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
1200 fotos got lost when my camera was stolen (back in London) – this is an homage to Northern California and all the beautiful people and stunning places I encountered. This is also dedicated to the invisible people, the many – way too many – homeless people I met on my ways. It is also a piece of emotional labour contributing to a better understanding of reflexivity in [auto-]ethnographic research projects, with a focus on awareness of the role of the self.
The image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License by wordle.net.
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)?
Analysing unstructured qualitative data in various formats turns out to be a real challenge. Immersing myself in auto-ethnographic research in online social networks, microblogging and the wider blogosphere at this early stage of preparation for my Master thesis is going to produce rich descriptions, large amounts of questions, notes, comments, ideas to pursue, concepts to challenge, theories to be considered….I need some powerful helpers. Categorising, tagging, sorting, re-grouping and transcribing data seem to be among the most time-consuming tasks. It’s daunting. And the hunt for affordable, reliable and useful can-do software is something I don’t want to leave to the last minute. A current debate on the AoIR list made me think it is a good moment to look into the range of options in a somewhat more systematic manner.
First of all the market seems to restrict choices as there is the Mac / Linux / Microsoft question. Second, money is an issue. So, applications that offer at least a free trial are my preferred choice. Third, qualitative data is meant to be worked with, otherwise the layers of meaning may not start to unfold, so I want the software to do part of the work for me, but please, do not outsmarten me. Finally, I am not dogmatic: handwriting notes, typing them or recording them on a dictaphone, mp3 player or other devices is not a question of ideology – but to a significant extent an issue of practicalities. Also, I find that various methods of notetaking and recording help me keep my questioning mind fresh and make it less tiring to rework through the material, which in turn may feed into methodological triangulation and help with participant validation (either point needs more in-depth work, no doubt). They also help me being as efficient as possible: working full-time in a different industry means I can listen to some material while commuting. Not least, I am happy to save the time on typing and spend it rather on analysing and reporting.
NVivo imports, sorts and analyses straight from transcripts as well as audio files, videos, digital photos, PDF, rich text and plain text documents – it’s been designed for Microsoft. It allows to code data that contains tables and images and offers graphic presentation of project information. There is a query function, merging and sharing of files (which includes tracking of reviews) – also with non-NVivo users – is available by help of HTML pages. The 30 days trial version is free and a student version comes at GBP130, for 12 months only, though. For the PhD project, the full licence at GBP330 might be an investment worthwhile. The computer will need to fulfill a range of specifications that might have an impact on the available budget: NVivo system requirements.
Transcription and Qualitative Analysis Software packages HyperTRANSCRIBE 2.8 + HyperRESEARCH 1.0 offer a powerful combination of tools with a number of graphic options that help to build the coding, construct hyopothesis, theory and reports. While the full version costs about USD400, a FREE version for Mac, Linux and Windows is available for smaller projects with the following restrictions:
– the Master Code List is limited to 75 codes
– the study is limited to 7 cases
– each case has no more than 50 code instances.
Express Scribe Transcription Playback Software is FREE software that assists with transcription of audio recordings. It’s been designed for Microsoft, Mac and Linux and it is able to recognise a range of audio files from various sources. So my recorded comments and ideas on the SanDisk SANSA mp3 player can get transformed into text. The same applies to some podcasts which I think will provide quotes for reports. A pair of pedals could help to make the most of my limited time by delegating rewinding and fast-forwarding to the feet. ExpressScribe works with speech recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking to automatically convert speech to text.
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 10 is available for about USD200 and helps with transcribing in-depth qualitative interviews. It does not require special script reading and offers to even surf the web by voice plus dictate and edit in most Windows-based applications. It claims to be 99% accurate and three times faster than typing but I suppose I will need train to it well, speak accent-free and verbalise punctuation. Washington State University provide a site with helpful screenshots on how to record with Dragon Naturally Speaking.
I came across two further tools which I found convincing, they are currently only available for Mac though, but hopefully soon also a Windows version will hit the markets: Tinderbox is a tool to organise, map and visualise complex fieldnotes and comments – and it even comes with a public file exchange option. TAMSAnalayzer is a FREE text analysis markup system works with Mac and Linux.
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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.