There is a useful and important question that we can ask about social media, and what we understand to be the emerging role of the social media producer. Does our view of people shape the methodology that we adopt in thinking about social media, or does our view of the available methodologies shape the way that we think about how people use social media? The reason that this is important is because if we adopt different approaches to the study of social media, then we will necessarily arrive at different conclusions and different expectations about the people who are involved in producing them.
I want to use this blog to sketch-out some ideas and principles that I hope to adopt when developing my studies of social media, and the associated creative practices that underpin them. To be direct, my starting point is humanistic and empirical, it is based on the idea that what matters most about the study of media is what people become in the practice of sharing and creating different media products and relationships.
This means thinking about the dispositions that people adopt, the patterns of behaviour that they exhibit, the accomplishments that they seek to achieve, and the conceptual framework and language routines that they articulate in the process of enacting their social presence. This is an approach that is informed by symbolic interactionism, which is a way of pragmatically thinking about our engagements in our individual and social life.
Herbert Mead, the renowned American anthropologist/sociologist, framed the pragmatic view of human life in these terms: firstly, we define ourselves as individuals in relation to our social encounters and situations; second, we define our social encounters in relation to our individual creative dispositions; and finally, we use symbolic forms, such as language, communication practice and media, to establish social relationships which are capable of creating new opportunities for mutual understanding.
This view sees social life, and the individuals that make up the social body, as the primary source of all human undertakings and accomplishments. This means that all the patterns of behaviour, all the concepts that account for our behaviour, and all the meanings that we negotiate between different agents acting in the social body, are observable, and are made meaningful as a process of negotiation, reflection and action.
Therefore, any study of social media has to recognise that it is people, themselves, who create the meanings that we collectively hold about the nature of the world, and so studying and accounting for the way that people make sense of the world is the primary purpose of our reflections on the way that things are, and how we fit with them.
It is the meanings that people create and negotiate that give us the options to act in particular ways, some established, and some emerging and different. And it is people who share the symbolic frameworks of language and mediated representation that are part of the cooperative and developmental process that results in our interactions with the world in purposeful ways.
Now, taking the symbolic interactionist framework at face value, it is possible to map-out some principles and themes that might help to form a view of social media, and the manner in which it is possible to study the forms and practices that social media represents.
This is a sketch and reflection on the practices that I’ve developed in two modules that I teach at De Montfort University, Leicester Media School. TECH1002 Social Media and Technology, and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Productions. The first module is an introduction to media culture and social media practices, and the latter module introduces ethnographic principles of enquiry, combined with creative and collaborative working practices, suited to emerging social media production challenges.
Symbolic interactionists regard human agency as a primary component of social life and activity, thereby adopting a view of human agency that is reflexive and contemplative, and which is able to retain memories of former practices and states of mind, either as habits or as narrative experiences, which we can learn from and reflect on. Thus, drawing inferences about the process of what makes personal and social development possible.
Blogging – Explaining to Others
I’ve been encouraging learners to write and produce blogs that account for their experience as they learn to make media and share their media socially. There are generally three levels of reflection that I have aimed to introduce. First, how does the process of creating and developing media products feel to the individuals involved? Second, how does this process feel to the group of people who are involved? Third, asking how might the products and the process look to other people who are not involved or committed to the repertoire of meanings that are being offered?
By breaking-up the process of reflection in this way, a mature learner should be able to switch from one perspective to another, and thereby they will be able to account for their own intentions in acting and communicating in the way that they do – before accounting for how these intentions might be operationalised with other people. If we get stuck in any one of these modes, the self-observant mode for example, and are unable to imagine what they might be like for other people, then we will be unable to fulfil our potential as participations in our social situations, or feel individually satisfied at the same time.
Vlogging – Personal Reflection
Reflection isn’t a zero-sum game, however, and so identifying our own individual needs does not necessarily mean a trade-off against what we are trying to achieve socially. A useful technique to make this process tangible is the use of video reflection. I’ve only started to do this properly this year, and yet have found it to be a rich and accessible form of reflection. There seems to be something about opening-up to the webcam on a computer that allows for a more extended set of expressions of what we are thinking about.
I’ve used this process through the year in the De Montfort University Universal Design for Learning requirements, that expect lectures to be recorded or summarised on video in order to assist learners make sense of the complex nature of the topics. I was reluctant to do this initially, but I soon realised that I was benefiting from recording a summary of the topic of my lectures, and then listening to it and watching it, before posting it to YouTube.
I was never sure that I was making sense previously. Now I feel more confident that I am using the terminology of the investigative method, and the vocabulary of the topics in a more purposeful manner. I can check-in with myself and find out how I am doing, rather than waiting for the approval of other people to offer this supporting acknowledgement. It seems that I am more independent and self-actualised as a result of adopting this simple practice and turning it into a habit.
Talkaoke – Structured Discussion
One of the challenges working with first year undergraduate learners, is to develop and nurture a more extended thinking practice. It takes a long time to get learners from the UK to engage in a discussion and conversation that stays on-topic, and which focusses on the subject and the issues at hand. Literally, my experience is that within thirty-seconds the conversation gets deflected and takes a track that is only relevant to the immediate and personal experience of the learner, but which doesn’t probe or explore any of the deeper and more intractable issues that might be related to a problem or social issue.
One helpful technique that I’ve explored this year to help to redefine this lack of focus is the use of structured discussions in the form of a Talkaoke. This is a basic exercise in passing a microphone and explaining a concept or an idea without being interrupted by other learners. This means learners are able to demonstrate that they can dig deeper into an issue that would otherwise be deflected and avoided when a conversation between friends takes place.
It’s a challenge to speak to a topic for a sustained period, and the focus by the speaker as they hold the microphone is more engaged, knowing that the discussion is being recorded requires an extra level of preparedness and depth. Not everyone can do this immediately, but it’s something we can all do with practice. As long as we a prepared to have a go and reserve judgements until we listen back to the discussion afterwards.
Increasingly I have an aversion to mass-produced and industrially distributed media. I’m getting bored with the sterile and limited repertoire of concerns that are voiced in much of what forms mass media these days. Instead, I’m drawn to more independent and DIY forms of media, because they offer an alternative framework of engagement that draws on the creativity of the people who are making it, and the alternative ways of thinking that they otherwise explore.
Engaging learning through doing.
DIY media is useful because there is no one telling individuals what it is that they should be making or saying. This is a form of media production that is self-determined and draws on the interests and the inquisitiveness of the people who are making it. There is no template, there is no right and wrong, no fixed path or pattern. This is about seeing what emerges as a creative expression and as a form of individual self-discovery.
It is also a form of expression that is directly connected with the process of making something and sharing it. The sense of achievement that comes from making something for ourselves, however limited or ramshackle this might be. The DIY ethos celebrates the achievements of everyone, requiring us to turn-down our sense of judgement, or professionalism, or business acumen, or whatever, and to value the personal achievement and the expression that has been invested in a media product by individuals, rather than simply viewing media products as the outpouring of a commercial process or a factory production line.
Avoiding expensive equipment.
To engage learners in the process of creating things we have to learn to value the most immediate forms of media production, craft and technology that we have to hand. Media production learners get well drilled in the art and craft of the mainstream and industrial production techniques, particularly those required for television or radio, for example. But they have fewer opportunities to explore their creative potential in the form of their own limited, hands-on, capabilities.
If everything can be achieved by applying a pre-determined filter, or by using a technology that makes an artefact look or sound like something else that already exists, then our media becomes sterile and lifeless. Knowing that there is a person behind the process makes it more meaningful, regardless of how ramshackle it might appear.
Promoting alternative and independent points of view.
It’s essential, therefore, that we have in place a structure for learning that promotes and exposes learners to alternative forms of media practice. Particularly those forms of media practice that offer alternative opinions, expressions of identity and dynamic forms of creative practice. Simply churning-out graduates who are capable of slotting into the already established and pre-existing employment and skills structure that is represented by mainstream media is no longer tenable.
All we will end up with is a sterile and flat media culture that offers no diversity of thinking or interest, and which can only reproduce that which we already have. Where will the innovation in media forms and practices come from if we are only teaching learners how to fit into the established mould of media producers? Don’t we have a responsibility break and remake the mould from time to time?
One thing that is clearly breaking the mould, even as we speak, is the requirement to learn the skills and attitudes of collaborative thinking and working. The tools that are available to us in the internet age are making it much more likely that we will have to collaborate in ways that we have never done previously, on a continual and a deeper level than we have done in the past.
Collaborations skills are going to need to be richer and more socially based than the old command-and-control models of organisation development will allow. It’s going to be essential that knowledge workers will have an outlook and disposition that is essentially social, and which enhances the network potential of new data-driven tools and communication practices.
Dominance of Skills & Roles Models
Presently we are locked into a model of learning that is process driven, in which the focus is on how we manage the techniques of project development, rather than focussing on the relationships that are fostered by the people involved. This means that we are continually turning-over the ground of set skills-pathways and skills-models that come from a previous age – the mass production and factory age.
The role-models that are advance in this model also tend to come from the same community of practitioners that are identified with tightly-defined set of production techniques. The value of people who can discuss social imperatives is not part of this grouping. How we feel and understand what things mean, is not necessarily something we focus on when putting a production team together, though in an age of increased anxiety, this might be worth pursuing.
Shift to Practical & Experiential Engagement
What we learn from practice and experience will be different from the kind of analysis that we can derive from our understanding of process and systems. While these systems are important and provide the backbone of a set of media practices, the social context in which they are enacted are equally important. One gives life to the other, and to focus on a purely rationalist or instrumental view of human activity and motivation produces a sterile and alienating experience.
This is why continuous peer-learning techniques are essential in the development of a social approach to project management and development. Learning is no longer terminated upon graduation. It has to continue and continue to be undertaken for the rest of our lives. So, let’s make these learning practices as accessible and enjoyable as possible. The symbolic interactionist approach recognises that all social activity is learnt activity. We continually learn from one another. To learn in isolation is going against our natural dispositions, perhaps suited to less than twenty percent of the population. So why aren’t we accessing those social learning practices that work so well in informal play or recreation?
Playfulness and Alternative Learning Practices
There is a developing trend towards the use of gamification techniques to enhance learning and comprehension. Simply regurgitating the ‘tram-lines’ models of learning that have been imposed in the mass-media age will not suffice. We need to look again a co-learning and participation-based models of learning that foster and nurture a sense of engagement on multiple levels, not just those that are preferred by the inspectors and supervisors of the curriculum. Humans comprehend the world in many different ways. We approach problem-solving in equally diverse ways, so why not allow learners the opportunity to explore more diverse approaches and use a wider range of practical tools that are better suited to their divergent cognitive dispositions?
If social media is to realise its potential, not only as a mode of promotion and conversation, it also needs to be articulated as a set of collaborative platforms that ensure that work can be developed on a shared, transparent and continually engaged basis. The silo mentality of development is a difficult one to shift in the mind-set of most organisations, as it seems counter to rationalist and efficiency models of social organisation.
Stepping back and allowing self-determined and interdisciplinary teams to take the reins of a project is anathema to most project managers and systems developers, who would rather work by dividing and conquering, as each task and resource that is deployed to focus on the task is optimally deployed on a unit-by-unit basis. Russel Ackoff critiques this approach, when he questioned the ‘systems-thinking’ mind-set. His argument was as simple as: take any single component of a car and see if it achieves anything like what the car can achieve when it is operational as a whole!
The tool that I’ve been using most to develop this is an instillation of MediaWiki – the system that Wikipedia runs on, and which has been installed on the DMU Commons. It requires a change of mind-set to embrace wikis as a collaborative development space, because the lack of hierarchy, the open structure and the negation of status challenges many of the received models of knowledge development that are incorporated in our public institutions.
As the symbolic interactionist tradition acknowledges, it’s not the institutions that matter, but the perceptions and the shared experiences of the people who form those institutions that make the difference. If we separate the organisation from the people then we are left with a sterile and information-process-led approach which most people seem to find to be an anathema to a happy and fulfilled working life. So why keep doing it?
Social Production Tools
Fundamentally, we have to invest in the social tools that will enable us to maintain meaningful human contact when we engage in dispersed projects and try to achieve extended common goals. Yes, different types of jobs and tasks tend to attract specific types of thinkers, but they might be so much richer and quicker to resolve if they take a more pragmatic and inclusive approach to cognitive diversity. Simply employing people with the same outlook will only produce the same responses. If we paraphrase Einstein, the way to critique one system of thinking is to deploy an alternative system of thought that that can help us to shift our perspective and bring about fresh thinking.
Before Copernicus every expert was adamant that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and that when we looked at the sunset we saw the sun setting below the horizon. After Copernicus, it was possible to demonstrate that it was a false image, and that it was actually the horizon that was rising to obscure the sun. Sunsets, however, remain beautiful and prompt a sense of wonder – so it’s win-win to be able to think both ways.
Social Evaluation Tools
This means that we need to think differently about the evaluation tools that we use to demonstrate that we are engaged in a common endeavour of value. How we look at meaningful social communication has to be understood in different terms than simply measuring the interactions and the number of people who flick a switch and stare at a screen. What are the wider outcomes that we are trying to achieve? What is the context of need and social development that we are trying to cope with? How can change and shifts in disposition be accounted for?
Either we continually try to chase our tails, and keep-up with the numbers and the metrics, or we step back and ask questions about the ethics, the value and the meaning of our social forms of communication. In my work with community media, the challenge is never to measure the audience of a community media project, but instead to ask what people become in the process of developing the relationships they establish in their practices?
By returning to the triad of pragmatic communication, associated with Pearce, we can complete the cycle of development and understanding. What are the forms of communication helping us to become? How do they help establish a sense of ‘self’? How are they valued and understood in the context of the community of practice and interest in which they are expressed? The pragmatic symbolic interaction tradition is an anti-essentialist form of thinking. It doesn’t see language as a universal trait of human nature, rather, it looks to practice and activity as the formation of our language.
The need to collaborate and meet shared social goals is what leads us to formulate language and symbolic representation. What, then, are the shared aims and goals that our present forms of symbolic representation seek to address? Our tools of symbolic communication are always shifting and changing, and in the process our goals and aims also change.
Social life is never static, it is dynamic and changing. It evolves in practice, and our reflection on that practice gives us new insight into how we can change and evolve our goals and aims continually. We are restless in this respect, because we remember that we have lived our lives one way before and we are drawn to the creative practice of trying new ways to live, new ways to interact and new ways to see the world.
Pragmatic Models of Communication
Pragmatism, then, takes the dynamic process of interaction and social engagement and asks: what do we become in the process of applying these emergent forms and practices of communication? Accounting for change is the primary need of all social enquiry. We are continually faced with change. We remember the habits of the past, and sometimes we long for those habits with a force that is deeply held within our being.
Periods of rapid social change are always challenging, and they displace the equilibrium and harmony that we previously established. But in time we adapt. In time we establish and incorporate fresh perspectives and the harsh lessons of life get incorporated in our language repertoires and routines. It is impossible for us to live in a word of no memory, though it is often difficult for us to move on from the past. We are driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror, (to steal an analogy).
Affordances & Constraints of Technology
Of course, technology plays an important part in the development of our dispositions and sense-making capabilities. As technology changes, so does our ability reflect on the mechanisms by which we engage with the world, recall information about the world, and engage with one another. The McLuhan’esque determination that it is the technology which shapes our comprehension of the world is only partly true. Technology plays a role, but it does not exist in isolation, and humans still have to make sense of the technology that they engage with and use.
A pragmatic approach to technology seeks to understand the relationship between our sense of self, our sense of the social group in which we operate, and the media and symbolic forms that we have to hand, that allow us to go beyond our immediate bodily senses and capabilities. Any examination of the technology of communication cannot be deterministic. Technology and media practices do not define the human experience. They may help to shape that experience, but they do not totalise it or finalise it.
There is no universal fulcrum on which the world rests. Our experience is the product of the social construction of meaning, which is shifting and developmental, emergent and partial. We never have the full picture and we never will make sense of everything. Our experience is a process of negotiation, and technology and media forms are only one aspect of that process.
Dispersed Meaning Processes
In a sense, the preponderance of social media technologies has helped us to see the world in a different light. We are no longer embedded in mass-media models of subject-object dualisms, and instead can locate the evidence that humans are creative, inventive and generative. Yes, to a large extent we learn by imitation, but if encouraged and supported appropriately, we have the potential to follow richer streams of generative intent.
Mainstream media organisations now spend much of their time mining social media interactions to figure out if they can offer potentially meaningful content to a broad audience. This is a significantly different process than the mass media model of industrial media production. It looks to people and publics to find out what they regard as meaningful, rather than simply imposing content on a uniform and mass audience.
Adapting to these changes is taking time. The levels of collaborative and co-production are emergent, as Henry Jenkins attests, this is a model in which meanings are circulated by users or agents in a network, moving beyond the simple producer-audience binary that has been the mainstay of mass media entertainment through the Twentieth Century.
The task, then, is to prepare for the post-transmission age, in which dispersed and distributed meanings networks are the norm, and the experiences of humans within these networks are given primacy. This will take us beyond the institutions and industry practices of the present, and open a dynamic and shifting mediascape that is driven by individual and unique expressions of belonging, participation, creativity and difference.
Diminution of Importance of Transmission Models of Communication
Gone are the days of reliance on fixed communication pathways. Media will have to work harder to establish a presence within the plethora of social worlds and multiple reality-frameworks that people experience. We might not yet witness the full effect of this change, but it’s becoming more apparent in the dispersal of micro-gestures that make up social media communications platforms and systems. Being able to tune in and out of these reality frameworks is going to be the required skill of future generations.
Rhizomic vs Arbolic forms of Media
Deleuze and Guattari signify this shift in the concept of de-territorialisation, and the contrast between the ‘arbolic’ and the ‘rhyzomic’ structures underpinning knowledge and information exchange and development. Eric Raymond describes this as the ‘cathedral and the bazaar’ model of thinking. We may well continue to invest in long-lasting structures and social spaces, as they serve a functional purpose, but they are slow to respond to social change and aren’t based on flexible forms of thinking. Whereas the rhyzomic forms of collaboration and co-development are fluid and continually emergent, offering change many times over, at a rapid pace and in unpredictable ways.
The challenge, then is to build a practical set of tools that can help us to adapt to these generative models of social experience, and which help us to realise the potential of participative models of media engagement. These are often labelled as part of the digital literacies model of thinking, and there is a great value in exploring this framework of practice. It will be more effective, however, if we can tie these ideas to the symbolic interactionist methodology, because a lot of the groundwork has already been done, and the simplicity of the precepts have been established.
The challenge is to keep thinking, to keep reading, to keep writing and to keep exploring and making points about how all of this works, what difference it might make in practice, and how we can adopt forms of analysis and evaluation that aren’t fixed to speculative or deterministic ideas. Let’s form a view of people that respects agency and then find a methodology that can account for the creativity that is associated with being human.
There is an ongoing debate about the status of media studies as a subject and set of learning activities that suggest that the traditional focus on textual, institutional and political areas of interest are no longer the sole area of concern for academics and practitioners who are developing learning and teaching strategies that make sense in the highly changing social, economic and technical environment. For example, William Merrin suggests that models of media study and practice need to go beyond the ‘broadcast’ and ‘transmission’ age models of production and distribution (Merrin, 2014), something that David Gauntlet reflects by calling for a “media studies 2.0” framework based around creativity and participation (Gauntlett, 2015).
This is a debate that is ongoing and has real implications for the way that media courses are structured, planned and promoted. What might the intended outcome of a media studies or media production programme be when seen in the context of rapid and advancing change? How can media studies and media production programmes meet the challenges and needs of the future, such as the “Great Disruption” (Moore, 2016), with its requisite impact on social resilience, adaptation and planning for environmental change, increased urbanisation, technological automation and information management, as well as fundamental changes to the communications model, passing from the arbolic to the rhizomic mode of generative media (Deleuze & Guattari, 2013)?
This is a quick sketch of issues that I believe are important if we are to address future needs in the development and promotion of the media studies and the media production curriculum. This can best be summed up by asking if anyone needs media studies and media production courses? There has to be a point to our undertaking, such as addressing pressing social problems? This entails going beyond a market-based supply of skills needs, and addressing future concerns of sustainability and participation in communities of practice and interests.
How Focussed on skills are the courses we manage?
Most media courses have a strong sense of planning to meet existing skills needs, but to what extent are we investigating the potential skill needs of the future? As the media production and development working environments shift, so to are the skills expectations. As technical and social change occurs we have to try to anticipate, investigate and experiment with patterns of future skills requirements that are relevant for diversified media ecology.
Well-structured courses draw on strong emphasis of production, reflection and investigation, while also being mindful that it pays to be a generalist when planning for the future, and thus avoiding a too narrow focus on a limited and conforming set of ideas and core practices. The single-mindedness that academics and media practitioners bring to the development of their courses is admirable, but it is at the risk of failing to recognise and exploit the potential that is offered when we bring together mixed learning experiences and contributions. By introducing diverse learning opportunities, and using interdisciplinary and multiple modes of engagement and practice, it should be possible to enhance the learning experiences that address emerging technologies and practices, in a more collaborative mode of delivery than those that are addressed in the traditional linear and abstract forms of knowledge development.
It is therefore necessary to draw on different scholastic and investigatory traditions of practice and learning, exploiting and experimenting with interdisciplinary methodologies and approaches. If we avoid the narrowing of our expectations, and the conforming of our practices and routines of enquiry, then we can avoid the pitfalls of monological thinking that removes opportunities for discovery and investigation – with the associated limited range of cognitive expectation that accompany these practices and dispositions. Promoting interdisciplinary, collaborative investigative approaches and structured challenges, means that it will be possible to enhance the expectations of learners, while keeping them engaged in a rewarding and stimulating learning experience for its own sake, and not one that promotes deferred reward, status or approval as their primary outcomes.
What we gain from these developmental learning traditions, which sees the cycle of learning as driven by an integrated sense of learning through practice and concept, is a reinforcing cycle of engagement that opens-up the learner’s expectations, rather than limiting their opportunities and potential for diverse outcomes. A narrow mode of engagement and participation only short-changes the potential that cognitive diversity offers. The potential for problem solving is enhanced if those who are engaged in the activities are able to recognise the inherent strengths of different cognitive approaches, while also being open to multiple opportunities for divergent and reflexive thinking. We are all enhanced if we use the multiple cognitive modes of engagement that problem solving requires, as we are more than the sum of our parts when we collaborate.
A more reflexive approach is one that utilises learner-centred development processes that are situated in practice and supported by appropriate concepts and ideas. The impulse to normalise this experience into pre-structured roles and expressions, limits and restricts the level of engagement that can be achieved if we simply view media practice as a purely functional task – usually learnt by rote and practiced with a limited sense of self. This classical mode of ‘banking’ learning leaves learners with poor techniques for self-actualisation, and undermines their ability to explore alternative forms of engagement and expression that would otherwise promote growth and self-awareness.
The challenge, then, is to design learning programmes that allow learners to develop social engagement skills and to maximise their contribution to the group enterprise. In the collective intelligence models that promote learning through shared practices and shared understandings, learners are oriented away from classical models of learning that promote engagement as atomised and transactional. This means taking every opportunity to provide social and collaborative learning practices that enhance learners sense of belonging as part of a learning community, and thereby able to explore techniques for co-development and co-production that support innovation and problem solving learning.
However, it’s pointless trying to promote participatory forms of learning if they are not appropriately scaffolded with clear expectations that are drawn from ‘real-world’ projects. Partnerships that raise expectations, and are of an international standard, will be increasingly prized in the future, as they will give learners a sense that their individual learning experience is not being designed in isolation, but has a viable sense of meeting raised expectations based on the status of the partners and their progressive and forward-thinking dispositions. Leaving learners with local and limited expectations is no longer sustainable.
The need to develop and enhanced collaborative practices, therefore, is something that can help to give a greater sense of externalised engagement to a learning programme, and thereby minimises the potential negative effects of a ‘bubble’ mentality. This ‘bubble’ mentality is on in which self-confirmation and self-regard limit the opportunity for realistic externalised engagement. The self-reinforcement of expectations promotes brittle and weak learning opportunities that are unattractive and require sustained (and wasted) investment in internal organisation politics and resource battles. It’s better to be seen to be working with external partners because they bring a different perspective to the learning experience, in the way that they enhance expectations for independent working relationships, founded on a future needs analysis, and a diversity of problem solving techniques and technologies.
To this end a needs analysis must address how challenges of social, economic, environmental, technological and cultural change and going to impact on future expectations of media production and media communication. If we only frame our learning practices in terms of what we already know, and not in terms of what we need to know, then we will miss the opportunity to prepare learners for the challenges that lay ahead of them, and the roles that they will be expected to perform as media-producers who are capable of meeting these challenges. Diversification of expectations of use of media, to include wider range of technologies and social uses (i.e. gamification, data management, social participation, virtual reality, digital mapping, media-supported-learning, etc.) should be regarded as a key strategic aim of all media courses.
Diversification, then, is necessary because there is an ongoing requirement to addresses the significant and impending challenges of social and organisation development. By introducing relevant problem-solving approaches to environmental, social and technological change, it should be possible to promote a sense of engagement with sustainability agendas, such as climate change, urbanisation, automation, globalisation, personalisation, data-integration, ethics, social and civic accountability (among many others). As the oncoming waves of change approach, we will need thinkers and producers who won’t be overwhelmed due to lack of preparation, fixed as they might be in a monological thinking pattern. It’s incumbent on all course planners, therefore, to build-in a sense of evaluation of their proposed learning practices, focusing on future resilience and sustainability, and the practical issues of communication and mediation, the use of technology and social engagement, and so on.
If we can’t promote a strong impulse for the exploration and utilisation of technology for social accomplishment, then we are simply narrowing the expectations and value of technology, design and engineering practices, leading to limited cognitive and practical experiences that won’t keep-up with technological change due to lack of support, investment and advocacy of the technical development process. If we promote the pragmatic and continual re-evaluation of the support that is built-in to our taken-for-granted technological practices, then we also engage learners in progressive and creative methodologies and practice that utilise diverse and experimental methods of investigation and problem solving. Why should we cut off the opportunity for continuous learning?
So, media courses that are going to be fit for purpose in the future must therefore have a strong focus on discovery and engagement with emergent and open development practices. They must avoid any narrowing of expectations that would otherwise lead to a reinforcement of the existing solutions that are commonly available, which, over time, may prove to be insufficient and lack a sense of sustainability, resilience and future-proofing. It’s certain that many organisations are thinking about these challenges, and these organisations undoubtedly will become more attractive because they have a more explicit focus on future potential and possibilities of technological practices and media know-how. Therefore, if we comprehensively review our expectations about the media curricula that we offer, then we can begin to develop the supporting methodologies that will be defined by more open learning experiences and practices, and which are better suited to the emerging affordances of media technology innovation.
Overall, then, it is my belief that media courses should manage the expectations that graduates so that they are better suited to a wide range of innovative practices, such as media production, research, technology development, teaching, campaigning, performance, R&D, independent media employability, and so on. If we keep narrowing and conforming our expectations to a limited set of established media practices and technologies, then we will reduce the ‘pool’ of ideas and expectations we have to draw on in the future. By reinforcing the methodological monology, we will only achieve what we already have.
Our focus should be on the way that graduates deal with change, how they are able to account for change, and how they can assess and evaluate the future potential of a diversified and emergent set of media technologies and practices. This means reviewing the status of our current curriculum and methodologies, and positioning ourselves and our learning partners in a direction that is more focussed on open learning experiences, supported by practices that anticipate changing social roles in media, and thus beyond in learning practices, research and development approaches.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2013). A Thousand Plateaus. London: Bloomsbury Revelations.
Gauntlett, D. (2015). Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing.
Merrin, W. (2014). Media Studies 2.0. London: Routledge.
Moore, S. A. (Ed.) (2016). Pragmatic sustainability – Dispositions for Critical Adaptation (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
The ramifications of the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union are going to reverberate for some time. Not only will the decision to leave the EU mean changes to our economy and political life, but they will also have a significant impact on the way that we think about and undertake community media in the United Kingdom as well.
As supporters of community media adjust to this new reality, it is worth sharing some thoughts about the kind of responses that community media advocates might think about. Depending on your point of view, thinking about what got us into this mess, and what might we do to work through it so we can get the best out of it?
The response of community media supporters at this time will shape the future relationships that community media sustains in times to come. We don’t have any idea at this stage how commercial and public service media will continue to be regulated in the United Kingdom, and what changes might come about as a result of the changing legal and regulatory regimes.
One thing that I hope that can be agreed is that the success of the leave campaign was due in large part to a sense of frustration and indignation at the manner in which our economy and civic life had been playing out.
It certainly became progressively harder to keep community media groups running and focussed as government cuts and austerity hit local communities, but there are other factors that are associated with the general sense of frustration. Community media has been run on a shoe-string for years now, a fact that has been pointed out to government by the Community Media Association on many occasions.
One example that typifies this sense of frustration is the rise of the zombie town, for example, in which every high-street is identical, and populated by the same chain stores and brands? These towns give little opportunity for networks of independent and local businesses to take-root and play a strong role in civic life.
I’ve thought for some time now that it is pointless travelling around the United Kingdom because the high-streets are all the same. Is this a factor in the sense of frustration? Did people become frustrated because they have been cut-off from a clear, independent sense of local identity?
Like the high-street, local media has been under considerable pressure for some time now. Newspapers have been squeezed-out because they haven’t been profitable enough. Local commercial radio stations have been squeezed out as the international conglomerates have built chains of stations around formulas, brands and centralised marketing.
Local commercial radio in the United Kingdom is homogenised, formulaic and repetitive, with little sense of local identity. Playing local travel news in between Justin Bieber tracks isn’t doing anything to foster local expression and understanding.
In hoc only to the needs of advertisers the commercial radio companies have forgotten the listeners needs, and killed-off the chance that radio might be a positive and creative forum for discussion, ideas and local identity.
The BBC doesn’t come away from these events with any glory either. The narrow and condescending programming brief that is given to BBC Local Radio is fascicle and self-serving. Prone to being ‘nostalgia’ radio, BBC local stations have been prevented from fostering a local identity.
Just a change of accents from one station to the next, yet the content is mostly identical.
The BBC Local Radio music playlists are centrally managed, leading to a generic sound that is the same everywhere. No local experimentation, discovery or challenge. Just Daft Punk and Lionel Ritche on endless repeat.
BBC Local Radio should be a place of vibrant, integrated community debate and discussion. Did BBC Local Radio tap into the resentment that was expressed in the referendum, or where BBC Local Radio producers just as surprised as everyone else in the media?
It is often said, and always worth repeating, that the strength of community media is the principle that community media is about people representing themselves. Community media has a proud tradition of supporting community discussion and communication, but community media has been chronically underfunded for a long, long time.
This underfunding, and a lack of active government support, both national and local, has left many community media groups clinging on, not able to develop, grow or expand their services. Everyone I know in community media feels lucky just to have survived.
The Ofcom Broadcast Rules stifle debate and creative reposes to differences of community opinion because they have to be packaged in a ‘balanced’ approach, which for many community media groups is out of their reach given the legalistic framework and ramifications if you get it wrong.
This dereliction of duty by Ofcom to foster and support community media, would be pardonable if Ofcom actually gave some support to community media groups to meet the legal challenges of broadcasting. However, all that Ofcom offers is a PowerPoint presentation based on the complex legal documents they circulate to all broadcasters, regardless of size and status.
Community media emerged from lack of civic support as risk-averse. More often community media groups avoid any controversial topics, news or discussion. This has had a negative effect on civic discussion and compounds the democratic deficit and lack of engagement many people experience.
Four million people voted for UKIP at the last general election, and they have just one MP in parliament. Where do these voices get heard in our local communities? Why are political discussions only left to a few high-profile celebrity politicians on national, centralised stations?
Why aren’t the day-to-day issues of community life shared and expressed in community media forums?
The ideal of community media is for communities to speak to of themselves and to themselves, while also speaking with other communities. The challenge is to do this in a way that fosters understanding and tolerance through shared engagement.
This is a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops by community media advocates, particularly as people try to make sense of the result of the referendum. We have a fantastic opportunity with community media to foster and support communities through open and challenging dialogue, as long as the framework of support is put in place by government.
The alternative is that community media advocates declare their independence and go off and do their own things, using the new social media technologies that are replacing mass media anyway.
I intend to give this matter some serious thought and I’m keen to hear what other people think about it. Is this a moment for community media to step-up and embrace the opportunity to help heal our divided communities by helping them to listen to and understand one another?
These are my notes for a presentation I’m giving at the University of Westminster, Media Engagement symposium.
The Problem with Media Studies
David Gauntlett & William Merrin – Media Studies 2.0. Focus on Media Production activity and DIY Media:
“The discipline… faces a choice. It has the potential to be one of the most important subject areas going into the 21st century, at the forefront of debates around digital technologies and their remaking of the world. But equally it has the possibility of being left behind, its focus on reception and content and broadcast forms and concepts condemning it to an increasing irrelevance for everyone but itself” (Merrin, 2014, p. 188).
“So media studies now is not so much about media content and is more about platforms – media as things you can do something with, and the platforms and supports that can be arranged to stimulate that. It’s about building creativity in society – and the thiungs that can get in the way of that. This means we are still engaged with institutions and organisations, and more generally with issues of social change and culture, learning, and power in society – but in a different way, with a more active role for creative individuals to make a difference” (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 188).
Henry Jenkins focuses on Participatory Culture, arguing that changes in expectations about participation in networks of media engagement require a rethinking of the concepts of consumption and assimilation that presently dominate the study of media (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).
This paper argues that the study of participation-based media must prioritise the pragmatic concept of community-through-conversation, thereby rejecting critical stances and models of media determination (Oakeshott, 1975; Rorty, 1982, 1989).
This pragmatic approach suggests that people who are active media participants and activists are faced with a series of translation issues that occur when agents are operating from different frames of symbolic reference. Of practical importance is the idea that it is difficult to achieve operational sustainability if these translation differences are ongoing.
“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).
The point of the study of media, therefore, is to seek ways to resolve the incongruities faced by participants and agents in the different symbolic reference frameworks, as they are articulated and negotiated in practice by the different communities, organisations and agents.
According to Rorty by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.
This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times.
And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.
The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).
As McCarthy and Wright affirm, “pragmatists theorising is a practical, consequential activity geared toward change, not representation” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.20).
Hence, the task at hand is to link and validate the commonsensical practical imperatives of people who are working in communities and networks, with the standard ideas and concepts that are associated with the analysis of media, and then come up with some practical suggestions that might help in pursuing change on the ground – both in practice, and in the formulation of the prevailing ideas and concepts associated with the study of media (Forster, 2010).
As Etienne Wenger notes, the core of media practice is now based on the ideals of participation and direct experience, enabling those who take part, and who form their communities, to gain “radically new insights” as they “often arise at the boundaries between communities” (Etienne Wenger in Lesser, Fontaine, & Slusher, 2000, p. 12).
Leonidas Donskis suggests that by “radically changing everyone’s field of reference and system of concepts would make it easier to take away the dimensions of the past” (Donkis in Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 134).
Therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.
Contingencies & Transience
Richard Rorty suggests that instead of looking for fixed and immovable accounts of social experience, we should instead be seeking out those things that are historically contingent, that can be described in their transience, and which can be theoretically revised.
With its heightened emphasis on collaboration and shared techniques of production, that are not expected of more conventional forms of media, participatory media, or forms of community and collaborative media, occupy a territory that is distinctive and challenging.
This distinction is characterised as a set of working and conceptual practices that are grounded in a real-world environment, in which individual and collaborative knowledge is blurred and indeterminate.
Our understanding of the importance of the every-day practices and experiences of the participants who volunteer in participatory media situations can therefore be usefully explained, on the one hand, as a form of social knowledge that is exchanged within a ‘societas,’ that is a group of people who share their corresponding life experiences together; or alternatively, as a set of social arrangements that takes the form of a ‘universitas’, in which there is a mutual self-interest between a group of people who want to achieve a particular goal or outcome (Oakeshott, 1975).
As Richard Rorty explains:
“Epistemology views the participants [of a community] as united in what Oakeshott calls an universitas – a group united by mutual interests in achieving a common end. Hermeneutics views them as united in what he calls a societas – persons whose path through life have fallen together, united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by common ground” (Rorty, 2009 p.318).
Communities of Interest
It is possible to establish the basis on which participants in these communities of interest, identity and practice are able to understand their role, their identity and their accomplishments.
Furthermore, identifying the extent to which these communities of interest and correspondence are able to reflexively understand themselves in a way that can be described usefully as either a universitas or as a societas, or a blending of both.
The aim of our studies, therefore, should be to develop a pragmatic picture of the casual correspondence and contingent relationships that ‘fall together’ within fieldsites of community and collaborative media, with the assumption that this picture would open-up space for further discussion about the basis on which collaborative purpose is arrived at in accommodating communities.
In attempting to locate this presumed sense of common purpose, either as a society based on shared goals that are sometimes articulated in radical dreams of critical emancipation and utilitarian efficiency; or alternatively, as a society of correspondence, in which people just rub-along together. It is necessary to focus on the practical tasks that were useful as a wider example to people undertaking similar tasks or study.
These include: “predicting the behaviour of inhabitants” of the unfamiliar cultures of community media groups, learning to talk with different agents within overlapping community media groups, despite the “incommensurability of [their] language” (Rorty, 2009 p.350); and the development of practical models that participants, students and supporters of community media can reflect on to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their ethical and practical operations.
As Rorty argues,
“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).
According to Rorty, moreover, by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.
This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times. And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.
The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).
By extension, therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.
Put simply, it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.
Therefore, it is in reintroducing Symbolic Interaction to the study of media that we will be able to make sense of how human beings act and achieve things on the basis of the meanings that they negotiate, and the potential lines of action that these meanings open up (Blumer, 1969; Prus, 1996).
Symbolic interaction proposes that the meanings that humans hold are themselves borne from social interaction, and that these interactions are modified and negotiated in an interpretative process as reflective agents interact with one another.
The social world is a world of social experiences that have been created in the process of interaction, and the meanings that individual agents hold are themselves shaped by their interactions and self-reflections.
“Any human event can be understood as the result of the people involved (keeping in mind that that might be a very large number) continually adjusting what they do in the light of what others do, so that each individual’s line of action ‘fits’ into what others do. That can only happen if human beings typically act in a non-automatic fashion, and instead construct a line of action by taking account of the meaning of what others do in response to their earlier actions. Human beings can only act in this way if they can incorporate the responses into their own act and thus anticipate what will probably happen, in the process creating a ‘self’ in the Meadian sense. (This emphasis on the way people construct the meaning of others’ acts is where the ‘symbolic’ in the ‘symbolic interaction’ comes from). If anyone can and does do that, complex joint action can occur” (Becker & McCall, 1990, p. 3).
This study has been able to demonstrate that the value of the ethnographic model lies in its ability to reflexively identify information from within complex, dynamic and transient social activities (Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999).
While quantitative research methodologies are able to distinguish and characterise large-scale social issues, through a process of calculation and statistical analysis, what is not readily identified when using these techniques is the process by which social actors find meaning in their activities (Sim, 1999).
As a qualitative form of research, ethnography aims to narrate how social groups negotiate and allocate legitimacy for the meanings that they build-up in practical usage.
Moreover, ethnography is primarily concerned with the process of accumulated meaning as derived through social practice and experience. Ethnographic study puts a particular emphasis on how these meanings accord to contingent relationships, between different actors in temporary social groups, and how this changes and shifts as social norms change and shift.
This means that ethnographic study is able to ask questions about social relationships, such as how perceptions of on-going social and symbolic status are founded and regulated through, for example, power-related discourses of domination or subordination.
Or, what happens when new technologies are introduced to a social environment that changes the productive and cognitive capabilities of different participants of emergent communities?
In short, “ethnography tries to understand practices, relationships, and cultures from the inside” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.34), with the provision that qualitative research, as Uwe Flick notes, does not seek to study “artificial situations in the laboratory, but the practices and interactions of everyday life” (Flick, 2009 p.15).
Symbolic Interactionism & Media Studies
Symbolic interaction, however, is not commonly taught as an orthodox research method in British media and cultural studies, although it is in many ways related and shares many common ideas and preconceptions.
The approach of media studies in the United Kingdom rests largely on political, industrial, economic, cultural, content, textual, discursive or archival analysis (Cobley, 1996; During, 1999; Hartley, 2011; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002; Livingstone, 2006; Long & Wall, 2009; Thornham, Bassett, & Marris, 2009). David Gauntlett suggests that “for a couple of decades, from the 1980s, media studies had settled into a reasonably stable cluster of subject areas, such as ‘institutions’, ‘production,’ ‘audiences’ and ‘texts’ (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 1).
Gauntlett argues, there are few opportunities to develop practice-based forms of media analysis grounded in the day-to-day experience of people, especially in the way that they use, create and experience media. Consequently, there is a clear lack of commitment to the training and schooling that is required when undertaking forms of investigation that can encompass the newer forms of participation and experimental media.
However, there is a useful affinity with the cultural studies tradition. Norman Denzin describes how Stuart Hall’s view of the cultural subject is “in part symbolic interactionist,” because people are defined as being able to work out the conditions in which they operate for themselves. According to Denzin, Hall explores how
“The meanings [a] subject brings to his or her situation are shaped by the larger ideological forces in the culture, for consciousness is ‘always infused with ideological elements, and any analysis of social frameworks of understanding must take account of the elements of ‘misrecognition’ which are involved’” (Hall quoted in Denzin, 1992, p. 118).
The pragmatist challenge to this notion of ideology as an extrinsic or determining force should be clear by now, but it is worth noting the significant differences that remain between the approach taken by Hall (hegemony) and that suggested by Rorty (interpretivism).
Communities of Practice
More recently, however, audience studies have gained currency in media studies approaches, combined with the expansion of the study of virtual communities and with the shift toward participative forms of ICT and social media.
Configurations of communities of practice and fan communities have shifted the focus of media studies away from the singularly textual approach, to the participative and experiential.
Therefore, is a contribution to the developing field of participative enactment that argues that it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.
This places the use and development of symbolic interaction in a contested but central position. If symbolic interaction and participant observation are approaches that can be usefully applied to the study of people using media, then they need to be embedded in the mainstream media studies curricula. Symbolic interaction is a well-established methodology and field of study in its own right.
One that is time-honoured and proven to give meaningful insights into the operation of cultural and social activities.
Symbolic interaction, moreover, has the advantage that it recognises agency and diminishes ideology in its founding principles, and that these principles are expected to be enacted on the basis of pragmatic practicality. Norman Denzin summarises the predicament faced by the symbolic interactionist, however, when he explains that
“Of course, there are no real biographical subjects, independent of the stories told about them, and even these texts, in the telling, displace the teller. We can never get back to raw biographical experience. The closest we can ever get is when a subject, in an epiphanal moment, moves from one social world to another. In these instances the subject is between interpretative frameworks. When this happens, experience is described in words that are yet to be contaminated by the cultural understandings of a new group” (Denzin, 1992, p. 19).
The challenge then, is to define a set of tools and approach that can look at practices of media participation, engagement and the contingent, localised meanings that are articulated and accomplished within the lifeworlds and communities of people as they engage with media on a day-to-day basis.
Media & Ethnographic Study
At its most basic level, then, ethnography emerges from a series of anthropological and sociological investigative traditions, and can be thought of as a disciplined form of social enquiry that seeks-out accountable and practical approaches to the study of culture.
As Boellstorff et al suggest,
“Cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1)
It is therefore incumbent on ethnographic investigators to continue to “attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005, p. 17), and to describe and explain the many factors and historical movements that shape our cultural and social interactions. Put simply, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8).
An understanding that is founded in a shared affinity with the people being studied, and a sense of responsibility toward the use that those studies might be applied.
As Boellstorff et al specify, in ethnographic investigation
The goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).
If the mediatisation process has shifted to incorporate the practices and accomplishments of people, then the study of media must mark this with a shift to its focus of inquiry and exploration. This is about looking at what people ‘do’ with media all over again.
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This week we are discussing the role of the ethnographer as an ethical researcher and how we can assess if our research activities are likely to result in harm to the volunteers and participants who are helping us. To start it’s worth refreshing our memory about what ethnographic and netnographic study is about. As Christine Hine points out: “The Internet has frequently been understood by social scientists as providing a new space for social interaction and for the development of social formations, and innovation in research methods is needed to address these new spaces. However, this does not mean that the traditional sites of research into everyday life become irrelevant” (Hine, 2005, p. 109). Therefore, and as Robert Kozinets suggests, “Data collection in netnography means communicating with members of a culture or community. That involvement, engagement, contact, interaction, communion, relation, collaboration and connection with community members – not with a website, server, or a keyboard, but with the people on the other end”(Kozinets 2010).
Kozinets goes on to suggest, “Netnography is a specialised type of ethnography. It uses and incorporates different methods in a single approach focused on the study of communities and cultures in the Internet age. Qualitative online research such as netnography is ‘essential in shaping our understanding of the Internet, its impact on culture, and culture’s impacts on the Internet”(Kozinets 2010).
In developing our research plans, then, we have to consider how the activities that we undertake and the roles that we play as investigators, will affect the lives of the people that we are studying. As researchers we have a duty to ensure that harm is minimised and that any situation that might negatively impact on the wellbeing or reputation of the research subjects we are working with is minimised. Boellestorff et al have identified “eight fundamental areas in which ethnographers should consider the ethics of the impacts of their research on informants. These areas – informed consent, mitigation of institutional risk, anonymity, deception, sex and intimacy, compensation, taking leave, and accurate portrayal” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 130). To which I would like to add some comments about the following: Entering the Field, Negotiating with Gatekeepers, Confidentiality and Harm, Protecting the Under-Eighteens.
When we start our investigation, and have identified the general area of social and community life that we would like to examine, we have to think about how we might gain access to that area. This is commonly called ‘entering the field’, and requires ethnographic researchers to make a careful evaluation of the type of social interactions we are likely to find and encounter in these communities. As Robert Prus reminds us, while researchers “needn’t accept the viability of the viewpoints of those they encounter as reference points for all matters of personal activity, ethnographers are faced with the task of acquiring perspectives, or at least attaining a good working familiarity with the world views of those they purport to study” (Prus 1996). Therefore any activity that we undertake as part of our research has to be mindful that the role that we play as researchers isn’t straightforward or simple. As Prus explains, “Like others who venture into particular arenas and attempt to deal with the people (often strangers) they encounter there, ethnographers may find themselves dealing with considerable ambiguity, uncertainty, and stage fright. Not only do they attempt to learn about and define the parameters of the field, but they must also tentatively envision their own lines of action and contemplate ways of approaching and relating to these in the field” (Prus 1996).
Therefore, according to Prus, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus 1996). Prus suggests that instead of worrying about the specifics of research protocols and management plans, it is more important that researchers are attuned to the people with whom they will be interacting within the defined ‘life-worlds’ that people operate. And rather than putting the researcher on a pedestal and regarding them as an independent and objective entity, the whole enterprise of ethnography is founded on the ability of the researcher to develop a familiarity and intimacy with the researcher subjects. As Prus describes “There my be times when people in the settings expect researchers to protect auras of significance, but for the most part I’ve found that people very much appreciate contract with someone who is genuinely interested in learning about, as opposed to trying to impress them. In this regard, I’ve become more attentive to the importance of explaining things to people, telling them of my own limited knowledge in the area, and asking them if they would like to help me with the project at hand” (Prus 1996).
Prus is clearly not naive about this process of engagement, and suggests that the initial efforts of the researcher to “establish intersubjectivity [are] complicated by the fact that while participants may be open, sincere, and cooperative, they may also resist and deceive researchers by both concealing and selectively revealing information. As well, participants may unintentionally forget, become confused, and otherwise inadvertently mislead researchers” (Prus 1996). Which means that researchers must accept that the interactions, discussions and actions of the research subjects are human and therefore multi-faceted, complex and ambiguous. We each live our lives subject to emotional and symbolic forces that our not in our control, being attuned to how we make sense of these contradictions is the role of the ethnographer in the field. As Prus adds, “this means that researchers are faced not only with the task of selecting and organising material that depict in central manners the lived experiences of the other, but also with selecting ways of conveying and contextualising these to prospective readers so that they find these experiences (transcontextually) meaningful and comprehensible” (Prus 1996). Therefore, as Boellstorff et al remind us, “Ethnography cannot be done on the side, nor is it an enterprise to undertake lightly” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 76).
When we enter into a social situation as a researcher we have to make an assessment about the social structure and the possible lines of action that are available to us. In many circumstances this means that we have to establish a rapport with the ‘gatekeepers’ who have acquired status and a controlling influence within the community. As Boellstorff et al point out “Negotiating entrée via group gatekeepers is something that often has to be done when working with more formal organisations or groups that keep tighter boundaries around themselves” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 77). This process of negotiation is important at all levels of participation, as “Ethnographers cannot simply observe because, by definition, [but] must participate in the fieldsite” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 142). Therefore being clear, honest and trustworthy about our intentions when we are conducting our research is a priority.
Key to our access to social situations that we want to study is the way in which we are able to negotiate and maintain as sense of familiarity and conviviality with the participants in the life world that we wish to engage with. As Robert Prus identifies, “Given their goal of achieving intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of the other in a more comprehensive sense, researchers may wish to be mindful of the sorts of affiliations that they develop with particular others in the setting. These may significantly affect researchers’ abilities to access other people in the setting as well as their opportunities to learn more fully about the life-worlds at hand” (Prus 1996).
This involves not only working with information or recording observations of fact and action, but also being attuned to the emotional states of the participants in the life worlds we study. As Robert Prus explains, “In addition to the challenges entailed in learning about the life-worlds of the other in more direct sense, ethnographers face the task of managing their own emotional states (as private experiences) as well as the ways in which they express any emotional themes to others” (Prus 1996). And therefore, “In working with people, it is also important that researchers try to adopt and sustain a congenial disposition throughout their contract with the field”(Prus 1996).
There are no fixed rules about how we sustain this sense of congeniality, because each situation and each group of people that we interact with will require a different set of operations and performance criteria that we are attuned to. Even assessing this form of congeniality as a form of role playing is problematic, as sincerity and genuine affection is not something that can be performed. To limit and manage the expectations that arise from our contact researchers might want to consider how their disposition is managed, for as Robert Prus states, “Maintaining composure is somewhat related to the matter of congeniality, but draws attention to the importance of researchers developing a more, trustworthy image or reputation in the setting. Composure should not be taken as synonymous with a lack of interest, but rather denotes an element of balanced control over oneself in the field situation” (Prus 1996). Indeed, as Prus goes on, “Researchers may inadvertently and innocently become embroiled in matters beyond their control, but it is more unfortunate when they are the source of their own undoing” (Prus 1996).
Our hope as ethnographers is that we have established a sense of confidence and trust to such an extent that there is clear benefits in “encouraging open conversations,” reassuring them that there is no right answer, and providing positive feedback will all help to build the special report to crucial to a successful interview” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 95). As Boellstorff et al point out “One of our goals as interviewers should be to help people feel authorised to speak freely, to honour their expertise and encourage them to convey their insights to us” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 99). If we get this right, and we have settled on a level and form of congeniality that is welcoming and trust worth, then the benefit is one where “Informants will… remember us, the ethnographers. They will recall our gifts of listening, the deep interest displayed in small details of their lives, and the way we took care to discern and follow the complexities and enigmas of their everyday pursuits and dreams” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).
Perhaps the most important issue in any form of research that involves interaction with participants is that of informed consent. Robert Kozinetts explains that “Inherent in the nature of ethnography and netnography, the researcher must constantly maintain a tension, taking back and community and culture, and the more abstract and distanced worlds of theory, words, generality, and research focus”(Kozinets 2010). And therefore, according to Kozinets, “The foundation of an ethical netnography is honesty between the researcher and online community members”(Kozinets 2010).
According to Robert Kozinets “From the beginning of the research through to its end, good netnographic research ethics dictates that the researcher: (1) openly and accurately identifies her or himself, avoiding all deception, (2) openly and accurately describes their research purpose for interacting with community members, and (3) provides an accessible, relevant, and accurate description of their research focus and interests. Finally, it is highly recommended that the netnographer set up a research web-page providing positive identification as well as a more detailed explanation of the research and its purpose, and perhaps should eventually share the initial, interim, and final research findings with online community members”(Kozinets 2010).
We can list some useful questions that might help us to identify the ongoing ethical issues associated with our research:
- Will informed consent be required from participants?
- If so, what procedures to obtain consent will be followed? (E.g., print or digital signatures, virtual consent tokens, click boxes or waiver of documented consent).
- Will consent be obtained just from individuals or from communities and online system administrators?
- In situations whereby consent is desired but written informed consent is impossible (or in regulatory criteria, impracticable) or potentially harmful, will procedures or requirements be modified?
- What harm might result from asking for consent, or through the process of asking for consent?
- What ethical concerns might arise if informed consent is not obtained?
- If an ethics board deems no consent is required, will the researcher still seek subjects’/participants’ consent in a non-regulatory manner?
- If informed consent is warranted, how will the researcher ensure that participants are truly informed?
Risk in the research situation is not confined to that which might potentially affect the participant, but also the role of the researcher and the organisation that they are part of. Because the form of research that is being undertaken in an ethnographic study is participant based, it would not be appropriate for the researcher to adopt a tone of oversight or advantage with their respondents. As Boellstorff et al points out “When not placed on a pedestal above participant observations and other qualitative approaches, quantitative methods can play a valuable role in some ethnographic research projects” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 128). This does not imply, however, that the controls and the checks that most institutions place on the research enterprise are any less necessary. Questions that are raised by organisational involvement include:
- Does our research adequately protect the researcher and their organisation, as well as the community/author/participant?
- What are potential benefits associated with this study?
- Who benefits from the study – do the potential participants? If not, what greater benefit justifies the potential risks?
- Is the research aiming at a good or desirable goal and how does this fit in with the goals of the supporting organisation?
- Can we be sure the data collected from online sites, fora, communities, is “legitimate” and “valuable” and what procedures and process of monitoring and approval must it go through to be supported by the organisation?
- How are we recognizing the autonomy of others and acknowledging that they are of equal worth to ourselves and should be treated so?
Significant commitment is given to the protection of participants identity in an ethnographic study, as even the ‘piecing together’ of seemingly unrelated facts can be problematic for individuals, particularly if what they are sharing with the researcher is of an intimate and personal nature. As Boellstorff et al points out “In ethnographic research, identifying a person potentially identifies their social network” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 141). In netnography this can be a more demanding issue than at first anticipated, as “In many cases, a blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed for our research project might provide a way to show we care about our informants while keeping our private lives, and the private lives of informants, reasonably separate” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 146). What should remain foremost in the mind of the researcher then, is working in such as way that we minimise any potential harm or damage that might be experienced or perceived by the respondents. As Boellstorff et al point out, generally “Ethnography results in neither bodily harm nor psychological distress”, though it might be thought of as typically carrying “what is termed ‘informational risk’, the risk that private information could be made public” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 133).
Confidentiality therefore forms a major focus of the research management process. Ensuring that respondents who wish to remain anonymous and the protection of the personal information of general respondents is crucial. As Boellstorff et al points out, “If we have acquired privileged information in interviews or conversations, it should not be discussed as the conflict unfolds, or even in its aftermath, unless we are certain it will cause no harm” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 137). Therefore, “Upholding the confidentiality and anonymity of our participants is central. Keeping in mind the unanticipated consequences if people’s identities and activities were revealed should promote reflectivity on our part when deciding what is important to include in the written work” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 138).
Under no circumstances should research be attempted that plans to deceive or deploy engagement strategies that are founded on deception. Kozinets states this categorically. “Netnographers should never, under any circumstances, engage in identity deception”(Kozinets 2010). Likewise Boellstorff et al are clear about the consequences of any such attempt to deceive: “The very basis of the data gathering activity of ethnography is compromised, if not destroyed, through deception” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 143). Therefore, “Deceiving informants remains firmly outside the bounds of ethical ethnographic research” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 142).
In some circumstances we will be dealing with information that is of a sensitive nature, that individual participants would not normally share or discuss with other people, let alone something that might go into a research study. In these circumstances, as Boellstorf et al point out, “We must use our best judgement, operating from the core principle of care, as to not only what is public versus private from an etic* perspective, but also what the people we study empirically perceive as public or private. Such notions will vary from one culture to the next” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 135). As such “Ethnographers strive to avoid negative outcomes by playing special attention to the potential consequences and risks of what we see and hear, and remembering that not everything is grist for the data mill, no matter how interesting it may be” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 137).
[*Emic and etic, in anthropology, folkloristics, and the social and behavioral sciences, refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained; from within the social group (from the perspective of the subject) and from outside (from the perspective of the observer). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic]
Not everyone that we engage with in a study is able to give researchers their informed consent, either because they lack the personal capability to understand the process, or because they do not have the legal independence to give consent. In circumstances in which research wishes to engage with people who are under the eighteen years old we should consider the following issues:
- What particular issues might arise around the issue of minors or vulnerable persons?
- Are minors being excluded from the study because of the difficulties of getting ethical permission to study them?
- In situations where identity, age, and ability of the participant is unknown or hidden, and harm cannot be determined as an a priori category based on known vulnerability of participant, how will harm be considered as an ethical concern and operationalized in the study?
- How are minors identified as ‘minors’ in contexts where demographic information is not required?
- What harm might result from asking (or not asking) for participants to reveal their age?
- How will parental or guardian consent be obtained in addition to assent where required by research regulations? What risks might arise in this particular consent process? (for any or all parties, including the minor, the parents, and the researcher)?
Our assessment and explanations of the benefits of ethnographic research are often crucial to the way that we win people over to the idea of participating in a study. But there are a series of questions that we should explain that allow us to tell the story of the research and give participants the confidence that participating in the study has compensations and advantages – either direct or indirect. So researchers should be able to explain:
- How are findings presented?
- What immediate or future risk might occur by using exact-quoted material in published reports? (For example, while a participant might not think his or her information is sensitive now, this might change in five years. What protections might be put in place to anticipate changing perceptions?)
- Are individuals adequately protected in pre-publication reports, such as workshops, conferences, or informal meetings?
- Could materials be restricted because of copyright? (For example, many countries have strong restrictions on using screenshots or images taken from the web without permission.
- Certain sites have restrictions in their terms of service. Whereas there may be allowances for the scholarly use of copyrighted materials without permission, such as the U.S. doctrine of fair use, this is not a guarantee of protection against copyright infringement.)
- How are texts/persons/data being studied?
- Does one’s method of analysis require exact quoting and if so, what might be the ethical consequence of this in the immediate or long term? (For example, would quoting directly from a blog cause harm to the blogger and if so, could another method of representation be less risky?) What are the ethical expectations of the research community associated with a particular approach (e.g, ethnographic, survey, linguistic analysis)?
- Do one’s disciplinary requirements for collecting, analysing, or representing information clash with the specific needs of the context? If so, what are the potential ethical consequences?
Despite our efforts to maintain a sense of coherence through our research, there are occasions when the participants in the study wish to withdraw and exclude any data that has been collected. Participants are entitled to withdraw from a study at any point, and to have any data that clearly relates to their participation reviewed or withheld. Sometimes this can be managed by making the pool of data, though if specifically pressed researchers have to be able to assure participants that data can be destroyed. So, how participants take leave from a study is an essential part of the information exchange at the start. Can participants in the research study ask to leave the study at any time, and what will happen to the data that has been accumulated so far?
At some point as we make progress with the note taking, journaling and writing up our notes, based on the conversations and activities that we have been privileged to witness, we have to make a decision about how these events and issues will be depicted. According to Boellstorff et al “a basic principle of ethnographic research is that we should take our lead from our informants, following them to wherever they engage irrelevant activity” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 118). Keeping in mind that the process of observation and writing is not an equal exchange, but involves some privilege on the part of the researcher that they may be considered by the participants in a study to be in a position of power and authority. Boellstoff et al described this as an ‘asymmetrical relationship’, and ast that we consider that as “a key consequence of this asymmetry is the imperative that the ethnographer ‘take good care’ of information. This notion goes beyond simply doing no harm; it means ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that informants gain some reward from participating in research” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129). Which means that “we must commit, ethically, to whatever it takes to experience the activities where the data we require are generated” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).
Because we are witness to a wide range of issues and activities in the lives and the life-worlds of the people and communities that a study may focus on, it does not follow that we have to record everything that takes place. Some things will clearly be outside of the remit of the area of study, other things might be counterproductive for the people involved in the study to have written about them and recorded. As Boellstorff et al suggest, “the point is not that everything that we write should be readable by the communities studied, or by all academic communities; it is that we should write in the clearest manner possible that is appropriate for a particular genre” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150), while also respecting the needs of the individuals who have given us privileged access. As Boellstorff et al go on to point out “Overall, then, the ethnographic enterprise hinges on engaging others in ethical conversation and preparing careful, accurate accounts that do not compromise informants” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).
This brings us to the central idea at the heart of the ethical evaluations that we are considering. That of harm and the potential that what are undertaking as ethnographic researchers might have the potential to cause harm to the participants in our study, and those who might be associated with the study. As Kozinets points out “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Kozinets 2010).
In these circumstances, because we are seeking to make sense of the interactions of actual agents acting in their respective life worlds, the ethnographer is faced with the challenge of respecting and accounting for the impact of their actions. While content analysis has a limited set of potential impacts on people, participant observation is replete with many possibilities for harm. As Robert Kozinets suggests, “ethnographers, netnographers, and other qualitative researchers have no […] clear and measurable standards of evaluation”(Kozinets 2010), and therefore must consider their actions and the results of those actions from a wider frame of reference. As Boellstorff et al point out “Care is a core value to be internalised and acted on through the vigilance and commitment of the researcher. Any sets of research ethics guidelines and dicta will be ineffective if researchers do not have embedded into their practice strong values establishing ethical behaviour built on the principle of care” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129).
But as Boellstorff et al go on to explain “the principle of care arises in part from asymmetrical power relations and imbalance of benefit between investigator and investigated” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129), and so, “if we cannot know in advance if harm will occur because determination of harm is ‘an empirical question’, then acceptability is ‘unknown’. How can informed content be informed when the nature of the potential harm is not assessed until after the fact” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 132).
Some routine questions that ethnographic researchers should consider include:
- What are the potential harms or risks associated with this study.
- What is the potential harm or risk for individuals, for online communities, for researchers, for research?
- Are risks being assessed throughout the study as well as in advance of the study? (Harm is only certain after it occurs. Thus, a priori assessments of risk might be useful but inadequate).
- How are the concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘harm’ being defined and operationalized in the study? How are risks to the community/author/participant being assessed?
- How is vulnerability determined in contexts where this categorization may not be apparent?
- Would a mismatch between researcher and community/participant/author definitions of ‘harm’ or ‘vulnerability’ create an ethical dilemma? If so, how would this be addressed?
- What harms–to life, to career, to reputation–may occur from the research? (e.g., would the research “out” an LGBTQ individual who is not publicly out and perhaps cause them to lose their jobs? Would the research cause someone to face criminal or civil penalties?)
- What possible privacy-related harms may occur? For example, might online groups disband or individuals cease to use an online support group or withdraw from blogging activities because of the presence of researchers; Might individuals be upset that their perceived privacy has been violated; might individuals object to having their writing or speech anonymised, preferring to remain known and public in any published results?
- Who or what else could cause harm to the author/participant beyond the researcher? Are we acting in ways that minimizes risk?
As we narrow the issues associated with our research we can focus on two primary areas of consideration that have to be articulated for the benefit of those who are involved in the study, and for the benefit of those who are supporting the study. That is:
- What is the primary object of study?
- How will these objectives be stated?
Here is an example of a research management statement that we might consider using to explain the rational and the data collection processes that will be used:
“The data collection methods that are required for this study will take the form of recorded interviews, questionnaires, surveys, interviews, online discussion boards, observations of online activity and discussion forums, practical observation, and recording of workshops. The research project involves gathering information from voluntary participants, community volunteers and community organisations representatives working in volunteer-based community media organisations. The research will be gathered by undertaking recorded semi-structured interviews. These data collection methods will be used to identify to what extent, and in what way, the volunteers of different community media groups use social media as a practical tool for the development of content, as a social tool for the development of relationships, and as a method of facilitating communication. The initial pilot study will trail and assess the potential methods that might be used in the extended study period. The initial aim of the pilot study is to identify and note a broad range of issues, following from which further focus on more convergent research imperatives can be defined. The research will be based on the observations of human behaviour as volunteers participate in the development of content and associated services.”
Statements of this kind are designed to give some context to the wider range of questions that are raised in any research study. We might list and ask further questions:
How is the context defined and conceptualized?
Does the research definition of the context match the way owners, users, or members might define it? (Parameters such as ‘culture,’ ‘person,’ ‘data set,’ and ‘public text’ each carry different ethical expectations for researchers).
Are there distinctions between local contextual norms for how a venue is conceptualized and jurisdictional frameworks (e.g., Terms of Service, other regulations)? For example, if the TOS defines the space as off limits for researchers but the individuals want to participate in public research of this space, what risk might exist for either the researcher or individuals involved?
- What are the ethical expectations users attach to the venue in which they are interacting, particularly around issues of privacy? Both for individual participants as well as the community as a whole?
- How is the context (venue/participants/data) being accessed?
- How are participants/authors situated in the context?
- How are participants/authors approached by the researcher?
- How is the researcher situated in the context?
- If access to an online context is publicly available, do members/participants/authors perceive the context to be public?
- What considerations might be necessary to accommodate ‘perceived privacy’ or the notion that individuals might care more about the appropriate flow of information as defining it as public or private?
- Who is involved in the study?
- What are the ethical expectations of the community/participants/authors?
- What is the ethical stance of the researcher? (For example, a mismatch between the ethical stance of the researcher and the community/participant/author may create ethical complications).
- What are the ethical traditions of researchers’ and/or author/participants’ cultures or countries?
On collecting the data that we are accumulating through our research we are then faced with issues about how we might manage that data. Expressed as a routine set of questions we might want to consider how:
- If research data is housed in a repository for reuse, how might individuals or communities be affected later? For example, data collected for one purpose might be reused later for a different purpose but the researcher’s relationship with the community from which the data came no longer exists.
- What possible risk or harm might result from reuse and publication of this information?
- What are the ethical expectations commonly associated with these types of data? (For example, working with aggregated, de-identified data carries different ethical expectations than working with interview data.)
- Does the object of analysis include persons or texts beyond the immediate parameters outlined by the study? What are the potential ethical consequences and how might these be addressed? (For example, collecting data from a blog often includes comments; collecting data from one social media stream reveals links to people or data outside the specific scope of the study.)
- If information collected in the course of a study can be linked back to an individual by means of internet search or other technology, what process will the researcher use to determine how that information will be treated? (For example, many challenges surround the responsible use of images and video).
- To what extent might data be considered by participants to be personal and private, or public and freely available for analysis and republication?
- What other questions might arise as a result of the particular context from which this data was collected?
- How are data being managed, stored, and represented?
- What method is being used to secure and manage potentially sensitive data?
- What unanticipated breaches might occur during or after the collection and storage of data or the production of reports? (For example, if an audience member recorded and posted sensitive material presented during an in-house research presentation, what harms might result?
- If the researcher is required to deposit research data into a repository for future use by other researchers (or wishes to do so), what potential risks might arise? What steps should be taken to ensure adequate anonymity of data or to unlink this data from individuals?
- What are the potential ethical consequences of stripping data of personally identifiable information?
- How might removal of selected information from a dataset distort it such that it no longer represents what it was intended to represent?
- If future technologies (such as automated textual analysis or facial recognition software) make it impossible to strip personally identifiable information from data sets in repositories, what potential risks might arise for individuals?
- Can this be addressed by the original researcher? If so, how? How will this impact subsequent researchers and their data management?
At this stage, we can now put some flesh onto the bones of the study that we are planning to undertake for this module. Our research management statement can be listed as follows:
- By using ethnographic research techniques this study will attempt to identify and validate the processes that are emerging through social media participation.
- These processes are largely meaning driven, and depend on a specific and contingent social context to make sense.
- Information will be collected and organised reflexively, with the experience of the researcher playing as important a role as the participants who are being represented.
- This information will be drawn from experiences taking place in the field, through specific activities taking place in the main location of production and online.
- This information will be represented using descriptive techniques.
- Theory and abstraction will only be built-up once sufficient descriptive examples have been accumulated.
As such, this study will ask:
- How concepts of social media are used by participants engaged in different communities?
- How the experience of social media networks are made sense of by participants in different social media groups associated with food, diet and health?
- How the structure of different food, diet and health communities are informed by the practices of agents acting with a social media mind-set?
- How participants involved in different food, diet and health communities behave, act and communicate when using or producing content using social media techniques?
- What kind of interpersonal dynamics occur between agents using and producing social media content in different food, diet and health communities?
- What topics are discussed, and what information, opinions and beliefs are exchanged among the participants in different food, diet and health in relation to social media?
A range of ethical issues are expected to impact on these studies as data will be collected using a mixed methodological approach that might include participant observation, digital ethnography and forms of action research. However the mechanism of specific research practices has not yet been identified, and therefore the impact on ethical assessment cannot yet be made in detail.
All that remains now is to list the actions that researchers will engage in as the study is put into practice. Likely issues to be dealt with by the researcher therefore include:
- Close and open communication among the volunteers involved.
- Ensuring that any relevant persons, committees and authorities have been consulted, and that the principles guiding the work are accepted in advance by all.
- Deciding if participants are allowed to influence the work, and respecting the wishes of those who do not wish to participate.
- Developing the work in a visible and open form that respects the principles of social collaboration but maintains data integrity and confidentiality.
- Obtaining appropriate permissions before making observations or examining documents produced for other purposes.
- Negotiating and gaining consensus on the description of the work of others and acknowledging any concerns prior to publication.
- Accepting responsibility for maintaining confidentiality.
- Ensuring a balance is struck between decisions made about the direction of the projects and the probable outcome of the research as an academically publishable document.
- The researchers is explicit about the nature of the research process from the beginning, including all personal biases and interests.
- There is appropriate access to information generated by the process for all participants.
The researcher and the initial design team must create a process that maximizes the opportunities for involvement of all participants, therefore, the researcher will identify the following:
- Matrix of key issues for on-going monitoring.
- Timeline and milestone plan setting out key objectives.
- Prioritisation matrix mapping risk factors associated with any proposed activities.
- Review and monitoring of data management systems and audit of actions and responsibilities resulting from changes to the data and its use. [Adapted from http://www.web.net/~robrien/papers/arfinal.html]
Finally, we must state and list the sources of information that we have made reference to in putting together our the ethics review we have produced. For example, a full ethics and data integrity review proposal would usually be submitted to the Faculty of Technology Research Ethics Committee before any pilot or preparatory studies are undertaken. The researcher will make reference to the recommended faculty codes of practice, but will further develop this as part of the methodology planning and review based on other sets of ethical guidelines.
- SRA – Ethical Guidelines
- ESRC Research Ethics Framework
- BCS code of conduct
- Ethics in Government Social Research
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. (2012). Ethnography and Virstual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hine, C. (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in Social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London, Sage.
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York, State University of New York Press.
Intersubjectivity: This week’s lecture moves forward our thinking about qualitative research by looking at some specific case studies and discussing how examples of social media interaction can be understood as a series of regular sub-processes. Our starting point is to remind ourselves of the objective of ethnographic style research, in which, according to Kathy Charmaz we seek to “enter our research participants’ worlds to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. But we do so as genuine participants ourselves, not as distanced, unbiased observers who dispassionately record the doings of others?” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xii). As Charmaz goes on “to understand what people intend and why they act as they do we must enter into their experience. We must share it” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xiv).
According to Robert Prus “at the heart of the sociological enterprise is the idea that human behaviour is the product of community life; that people’s behaviour cannot be reduced to individual properties. A major task facing sociologists (and social scientists more generally), therefore, revolves around the study of the accomplishment of intersubjectivity; that is, indicating how people become social entities and how they attend to one another and the products of human endeavour in the course of day-to-day life”(Prus, 1996, p. 2).
In examining these day-to-day interactions we should note, according to Prus, that “all constructions of reality, all notions of definition, identifications, and explanations, all matters of education, enterprise, entertainment, interpersonal relations, organisational practices, cultic involvements, collective behaviour, and political struggles of all sorts are rooted in the human accomplishment of intersubjectivity” (Prus, 1996, p. 2). In this pragmatic form of ethnography that Prus champions, then, it is the ‘intersubjective’ meanings, actions and routines that we establish as a community that enables people to work out on what basis they do things. As Prus comments, “the interpretivists observe that the study of human behaviour is the study of human lived experience and that human experience is rooted in people’s meanings, interpretations, activities, and interactions. These notions, they posit are the essential substance of a social science” (Prus, 1996, p. 9). And it is these interpretivists notions that we will use to determine the methodology for data collection and research in our study.
As Robert Prus explains: “Symbolic interaction may be envisioned as the study of the ways in which people make sense of their life-situations and the ways in which they go about their activities, in conjunction with others, on a day-to-day basis. It is very much a ‘down to earth’ approach, which insists upon rigorously grounding its notions of the ways in which human group life is accomplished in the day-to-day practices and experiences of the people whose lives one purports to study” (Prus, 1996, p. 10).
Prus argues that “it is in the course of developing familiarity with the language of a community that people are able to approximate rudimentary understandings of, or perspectives on, human life-worlds. Only once people develop some fundamental conceptualisations of ‘the world’ may they begin to exhibit some sort of reflectivity and meaningful human agency. Only with the acquisition of a language-based set of understandings or perspective are people able to take themselves into account in developing and pursing particular lines of action. As Mead (1934) observes, it is the attainment of language that makes the possession of a ‘self’ possible” (Prus, 1996, p. 11).
We are working, according to Prus “with stocks of knowledge (and conceptual schemes) gleaned through interaction with others, but now applying these in particular or situated contexts, in familiar and in different ways, people formulate thoughts, achieve unique experiences, experience novelty, and pursue creativity. Indeed, given the limitations of their existing (linguistic) stocks of knowledge on a collective basis as well as individual variants within, people’s experiences may well outstrip their abilities to retain and formulate more precise or lasting images of these events” (Prus, 1996, p. 12).
As such, according to Prus “human activity does not simply involve someone invoking behaviour of some sort, but more accurately entails several sub-processes. Most notably, these include: defining the situation at hand, considering and anticipating both particular lines of action and potential outcomes, implementing behaviour, monitoring oneself along the way, assessing situations both in process and in retrospect, and adjusting or modifying one’s behaviour both during immediate events and following earlier episodes” (Prus, 1996, p. 14).
“Human group life is intersubjective…
Human group life is (multi) perspectival…
Human group life is reflective…
Human group life is activity-based…
Human group life is negotiable…
Human group life is relational…
Human group life is processual” (Prus, 1996, pp. 15-17)
Prus points out that “ethnographers generally rely on three sources of data (observation, participant-observation, and interviews) in their attempts to achieve intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of those they study” (Prus, 1996, p. 19). And that “observation encompasses not only those things that one witnesses through one’s visual and audio senses, but also includes any documents, diaries, records, frequency counts, maps, and the like that one may be able to obtain in particular settings” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).
“Participation-observation” accorsing to Prus, “adds an entirely different and vital dimension to the notion of observation. Although the practice of describing and analysing one’s own experiences has often been dismissed as ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ by those who think that researchers should distance themselves from their subject matters, the participant-observer role allows the researcher to get infinitely closer to the lived experiences of the participants than does straight observation” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).
“Like those doing straight observation,” Prus explains “researchers engaged in participant-observation normally try to remain fairly unobtrusive or nondisruptive in the setting being studied. However, participant-observation entails a more active (and interactive) and ambiguous role as researchers attempt to fit into the (dynamics) settings at hand. Insofar as more sustained participant-observation typically allows researchers to experience on a first-hand basis many aspects of the life-worlds of the other, it offers a rather unique and instructive form of data to those able and willing to assume the role of the other in a more comprehensive sense” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).
As such “interviews represent the third major method of gathering ethnographic data, and under some circumstances may provide the primary source of data for field researchers. By inquiring extensively into the experiences of others, interviews may learn a great deal about the life worlds of the other” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).
In our lab activity this week we will use Nvivo to analyse a set of articles that contain forums and discussion boards in which readers relate their thoughts about the articles that are published.
In analysing the interactions that are being made in these discussions we can work out what regular sets of processes are being followed. The generic social process and sub-processes of routine interaction. As Prus argues, as researchers we should attune ourselves to the processes that people follow, and not just the “significant key elements of people’s involvements in situations,” for these process also define the essence of community life.” According to Prus, “these processes are interdependent and need to be viewed holistically if we are to develop a fuller appreciation of each. Nevertheless, each process encompasses several (sub)processes within, and on these levels each is amenable to empirical inquiry” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).
So, as researchers we are attuning ourselves to the way that people, agents acting in the following:
- Achieving Identity
- Being Involved
Sustaining and intensifying involvements
- Doing Activity
- Experiencing Relationships
- Forming and Coordinating Relationships
Encountering outsiders” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).
The way that people make sense of their interactions is a process of external interactions and the reflections that go into building a persons sense of identity. According to Rober Prus, this “’Identity work’ is contingent on people’s capacity for ‘self-reflectivity;’ it requires that one begin to take oneself into account in developing lines of action or that one became ‘an object unto oneself.’ Reflecting the perspectives one has on the world, people’s identities or self-other definitions are not only situated within those realities, but also are influenced by the ongoing shifts in perspectives that people normally undergo over time and across situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 152).
Identity work is series of processes in which people define their role and their position within community life through a set of generic social proceses. Therefore we are attuned to consider how people make sense of the interactions when:
- “Encountering perspectives (definitions of reality) from others
- Assessing (new, incoming) perspectives and resisting unwanted viewpoints
- Developing images of objects (including images of other people and oneself)
- Learning (cultural patterns of objects (e.g. rules of thumb, norms, fashion)
- Defining situations (i.e., applying perspectives to the ‘cases at hand’)
- Dealing with ambiguity (lapses and limitations in existing explanations)
- Resolving contradictions (dilemmas within and across paradigms)
- Extending or improvising on existing perspectives
- Promoting (and defending) perspectives to others
- Rejecting formerly held viewpoints
- Adopting new viewpoints (Prus, 1996, p. 152).
“Like other (symbolic) interactions, emotional interchanges may be viewed best in process terms” (Prus, 1996, p. 179).
As Prus describes, “the focus is on people (a) developing generalised images and understandings of emotional states as these are viewed in the community at large, (b) learning cultural recipes or ‘rules of thumb’ (how to tell when) to define situations as emotional ones, and (c) applying those cultural understandings and recipes to specific ‘cases at hand’. This in no way denies the abilities of others to offer, suggest, or attempt to impose their understandings, rules of thumb, or definitions of the situation on the focal actor, but draws attention to the points at which people define themselves as being in emotional states or situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 177).
Therefore, according to Prus, “’human interaction is a positive shaping process in its own right. The participants have to build up their respective lines of conduct by constant interpretation of each other’s ongoing lines of action… Factors of psychological equipment and social organisation are not substitutes for the interpretive process; they are admissible only in terms of how they are handled in the interpretive process’ (Blumer 1966: 538)” (Prus, 1996, p. 69).
Prus quotes Blumer when he argues that “’the essence of society lies in an ongoing process of action – not in the posited structure of relations. Without action, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. To understand, a society must be seen and grasped in terms of the action that comprises it’ (Blumer 1966: 541)” (Prus, 1996, p. 70). And so, therefore, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus, 1996, p. 192). Being attuned to the many possibilities of action, interaction and meaningful interplay is a priority for the researcher, putting aside our own prejudices and onions so that we can engage as fully as we might in the social processes we are attempting to observe.
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.
This week we’ve moved forward with our review of how ethnographic principles can be used to build a picture of communities and peoples lives online. As Robert Kozinets describes: “Applying a systematic mixed method approach can reveal many facets of a culture, such as its hidden social structures. But the grounding element, the core of these methods, should be cultural understanding if that approach is to be termed a netnographic one”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 182).
As we considered last week, the approaches to investigation identified in ethnography more generally, suggest that the researcher works on the basis that they are immersed in the settings that they are studying; that they act as participants within the setting so that they can listen to what people tell us about the lifeworlds they are part of. In order to capture what we hear it is a good idea that the researcher maintains a field journal that they can use to record any observations about what they have encountered in the field, and to reflect on their own experiences as a participant in the community.
For this project we will be working with a mix of ‘real-world’ and ‘virtual-world’ encounters and situations. But we shouldn’t immediately draw a fixed distinction between the two. As Kozinets points out, “online communities are not virtual. The people that we meet online are not virtual. They are real communities populated with real people, which is why so many end up meeting in the flesh”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). Therefore, we start from the premise that “Using the Internet is a culturally located experience” (Hine, 2005, p. 9), and that “Netnographers grant great significance to the fact that people turn to computer networks to partake in sources of culture and to gain a sense of community”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).
As Kozinets points out, “community and culture can inhere in many of the familiar forums and ‘places’ of the internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7). And that “social networking sites and virtual worlds [therefore] carry the complex markers of many cultures and both manifest and forge new connections and communities. Newsgroups and bulletin boards, as well as chat-rooms, although ‘old-style’ communities, may never go out of style completely”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).
The role of the ethnographic researcher is to be attuned to this experience, and to look at the different ways that people use the tools and technologies of online life to interact and communicate. As Kozinets goes on to suggest, “under-standing how members interact with the culture in general can pay off richly in understanding the complex lived experience of communal interaction”(Kozinets, 2010, p. p.133).
Kozinets boils this whole process down when he says that “Netnography examines the individual interactions resulting from Internet connections or through computer-mediated communications as a focal source of data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 8). But rather than thinking that this set of interactions can be mapped out in one form only, say recorded observations in a manually written journal, Kozinets suggests that in addition “Netnographic data analysis must include the graphical, visual, audio, and audiovisual aspects of online community data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 133).
Our priority as investigators, therefore, is to be attuned to the “symbol systems, rituals and norms, ways of behaving, identities, roles and, in particular languages, that help particular online social formations to organise and manage themselves?” Kozinets suggests that this process of investigation can be typified in a series of starting questions: “Are these linguistic systems, norms, actions and identities distinctive to online groups, and online communications? Are they taught? Are they common to some groups and not to others? Are they common to some media and not to others”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 12).
According to Kozinets, therefore, “Netnography is a specialised type of ethnography. It uses and incorporates different methods in a single approach focused on the study of communities and cultures in the Internet age. Qualitative online research such as netnography is ‘essential in shaping our understanding of the Internet, its impact on culture, and culture’s impacts on the Internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 157).
There are a number of issues that we should note. Online communities should be afforded the same status as offline communities. Netnographers seek out places of online community. Social networking sites carry markers of culture that netnographers can map. There are common elements to our online interactions – what Robert Prus terms Generic Social Processes.
Generic Social Processes are centred on three sets of concepts. Firstly, the extent to which social actors participate in different social situations, then, what the attributes might be of the sub-cultural lifeworlds that these situations are made up of, and then, how these relationships are formed and maintained through processes of coordination and association. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest, “these three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).
Generic Social Processes, relate, therefore, to the sets of practices and roles that people play in community situations, and the way that they make sense of them through the symbolic interactions they are involved with or undertake. Robert Prus lists how these processes operate and what the researcher might do to be attentive to them. According to Prus, “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of: (1) acquiring perspectives; (2) achieving identity; (3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments); (4) developing relationships; (5) experiencing emotionality; and (6) achieving communicative fluency. We may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).
What the pragmatic ethnographer is looking for, according to Prus, is to build a picture of interaction between actors and agents in situations that are meaningful to those agents. Prus describes how Symbolic Interactionism is attentive to these engagements and how the ethnographer spends their time looking for ways to record and describe those engagements. As Pus points out, “the interactionist, generally, concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).
The task before us, therefore involves, according to Prus, that we should be “(a) attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish, and (b) establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.” This means that as pragmatic ethnographers we should distance ourselves, Prus argues, from the process of theory-building which typifies much of the social sciences. Instead, as pragmatic ethnographers we should approach the investigation of these generic social process ‘minimally’. According to Prus, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136).
This process is far from straightforward and simple. There are many complex interactions taking place that are relevant to different groups of people in different ways. How we think about our involvement in these different lifeworlds is a core part of the pragmatic ethnographic process. As Prus points out “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).
Therefore, as practicing researchers working both online and offline, we are seeking out the interrelated sets of processes that people navigate and use when they are operating in a community. But we will do this on the basis that we are aware that people in different situations encounter generic processes differently, and that as a result we should be attuned to what do people do, and what do they accomplish. As pragmatic ethnographic researchers we have to think about how we attend to people’s life worlds, and therefore, in what way these life worlds overlap, and what distinctions we can draw from our observations?
Ethnographic work, therefore, is primarily focused on building a picture of social interaction and community engagement in the field. As Kozinets points out, “cultural knowledge must be grounded in detailed field knowledge of that culture, and in the data that fieldwork creates”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 166).
John Creswell lists the priorities for this field work:
1. “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
2. Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
3. The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
4. Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
5. Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
6. The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).
Robert Kozinets summarises this process when he suggests that the “idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward.” Firstly, according to Kozinets, we should “consider the online environment a social world.” Secondly, we should “assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.” Thirdly, we should “treat online data as a social act.” Then, we should “seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.” Before, and only “when appropriate,” broadening the “particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 132).
There are, according to Kozinets, three main types of data that we can work with: “Archival data… elicited data… field-note data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 98). Our focus in the projects associated with this module will be to look at how these different forms of data can be mapped and made distinguishable so that we can use them to build a picture of the social interactions that people in different online and offline communities undertake. To do this we will employ techniques associated with Computer Aided Research, and particularly the research application Nvivo.
“Psychologist Eben Weitzman and Matthew Miles (1995, p.5) suggest the following uses of computer software in qualitative research projects:
• recording fieldnotes
• correcting, extending, editing, or revising fieldnotes
• storing texts
• organising texts
• searching and retrieving texts and making them available for inspection
• connecting relevant data segments to each other, forming categories, clusters, or networks
• writing reflective commentaries or ‘memos’ on the data as a basis for deeper analysis
• performing content analysis by counting frequencies, sequences, or locations of words and phrases
• displaying selected data in a reduced, condensed, organised forms, such as in a matrix
• aiding in conclusion-drawing, interpretation, confirmation and verification
• building theory by developing systematic, conceptually coherent explanations of findings
• creating diagrams or graphical maps that depict findings or theories
• preparing interim and final reports” (Kozinets, 2010, p. 128).
In future lectures and workshops we will look at these techniques in more detail.
To summarise, it is worth going back to the wider process that we are engaged with, the sense that we are trying to build a picture of the attendant lifeworlds of different actors and communities. As Bauman and May suggest: “Individual actors come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence. Given that, regardless of what we do, we are dependent on others, the central questions of sociology, we could say, are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
Therefore, as Kozinets points out, “data collection in netnography means communicating with members of a culture or community. That involvement, engagement, contact, interaction, communion, relation, collaboration and connection with community members – not with a website, server, or a keyboard, but with the people on the other end”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 95).
Finally, as Kozinets states, in practical terms, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” (Kozinets, 2010).
To conclude, fieldwork is the primary method for collecting data. The online world is a social world and online data can be treated as a social act. There are standard data collection techniques that we will seek to become proficient with as this will allow us to talk with members of the communities we study in not only a more responsible and ethical way, but also in a more illuminating and insightful way. As ethnographers, therefore, we should remind ourselves that “online communities are communities; there is no room for debate about this topic any more. They teach us about real languages, real meanings, real causes, real cultures”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). And as good pragmatic ethnographers, we should use “our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’,” and establish how the “practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 4).
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.
This week’s discussion for Advanced Social Media Production looks at how we can take forward the idea of investigating the social processes associated with the uses of social media. This means thinking about the methods and the principles that we might use to investigate in this field consistently, in a way that other people can share the data and make sense of the ideas that emerge from it.
Sociological Objectives: What Can a Sociological Outlook Achieve?
Our starting point recognises that “cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, [that] shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1). The role of the social researcher, therefore, is to “develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005 p.17).
For the research element of the project in this module we will be adopting the techniques and the approaches associated with ethnography. As Hines points out, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8). And in doing this the “goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).
Structure or Structures of Feeling?
When we look at society and start to attempt to build wider pictures about the events and routines that are happening in it, then we have to think about ways to deploy a sociological perspective that recognises the set of generic social processes that give form to our social relationships. C. Wright Mills famously called this the Sociological Imagination. A way of thinking about the processes within society and between social actors that “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (Mills, 1959, p. 5). As Mills points out: “Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science” (Mills, 1959, p. 8).
Hypothesising or Describing?
It’s essential to note that “Ethnographic research is fundamentally distinct from experimentations; the goal is not to determine how controlled variables account for difference, but to trace and interpret the complex currents of everyday life that comprise our collective lived experience as human beings” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).
And that sociology, instead, has an intense focus on the things that people do, as opposed to theoretical objectification. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest: “from this point of view we can say that sociology is distinguished through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: mutual dependency (dependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, do or may do). Sociologists ask what consequences this has for human actors, the relations into which we enter and the societies of which we are a part” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
Therefore, ad as Mills argues, “there is no ‘grand theory’, no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order taken uberhaupt [in the first place]“ (Mills, 1959, p. 46). What we have to focus on instead is the small interactions between agents working in a field of operations. It is the aggregation of the many operations and interactions that form the social. As Bauman and May argue: “Thinking sociologically is a way of understanding the human world that also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
The focus for our studies within this module, therefore, can be expressed in diagram form in which the interactions between different subjects are what give shape to the cultural frameworks. As Uwe Flick points out, the linear model of research looks for data in a sequential process, but the ethnographic process looks, instead, for data in a comparative process that is built-up over many repeated cycles of interaction.
Being in the Field – Observations of Lifeworlds:
“Usually ethnography is concerned with all aspects of social life, or all facets of a social setting. Broadly, the idea is for the researcher to be immersed in the setting, to generate an understanding of the context in which interaction is rooted” (MacKay in Hine, 2005, p. 134). Therefore, “when we set out to research social interactions we cannot specify in advance just what form those interactions will take, nor how we will be able to participate in or observe them” (p. 2).
Participant observation is the research process that “enables researchers, as far as is possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they act in the way they do and ‘to see things as those involved see things’ (Denscombe 1998: 69, Quotes in Hine, 2005 p.17). As Judith Bell suggests, “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Bell, 2005, p. 96).
According to Bauman and May, “sociology is an extended commentary on the experiences that arise in social relations and is an interpretation of those experiences in relation to others and the social conditions in which people find themselves” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 180). “Because ethnographers can anticipate large amounts of data, categories for interpretation emerge from the ground up, and research questions and foci shift during fieldwork. It is thus best to categorise and continually sort and re-sort the data as these are collected” [#ref?]. Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref?].
For examples, it is “valuable to record observational fieldnotes written in the margins of downloaded data, elaborating upon subtleties noticed at the time but which are not captured in the text or data itself. These fieldnotes offer details about the social and interactional processes that make up the members of online cultures and communities’ everyday lives and activities. It is best to capture them contemporaneously with interactive online social experiences is important because these processes of learning, socialisation, and acculturation are subtle and our recollection of them becomes rapidly diluted over time” [ref?].
In addition to noting the actions and events that take place in a field of study, the researcher also has to work out what impact and what difference their own interactions in the data collection process make. This process of reflection, as John Dewey argues “involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence – a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors” (Dewey 1910 p.2). As Dewey explains “reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance” (Dewey 1910 p.13).
For the researcher, therefore, reflexivity can be understood and the “extent to which the netnographic text acknowledges the role of the researcher and is open to alternative interpretations” [#ref?].
From which a number of important questions arise:
- What is the role of the researcher in this process?
- What kind if assumptions do we make and what kind of bias do we retain?
- How can we incorporate our own experience within the research process?
Empathising, Being and Participating with Others:
What, then, is the primary role of social research? According to Bauman and May both the researcher and the subject of the researcher’s attention are “both enabled and constrained in the everyday practices of freedom.” As Bauman and May point out, “at one level we are taught that there are types of desires that are acceptable and achievable within the group. Appropriate ways to act, talk, dress, conduct ourselves generally provide for the orientation that is needed to get us through life within the groups to which we belong. We then judge ourselves according to these expectations and our self-esteem is given accordingly” (Bauman and May 2001, p. 20).
Robert Prus outlines the associated process of interaction as Generic Social Processes. According to Prus: “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of:
(1) acquiring perspectives;
(2) achieving identity;
(3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments);
(4) developing relationships;
(5) experiencing emotionality; and
(6) achieving communicative fluency.”
According to Prus, “we may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).
As Bauman and May explain, “this overview of generic social processes is organised around three very broad concepts:
(a) participating in situations,
(b) engaging subcultural life-worlds, and
(c) forming and coordinating associations.
These three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).
“The interactionist, generally, [then] concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).
Accordingly “The very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer.” [#ref?]
The task before us, as Robert Prus argues, therefore, involves
- “attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish and
- establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.”
Importantly, as Prus points out that, even on the most basic level, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136). And that “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).
John Cresswell lists the main attributes of this process:
- “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
- Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
- The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
- Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
- Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
- The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).
In summary then “the idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward:
- Consider the online environment a social world.
- Assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.
- Treat online data as a social act.
- Seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.
- When appropriate, broaden the particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all” [#ref].
And that we should consider how as “individual actors” we “come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence.” And that regardless of what we do, we should acknowledge that we are “dependent on others.” According to Bauman and May the “central questions of sociology… are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
For Bauman and May, “the social scientist who spends his intellectual force on the details of small-scale milieux is not putting his work outside the political conflicts and forces of his time. He is, at least indirectly and in effect, ‘accepting’ the framework of his society. But no one who accepts the full intellectual tasks of social science can merely assume that structure. In fact, it is his job to make that structure explicit and to study it as a whole” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 78).
Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref].
To summarise, “In our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’, how do the practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001). That will be the question for later sessions, but for now we can be satisfied that our starting point has been established.
- Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
- Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
- Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnogrphic Research Online. London: Sage.
- Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Prus, R. (1999). Beyond the Power Mystique. New York: State University of New York Press.
This morning we held the first Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery Annual General Meeting. About thirty people attended, so we gathered together in the gallery and worked through our agenda. The two most important issues were opened-up for discussion, the LPPG Constitution, and the election of members to the board who will take forward the interests of the gallery.
The discussion was concise, supportive and generous, and it was great to get the constitution approved, and then a full set of volunteers elected to the board. The gallery will be in safe hands and will be able to move forward into it’s next phase of development.
Ian Davies was expressly thanked for the magnificent job he’d done in setting the gallery going and ensuring that it works as a creative and democratic space. It was a fitting testament that so many people attended the AGM and felt confident that they could stand for positions and help to develop the service the gallery offers to its members.
I’m pleased that this was a high-point for me to bow-out, so I can concentrate on my PhD research over the summer. I think the gallery is going to be constantly surprising and invigorating, and I’m looking forward to helping out when I can.