This video gives an introduction to the first lecture and workshop of TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.
This video gives an introduction to the first lecture and workshop of TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.
According to Uwe Flick, “the essential features of qualitative research are the correct choice of appropriate methods and theories; the recognition and analysis of different perspectives; the researchers’ reflections on their research as part of the process of knowledge production; and the variety of approaches” (Flick 2009 p.14). In addition John Creswell notes that “unquestionably, the backbone of qualitative research is extensive collection of data, typically from multiple sources of information” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
In this weeks lecture we spent time thinking about how ethnographic research seeks to build pictures of different social situations and groupings that are holistic in the way that they portray the everyday experiences of the groups and situations we have chosen to study. The emphasis, according to Creswell should be on “portraying the everyday experiences of individuals by observing and interviewing them and relevant others.” And so in doing this, according to Creswell, ethnographic studies should include “in-depth interviewing and continual ongoing participant observation of a situation,” which will attempt to “capture the whole picture” and reveal “how people describe and structure their world” (Creswell 1994 p.163). More broadly, and as noted by Judith Bell, this means that “ethnographic researchers attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell 2005 p.17).
Our focus, then, is on learning about how people interact in both the physical world and also in the virtual world of electronic mediated communications, such as the Internet. According to Christine Hine, “online activities leave a myriad of traces, providing a valuable resource for researchers interested in experiencing emergent social structures and connections” (Hine, 2005, p. 112). As such, these situations and sites of interaction should be thought of as no less ‘real’ than those that we encounter in our physical social settings. They are ‘natural settings’ and we enter in to them in order to examine what they offer as an empirically grounded model from which we can draw insight that is just as useful as those that we might encounter in off-line settings. As Uwe Flick notes, “fields of study are not artificial situations in the laboratory but the practices and interactions of the subjects in everyday life” (Flick 2009 p.15). Therefore, as Flick explains “qualitative research’s central criteria depend on whether findings are grounded in empirical material or whether the methods are appropriately selected and applied, as well as the relevance of findings and the reflexivity of proceedings” (Flick 2009 p.15).
Therefore, “a researcher begins a qualitative study with general questions and refines them as they study proceeds. In addition, the process of qualitative research includes a discussion of the context of the subject or case being studied. Nowhere is the context more apparent that in a qualitative case study, where one describes the setting for the case from the more general description to the specific description” (Creswell 1998 p.78).
The focus of qualitative research, therefore, is on participants’ perceptions and experiences, and the way they make sense of their lives. The attempt is to understand not one, but multiple realities. Qualitative research focuses on the process that is occurring as well as the product or outcome, and as such researchers are particularly interested in understanding how things occur. As Gale Miller argues “a major task of qualitative research… involves observing and specifying the unique and shared features of these socially organised settings, as well as analysing the implications of institutional structures and processes for people’s lives and/or social issues” (Gale Miller in Miller and Dingwall 1997 p.4).
“In a qualitative study,” according to Creswell, “one does not begin with a theory to test or verify. Instead, consistent with the inductive model of thinking, a theory may emerge during the data collection and analysis phase of the research or be used relatively late in the research process as a basis for comparison with other theories” (Creswell 1994 p.95). Idiographic interpretation is therefore utilised as a way of paying attention to the particulars of the social situations, the relationships and the symbolic interactions, with any data that is collected being interpreted in regards to the particulars of a case rather than any wider generalisations. Ethnographic research is not about mapping ‘historical’ or ‘ideological’ flows, but is instead a pragmatic and emergent design process that seeks contingently agreed outcomes. Meanings and interpretations are negotiated within the frameworks of human data sources because it’s the subjects’ realities that the researcher attempts to reconstruct.
The research tradition, of pragmatic, qualitative, social construction, therefore relies on the utilisation of tacit knowledge (intuitive and felt knowledge) because otherwise the nuances of the multiple realities cannot be appreciated. Data that is often thought to be un-quantifiable in the traditional sense of the word becomes accessible and describable. As Creswell notes, “objectivity and truthfulness are critical to both research traditions. However, the criteria for judging a qualitative study differ from quantitative research. First and foremost, the researcher seeks believability based on coherence, insight and instrumental utility and trustworthiness through a process of verification rather than through traditional validity and reliability measures” (Creswell 1994 p.163).
As Flick points out, “the first premise” therefore “is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them… The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” Blumer, 1967 quoted in (Flick 2009 p.58). And while “most field researchers use such data as questionnaires, interviews, observations and diaries” to “attempt ‘to get inside the black box’ of social institutions” this should be thought of, as David Silverman argues, an attempt to “gain access to their interior processes and practices” of the research subject, the agent acting in the social setting being described (David Silverman in Miller and Dingwall 1997 p.15).
Ethnographic field work therefore priorities attempts to gather notes by conducting observations as a participant. According to Flick the researcher should be attentive to the meanings, practices, episodes, encounters, roles, relationships, groups, organisations and lifestyles that are encountered (Flick 2009 p.102). And as Creswell points out, “given these phases in the design, one uses, either explicitly or implicitly, a set of philosophical assumption [to] guide the study. These assumptions speak to our understanding of knowledge: Knowledge is within the meanings people make of it; knowledge is gained through people talking about their meanings; knowledge is laced with personal biases and values; knowledge is written in a personal, up-close way; and knowledge evolves, emerges, and is inextricably tied to the context in which it is studied” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
“In a qualitative study,” therefore, “the investigator admits the value-laden nature of the study and actively reports his or her values and biases as well as the value-laden nature of information gathered from the field” (Creswell 1998 p.76). As such, according to Martyn Denscombe, “participant observation 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)” (Bell 2005 p.17). In this particular form of ethnographic study, often referred to as social constructionism, “experiences are structured and understood through concepts and contexts, which are constructed by this subject. Whether the picture that is formed in this way is true or correct cannot be determined. But its quality may be assessed through its viability; that is, the extent to which the picture or model permits the subject to find its way and to act in the world” (Flick 2009 p.71). “In ethnographic research,” therefore, “prolonged time in the field for the investigator minimises the distance as the investigator’s observational role shifts from that of an ‘outsider’ to that of an ‘insider’ during his or her stay in the field” (Creswell 1998 p.76).
The reason that ethnographers undertake interviews in an unstructured and open-ended way is because, as Uwe Flick notes, “knowledge is constructed in processes of social interchange; it is based on the role of language in such relationships; and, above all, it has social functions. The eventualities of the social process involved have an influence on what will survive as a valid or useful explanation” (Flick 2009 p.71). It is necessary, therefore, for the researcher to be attentive to the way that these social interchanges progress and develop, letting the interviewee feel free to follow the thought processes that best articulate the reality they are trying to understand. As Creswell argues, “for the qualitative researcher, the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved in the research situation” (Creswell 1994 p.4) and therefore, “the qualitative researcher needs to report faithfully these realities and to rely on voices and interpretations of informants” (Creswell 1994 p.6).
Creswell outlines a set of protocols that are pertinent to undertaking interviews. According to Creswell, “this protocol would include the following components: (a) a heading, (b) instructions to the interviewer (opening statements), (c) the key research questions to be asked, (d) probes to follow key questions, (e) transition messages for the interviewer, (f) space for recording the interviewer’s comments, and (g) space in which the researcher records reflective notes” (Creswell 1994 p.152). According to Creswell “we ask open-ended research questions, wanting to listen to the participants we are studying and shaping the questions after we ‘explore’, and we refrain from assuming the role of the expert researcher with the ‘best’ questions. Our questions change during the process of research to reflect an in-creased understanding of the problem” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
On an individual basis, therefore, the research interview is a valuable tool, but when we are working with groups of people we need to find additional techniques that will allow us to facilitate discussion and interchange between a wider number of people simultaneously. Robert Kozinets suggests using focus groups, because “in a netnography, focus groups of existing community participants might be valuable for two main reasons. First, online community and culture members can be group interviewed – just as individuals can be interviewed singly. They can be used to learn about norms, conventions, histories, and roles of online community members as they interact online”(Kozinets 2010).
Kozinets also points out that when we are conducting an interview through our computer, it will be essential to keep in mind that these “communications are going to be shaped by the medium you use.” According to Kozinets, “studies seeking to understand the subjective impact of Internet connectivity can also collect documents from research participants.” And therefore help us to ground the study in empirical assessments. Kozinets suggests that “these documents often take the form of diaries or journals in which participants record day-to-day or even hour-by-hour events, reflections, or impressions of experiences”(Kozinets 2010).
At the heart of the principle of ethnographic study is the process by which the researcher understands and accounts of their role in the research process. As Flick points out, “the subjectivity of the researcher and of those being studied becomes part of the research process. Researcher’s reflections on their actions and observations in the field, their impressions, irritations, feelings, and so on, become data in their own right, forming part of the interpretation, and are documented in research diaries or context protocols” (Flick 2009 p.16). As Flick continues, “qualitative research therefore becomes – or is linked still more strongly with – a specific attitude based on the researcher’s openness and reflexivity” (Flick 2009 p.20).
So it is common practice to ask the informant keep a journal during the research study. According to Kozinets a “‘pure’ ethnography would be conducted using data generated via face-to-face interactions and their transcription in field notes, with no data from online interactions.” However, as Kozinets continues, a “‘blended’ ethnography/netnography would be a combination of approaches, including data gathered in face-to-face as well as online interaction. Blended ethnographies/netnographies could take many forms, using many particular methods and favour different rations of online to face-to-face interaction, data, and analysis”(Kozinets 2010). In this mixed-mode of study “cultural participants expound and explore, “ according to Kozinets. “They share their personal histories, spread rumours, and relate anecdotes. Collecting and decoding these free-form, free-wheeling conversations is a way of using archival data sources for netnography.” Though, as Kozinets adds, the “online interview is a more proactive venture” (Kozinets 2010).
Therefore, “in this combined process of acculturation and data collection, the keeping of fieldnotes can serve the critical function of recording and reflecting the all-important changes that occur outside the realm of the online text” (Kozinets 2010). According to Kozinets “in reflective fieldnotes, netnographers record their own observations regarding subtexts, pretexts, contingencies, conditions and personal emotions occurring during their time online, and relating to their online experiences. Through these written reflections, the netnographer records her journey from outsider to insider, her learning of languages, rituals, and practices, as well as her involvement in a social web of meanings and personalities. These fieldnotes often provide key insights into what the online culture is and what it does”(Kozinets 2010).
So, as Creswell states “writers agree that one undertakes qualitative research in a natural setting where the researcher is an instrument of data collection who gathers word or pictures, analyses them inductively, focuses on the meaning of participants, and describes a process that is expressive and persuasive in language” (Creswell 1998 p.14). Creswell lists the elements of additional media that can be collected by the informant and viewed by the researcher, that aid and promote the process of sense-making. Creswell suggests that we:
In addition, and as Mackay suggests, “using the Internet is a process of writing and reading texts and the task of the ethnographer is to understand these principles. Understanding the meaning of texts, however, is far from straightforward. It is difficult to isolate, in any simple sense, a single text for analysis, because of the inter-discursive nature of textual meaning. Every media text is mediated by others, so no text is bounded. The text does not occupy a fixed position, but is always mobilised, placed or articulated with other texts in different ways” (Mackay, 2005, p. 131).
This point fits well with how Flick sees the ethnographic research process when he suggests that “reading and understanding texts become active processes of producing reality, which involve not only the author of (in our case social science) texts, but also those for whom they are written and who read them.” When this is “transferred to qualitative research,” according to Flick, “this means that in the production of texts (on a certain subject, an interaction, or an event) the person who reads and interprets the written text is involved in the construction of reality as the person who writes the text”(Flick 2009 p.79). “Online interaction,” therefore, “forces the learning of additional codes and norms, abbreviations, emoticons, sets of keystrokes and other technical skills in order to transfer the emotional information vital to social relations”(Kozinets 2010). And “whether we are talking about a blog’s audience, a social network, or a computer constructed ‘race’ in a virtual world, the participants in these groups often self-segment by arranging themselves into online groupings sorted by interests, tastes, or pre-existing communities”(Kozinets 2010). Though according to Shani Orgad “to maintain the interaction with informants and encourage them to collaborate and share their experience” with the researcher, therefore, it is “necessary to build a certain degree of trust,” is the “real challenge in building rapport online” (Orgad, 2005, p. 55).
We can now, therefore, start to think about the design of the research questions that we are going to use to guide us through this investigative process. At this stage it is not possible or desirable to tie-down the research question to a specific form, as would be done in a hypothesis-testing model. Instead, we will use a set of broad outline questions to guide the process of engagement, participation and observation to collect data in the social situations we are choosing to encounter and engage with. Therefore the following questions are relevant:
To conclude, and as John Creswell notes, the ethnographic research process suggests the following data collection steps: “(a) setting the boundaries for the study, (b) collecting information through observations, interviews, documents and visual materials, and (c) establishing the protocol for recording information” (Creswell 1994 p.148). As Kozinets notes, “It can be useful to start with one set of research questions that evolve during the process of the investigation,” because, “by the time the final research project is complete, that original set of research questions may be changed quite dramatically, with new ones emerging in the process of investigation and analysis”(Kozinets 2010). We can be certain however, that as Kozinets suggests, “online communities are widespread phenomena, and their norms and rituals are shaped by the practices of cyberculture and those of the general cultural groups using them”(Kozinets 2010). How we attend to the symbolic interactions in these communities and cultures is as valid as it would be in the physical realm.
Therefore, this study will:
Themes will include:
Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research Design: Qualitative and Quantative Approaches. London, Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design – Choosing Among Five Traditions. London, Sage.
Flick, U. (2009). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. London, Sage.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London, Sage.
Miller, G. and R. Dingwall, Eds. (1997). Context & Method in Qualitative Research. London, Sage.
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:
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
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:
In summary then “the idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward:
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.
I’m starting to learn how to use Nvivo as a tool for gathering online data for my research project. It’s taken a while for me to get all the elements in to place. Firstly my MacBook wasn’t powerful enough to run Windows via Fusion VM Ware, so I asked for an upgrade, and the university was very supportive and did so. This means I’m now running Windows 8 as a Bootcamped OS, and then will flick between Mac and Windows as I need to. I’ve now installed a copy of Nvivo on the Windows partition and need to learn how it works so that I can start immersing myself in the chosen field sites. At this point I’m not entirely sure how this will work, but it’s probably going to involve using Nvivo, MS OneNote, MS Internet Explorer and Firefox with Zotero. The aim is to record and catalogue a selection of the online activities that are taking place in the collaborative communities on the web.
Hopefully I can really kick-start the process of collecting data and being part of the community media groups that I’m participating in. I’m not an expert in Participant Observation, so I will be learning a lot as I progress and move forward. I’m happy to proceed with caution and take my time, because I don’t want to make mistakes. The issues of confidentiality and managing any likely risk to participants, is an important one that I am increasingly mindful of. There can be a lot of trust placed in the researcher, and people tell me things that are significant to them and their relationships with other people in the community media networks I’m investigating. I have to ensure that I respect and protect that trust and ensure that no harm comes to the participants I interact with.
In using a this Computer Aided Qualitative Research Application in order to support the gathering of data from online interactions, and to develop an analysis protocol that ties in with the precepts and conventions of Ethnographic study, particularly in the form of Participant Observations. The key principles of this methodology are identifies by Hine (2005) and Kozinets (2010), who points out that “Social networking sites and virtual worlds carry the complex markers of many cultures and both manifest and forge new connections and communities.” (Kozinets, 2010, p.7). The trick is to capture this information in sufficient detail and develop it into a coherent narrative that describes the situation being studies, is fair and ethical in the way that data is collated, and forms a base from which social theories of engagement, role playing, identity formation and resource management might be better understood.
I’m really looking forward to this study being the main focus of my life for the next twelve months. I intend to write regular blogs and make observations as I progress, and will welcome comments and observations as I progress.