generalisation of empirical findings.
Ontological and epistemological positions provide fundamental aspects of research as they concern the philosophical questions what counts as reality and how beings come into being as well as what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge comes to be established. Two core positions can be distinguished in either area: positivist and constructionist.
- positivist ontology: the world is ‘out there’, it operates in a systematic and lawful manner, discrete and observable events, reality is separate from human meaning-making;
- constructionist ontology: assumes the world we can study is a semiotic world of meanings, represented in signs and symbols, language is central to this position;
- positivist epistemology: knowledge can only be gained by gathering facts in a systematic and objective manner, predominantly by the experimental method and by testing of hypotheses in order to gradually build laws. The aim is to refine them and achieve applicability on a universal level;
- constructionist epistemology: knowledge is constructed rather than discovered, it is a representation of the ‘real world’ and interpreted by the researcher. Knowledge is subject to time-space configurations and a means of power (e.g. doctors as ‘architects of medical knowledge’). Scientists and their institutions shape the production of knowledge by their choices and values.
These positions significantly shape research designs and methodologies.
The Virtual Knowledge Studio in Amsterdam offered an Ethics of (e)research Workshop on
Monday 15 June, which brought together post-graduate/doctoral students and researchers from various fields and a range of cultural backgrounds.
Below are the ethical dilemmas I anticipate to encounter in due course of my future research project which will investigate Digital Technologies [as research tool and objects] in the context of informal cognitive processes embedded in online social interaction which have repercussions on real world settings and experiences.
Methodology: based on a triangulatory approach, it will include a self-completed online survey, auto-ethnographic work as well as semi-structured focus-group interviews and content analysis. Inevitably, in particular the auto-ethnographic work conducted in the blogosphere and online social networks entails a range of possible ethical conflicts which I fear an Ethics Committee may subject to a one-size-fits-all policy that won’t take into account the following particularities:
- Participant Consent –fully informed and voluntary (FIV) – in retrospective?
Conversations and comments on blogs, tweets and retweets on Twitter and comments on Facebook status updates or semi-public debates via Facebook’s wall-to-wall feature: they cut across the public/private boundaries. Given that participants provide FIV consent, Ethics Committees should accept this as ethical research. However, danah boyd et al. have experienced considerable difficulties with retrospective consent in recent projects. Hence, a more ‘dynamic’ and contextualised/non-static model of ethical guidelines is still something we cannot take for granted when submitting our forms to the Ethics Committees.
- Public versus private, blurred boundaries and imagined risky/secure spaces
Are Facebook status updates private, semi-public or public? If forwarded by applications that support Twitter boundaries become blurred and even participants may differ in their perceptions, resulting in different participants demanding different levels of privacy (at different stages in the research) – or, maybe also requesting to categorise rather private messages as public for they may want to be heard and gain higher ‘online status’ (for instance on QDOS which calculate your virtual footprint). Imposing privacy might indeed cause harm when participants do rather desire publicity.
- Confidentiality and Anonymity
Are aspects closely related to point 2 above. Can we safely assume all participants desire anonymisation of their real name or pseudonym? How can I deal with texts/images and other media that evolve over time and contain various levels of confidentiality, for instance participant comments in 1:1 conversation (think Twitter DM [direct messaging], forwarded automatically to email, responded to by public tweet) and also in focus group follow-up interviews. I.e. naturalistic research in the first case vs. participatory research in the latter.
Moreover: cultural differences, expectations and needs may vary across age groups, perhaps even gender, and depend on social class background/educational level. Ideally, we are giving a voice to the interviewee/participant and promoting a level of equality, i.e. avoiding misrepresentation, paternalistic attitude and harm by all means – yet, we need to understand that positions are highly contextual and depend on subjective needs of participants rather than universal model of research ethics. Have ethics committes already arrived at that point?
- Power and Equality
Conducting research, collecting data and distributing findings may be greatly facilitated by online channels. The level of transparency can be high, and research participants may want to claim part-authorship for instance by using excerpts of the research report to be posted on their blog or website (or used in other media). A continued dialogue with participants, post-debriefing, may require further ethical decision-making beyond the levels common in other contexts. Again, not a one-size-fits-all ethical guideline but rather a case-by-case-based ethical decision making might be required. Will participants become involved in future amendments of ethical guidelines?
Finally, the participants’ levels of reflexivity and general awareness of research processes do seem to increase continuously while access to paths of personal and professional development of the researchers become ever more transparent and accessible. Will we need to learn to remind participants that they also need to behave ethically towards researchers? Are we progressing towards a more equal research-driven community and wider – globalised – society? Moreover, the researcher as the researched: my blog, my SNSs, my microblog, all the many profiles, traces left – can I expect research participants to act in an ethical manner in case they won’t agree with my findings (interpretations of findings, to be precise)?
On 4th June I attended the 2nd Digital Cultures Workshop: Social Media Publics #digcult09 at University of Salford, U.K. A conference, rather than a workshop, it actually took place over two days, densely packed with presentations, the organisers Ben Light, Steve Sawyer at el. had managed to include speakers from a wider range of areas. Hence, the methods applied varied and delivered additional sources for debate. Ethnographic methods featured several times with auto-ethnographic research in social networking sites such as Flickr becoming an ever increasing tool. Here, the ethical issues related to reflexivity and at least some degree of critical objectivity became subject to the Q&A sessions and further conversations during coffee breaks. Yet, they strangely seem to rarely feature prominently on the agenda – given the dominance of research conducted from ‘within’ the site of investigation, I think these issues are under-investigated and require more attention.
Some papers, based on larger research projects’ findings, made use of triangulatory approaches, for instance Daniela Bogdanovic, Michael Dowd and Alison Adam, University of Salford whose presentation ‘Golden Girls and Boys: Researching the Online Privacy Concerns of Older People’ outlined the mix of methods they had been using in their micro study. As often the case, they had given preference to diversity and in-depth data against representativeness. Hence, the inductive approach combined with theoretical sampling and grounded theory which in turn provided a foundation for further data collection gathered by help of online ethnographic research, semi-structured interviews with focus groups and a larger survey that will be repeated. I also learnt that their research was embedded in a large-scale project with researchers taking a more quantitative approach which meant that continued discussions around methodologies helped increasing awareness for limitations of one’s own field of origin and taken-for-granted assumptions in terms of ethics, practices and underlying values. To me this sounded like a very dynamic project that may deliver insights beyond the scope of the actual research objectives.
Nick Breems, Dordt College at University of Illinois, presented research conducted on Facebook, his intention was to develop strategic directions for Facebook, hence, he had investigated links of motivation and interpretation of usage and kernel meaning. He raised the question whether Facebook users are training themselves to stay away from ‘true friendships’ and the work they require. Does Facebook address the problems which lead to disconnectedness in the real work or is it just tackling visible symptoms of modern life alienation? To me this echoed the wider debate around strong ties and weak ties, emotional labour and meaningful relationships versus fastfood style connectivity and networking – problems that exist and started off in the real world due to our urbanised, accelerated lifestyles, breakdowns and transformations of what the nuclear family model, working environments/arrangements and societal changes in a globalised world, entailing a huge number of moral issues. Facebook is no remedy and was never intended to be such, yet, it may have potential to offer more than one-click-instant friendship, supposed we start thinking in more meaningful ways about whose responsibility it is to educate all age groups towards respectful and sustainable social interaction and communication. If online social practices (culturally diverse as they are) are left to their ‘natural evolution’ they may simply reflect the social ills and deficits we witness in the real world.
However, we may also start using public education and campaigns in order to indicate more meaningful ways to interact. In this regard the question of another researcher addressed to Nick wanting to know whether he would also have any friends other than those on Facebook came a bit as surprise to me – it seems even those immersed in researching the field hold beliefs about the artificial boundaries of online and offline worlds that feed into myths, hence, as Ben suggested, a lot more research is required which targets more on non-users and their notions and perceptions.
Here is how public education -decades ago – attempted to change the social practices and values lived by a broad audience, in this case the topic was ‘How to say No: Moral Maturity’.
A more contemporary illustration is India’s -pretty hilarious- public health campaign, the mobile ringtone ‘condom, condom’ aimed at normalising beliefs and tackling taboos:
In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff argues that virtuality is actually an ‘ancient human practice and that many media have given us leave of the here and now: cave paintings, Jane Austen novels, Howard Nemerov poems’ (2008). His words in mind I went to see Inkheart in Berlin and could not have found a better illustration of the notion that virtuality is indeed ‘older than sin’ as Boellstorff quotes Plato. Assuming, we imagine our deeds first, then act – although, there is an element of awareness implied that might make all the difference.
Boellstorff’s extensive ethnographic research in Second Life provides us with a richness that won’t allow to dismiss virtual communities as less real as it would mean to miss the key point: what makes them real is our imagination. Equality of imagined and non-imagined places, communities and actions is probably what we can argue for now, having access to so much information and proof of what people imagine and how they imagine.
New social media are the places where a considerable amount of our daily interaction and non-verbal communication take place. Where happiness and depression have a lot in common and reproduce themselves. Without imagination there is little beyond routine: the future is a child of your creative imagination, imagination can destroy, combat crime or start wars. Imagine fear and the cold hand taking hold of you is not far. In this sense new social media is actually not new at all. Interacting with others, forming sustainable and healthy social relationships as well as learning from conflicts are subjects to our imaginative powers and just as Inkheart illustrates so colourfully: escaping from inside the written words into the world declared as real or being pulled inside a book – remember The Neverending Story, Peter Pan’s Neverland, Pippi Longstocking? – it all does seem to be very real. We used to be skilled in imagining whole worlds and futures before we internalised what we were told then: to be realistic, to not get lost in imagined and fantasized worlds. Imagination has become highly status-related: certain literature, music, opera and theatre are encouraged and socially rewarding whereas some popular culture, certain video-gaming and virtual interaction do not enhance our social and cultural capital, so far at least a still dominant argument brought up by many who don’t think much of virtual communities.
Whose reality is it anyway? Imagined readers and writers are closely tied together in Inkheart, escaping from outside into the other world becomes possible by reading the words to an audience, a listener. Do we imagine the other and their world when addressing someone in a letter, an electronic message, on the phone or in Second Life? Perhaps we need to ask when we do not imagine an audience and when we are not imagined as part of the visible or invisible audience…in online and offline worlds full of CCTV, cookies and user statistics leaving traces just as bold as tinkerbell’s fairy dust.
We would benefit from a more holistic approach, I believe, when it comes to understanding the real impact of our imaginations upon our manufactured ‘real worlds’. Imagine, all the people, sharing one virtual world – with many virtual sub-worlds, of course – in awareness of their imaginative powers….imagine all the people understanding the responsibility that comes with such powers…
I recently came across Mariana Goya Martinez’s and Aimee Hope Morrison’s work. The latter is a researcher in Canada and mommy-blogger, her presentation raised a number of interesting questions. Morrison argued that the diary-style blog, as sub-category of the blogosphere, constitutes a hybrid as it links the private and the public mainly by comments. These two areas are also interdependent as they nurture each other – comments provided on each other’s blogposts help to maintain and build networks and relationships. The theoretical framework was very much rooted in Goffman’s notion of the frontstage and the presentation of the self in the everyday. An everyday I would also define as a hybrid of the public and private, online and offline. The extent to which the bloggers’ narrative self-disclosure was part of an everyday life lived offline, though, was not subject to analysis.
Guilty pleasure as a concept sprang to mind as it was argued that many of those [female] bloggers ‘under investigation’ avoided tagging and categorising by purpose in order to prevent identification. It seemed, underlying the lifecycle of those blogs were also strongly correlated events and stages in offline life which forced the researchers to be either in a similar situation in order to comment and engage with the authors or to remain in an undisclosed role. Participant observation, textual analysis and auto-ethnography constituted the methodological framework.
Researching blogs without revealing one’s own identity, motives and activities might be very tempting and legitimate in ethical terms as the blogs are publicly available. Yet, when it comes to evaluation of findings the lack of participant validation as one strategy to ensure triangulation strikes me. Part of the problem may be the fragility of a blog’s lifecycle which is certainly subject to periodical crisis. Revaluation and redesign seem to be part of a blog’s coming of age with comments as currency generally providing a more or less constant flow of stimulation, positively or negatively. This may even result in its death with the role of flame wars in this context certainly not to be underestimated. Without interviewing bloggers at a more in-depth level, though, the complexity of events, complex decision-making processes and the impact of the unconscious upon all this must remain behind the public presentation and largely obscure – or subject to speculation at the researcher’s end.
This is the nexus where it becomes clear that participant observation and textual analysis are no doubt valuable methods but they may need to be reviewed as bloggers become increasingly aware of being subject to scholarly scrutiny with them being subjectified to observation and their products to textual analysis. The politics of ethnography would benefit greatly from a more sophisticated understanding of an unequal distribution of power in the blogosphere and what strategies bloggers resort to in order to prevent their blog becoming a casualty of the politics of ethnography.