Dec 092014
 

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.

http://www.dmu.ac.uk/faculties/technology/current_students/hre/forms_links.jsp

http://www.theasa.org/downloads/ASA%20ethics%20guidelines%202011.pdf

http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/34088_Chapter4.pdf

References:
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.

Oct 292014
 

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

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 Interactions

Generic Social Interactions

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).

Holistic Theories?

Holistic Theories?

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).

Fieldwork Priorities

Fieldwork Priorities

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).

Approach to Data Collection

Approach to Data Collection

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).

Computer Aided Research

Computer Aided Research

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).

Ethnographic Approach

Ethnographic Approach

References:
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.

Mar 032014
 

Over this spring and summer I’m going to be spending a lot of time writing for my PhD. I’m hoping to have a good chunk of a working draft competed by September. So it’s going to be head-down to the grindstone and a lot of sitting in one place trying desperately not to prevaricate and to avoid distractions.

Writing like this is always something of an isolated process, with a lot of time spent away from friends and colleagues, actively ignoring emails and messages. I’m thinking about suspending my Facebook profile for the duration and leaving Twitter alone for a while – though I doubt I’ll be able to withdraw myself for that long.

The alternative is to set a target to ration my access to social media, developing a strategy to reward myself with micro-bursts of online activity. My main concern is my ability to stay away from online news sites. I can easily waste a couple of hours reading newspaper columnists and stories. And then there is Netflix and Amazon Prime. The world of online movies and TV is too easy to engage with, and before you know it you’ve watched the entire set of The West Wing or Star Trek The Next Generation – again!

The hardest part is going to be ignoring friends. The pleasure of meeting for a coffee and passing the time, scheming, plotting and reflecting is so much more pleasant than sitting in a room struggling to find words that match the data I’m supposed to be analysing. But it has to be done. My plan is to limit social interaction to Monday evenings and the excellent St Martins Coffee quiz, and Saturdays, which is a good day to get out of Leicester and go and look at some exhibitions, or go for a walk.

Any organisations that I’m supporting or volunteering for is going to have to be put on hold until at least September. So no getting involved with committees or management groups, no meeting sponsors or funding bodies, no plotting to set anything up. Not until I’ve completed a good version of my document at least.

Then there is life at De Montfort University. For some time I’m going to be away from the office, trying to balance my marking with my research work. My leave is going to be largely dedicated to working this year – though some family commitments are pencilled in as a balance to the weeks that I will be spending at my desk.

If you don’t hear from me in the coming weeks, and you find I’m more difficult to get hold of, please don’t get vexed. I’ll be putting my out-of-office message on, but I’ll keep an eye on my emails all the same, just in case. Though I’ll probably limit the time I take to read and reply to first thing each morning.

Wish me luck over the coming months. I’m gearing up to ploughing on with this and submitting before the year is out.

Dec 262013
 

If you are interested in how social media is being used and understood by activists’ movements around the world, then Symon Hill’s book Digital Revolutions is a clear and concise introduction. From #tag activism to the complex political, economic and nationalistic dynamics of the Arab Spring, Hill charts a path through some of the main dilemmas facing political and civic activism in the age of Twitter, Facebook and social media networks. Hill starts by stating that his core principle and conviction is that “liberation comes from below and never from above” (Hill, 2013, p. 15), and that “however much we discuss technology, let’s not do so in a way that leads us to forget the slums in Egypt, the soup kitchens in Greece or the newly present food banks in Britain” (Hill, 2013, p. 26).
Hill isn’t an open-ended optimist, as some of the internet and digital networked society evangelists have a tendency to be. Instead Hill grounds his ideas and his examples in the reality of social change that won’t be won through online media campaigns alone, but only when they turn into popular movements for change. The UK Uncut movement is given prominence in Hill’s account, free from hyperbole and rhetoric. It is good to note how Hill points out that “social media is a tool rather than a cause of social change.” Facebook and Twitter, according to Hill “did not overthrow Ben Ali or Murbarak, any more than the printing press overthrew Charles I” (Hill, 2013, p. 81).
What I was particularly drawn to is Hill’s unequivocal rejection of transactional forms of hierarchy within much of Western social and civic life. According to Hill “we need to appreciate the importance of the rejection of hierarchy” (Hill, 2013, p. 97), and therefore give some thought and energy to thinking through what the alternatives might be. This is something that I am intensely sympathetic with. The challenge, if we accept Hill’s argument and look forward to the emerging forms of social organisation, is how we can prepare people to act as mindful and reflexive citizens who have the skills and the sense of self-awareness and self-confidence that allows them to claim their entitlement to participation in our shared social life?
To understand how networks of peers and co-developers and citizens can gain through collective action for the benefit of the wider community, rather than simply clawing for personal, partial and financial advantage, is a worth challenge for all.
 
Hill, S. (2013). Digital Revolutions – Activism in the Internet Age. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.
 

Oct 252013
 

I’ve been playing with the idea of developing a wiki based around community media. It’s separate from this site, and uses the MediaWiki software, that is used to run Wikipedia. There’s a learning curve to get the hang of using MediaWiki, but it’s probably about the best for ease of use for users. Is this something that is worth developing and seeing if we can get an on-line community of contributors for?

http://www.communitymediawiki.net

Update: I’ve been trying to get the registration process for the site working so that users can just log-in. Rather than an open process that will allow bots and spammers to get in. So I’ve set the site so that applicants need approval from an administrator. I’m also looking for a Captcha plugin to add to the registration process so that there is an extra layer of security. I’ll keep my eye on the number of registrations and see how it works.

Sep 132013
 
wpid-wpid-fotor_WP_20130913_034-300x224-2013-09-13-15-09-2013-09-13-15-09.jpg

Radio Researchers BBC BH Tour

Academic conferences are often expected to be dull affairs that leave one soporific. Nothing can be further from the truth than Radio Research 2013. The ECREA hosted conference organised by Prof Guy Starkey and the University of Sunderland, at their London campus, has been vibrant, absorbing and engaging.

In his keynote address Andrew Crissel reassured the attendees that radio has a strong future based on its focus on words and ideas, and despite all the pressure to ‘visualise’ radio.

It’s great to re-confirm why I became interested in radio in the first place and to be reminded that there is more to radio than just youth and popular radio. Reconnecting with other forms of radio, drama, features and reportage has been heartening and welcome.

So I’ll be heading back to Leicester with a renewed sense of vigour that radio is a rich and enriching area to work in.

Aug 262013
 

wpid-wpid-BSMmSxhIIAEzDPu-300x225-2013-08-26-08-071-2013-08-26-08-07.jpgNetwork visits for the Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery took Ian Davies and me to Bradford and Leeds last week. Our first stop was Impressions Gallery, in Centenary Square. Impressions Gallery is located in Bradford’s newest open space, Centenary Square, with a large water-feature and pool. On the day we visited, and despite it not being particularly warm, there were many families and children enjoying paddling in the pool and dodging through the fountains. While we had a look around the gallery, it was unfortunate that we’d not been able to make contact with a member of the team from the gallery who could chat with us. The exhibition space is excellent though, with large white walls and a high ceiling creating a versatile venue. Presently showing was Forever Young, a touring exhibition which is billed as “a retrospective of James Barnor’s street and studio photographs, spanning Ghana and London from the late 1940s to early 1970s.”

wpid-wpid-BSMpNHNIgAASvwJ-300x225-2013-08-26-08-071-2013-08-26-08-07.jpgNext we headed over to the National Media Museum, for a look around the exhibitions and galleries depicting the history of photography, television, gaming and now the internet. It’s always a pleasure to visit the National Media Museum, as there is always a good atmosphere, with a focus on activities for children. They usually end –up reading the news or the weather. The Kodak Gallery on the lower ground floor lays out the history of photography, but it’s interesting that the latest camera in the collection is a Nikon F2. Obviously the gallery doesn’t extend into the digital realm, and there’s not a smart-phone to be found. Is analogue photography is truly becoming a museum display then?

wpid-wpid-BSOGsQRIgAAXFti-225x300-2013-08-26-08-071-2013-08-26-08-07.jpgOur overnight stay in Leeds was at the University of Leeds Halls of Residence, which is a modern building that has very good accommodation and was only ten minutes’ walk from the city centre. We had a lovely meal in the evening, at Veritas, just opposite the Leeds General Infirmary. Ian particularly enjoyed the Sticky Toffee Pudding.

wpid-wpid-BSRtQawIEAAg7wi-300x225-2013-08-26-08-071-2013-08-26-08-07.jpgOur visit to the White Cloth Gallery was especially good, as there is a clear sense of inclusivity and an eagerness to engage visitors with a positive experience. The gallery is something of a mix between a gallery and a bar/café. This enhanced the informality of the visiting experience as it was less likely to be a hushed and academic experience, as had been the case with some of the galleries we had visited over the previous weeks. We spent time chatting with Kirstin Black, the galleries marketing director, who explained that White cloth doesn’t receive any bloc-funding, but instead relies on the support of a benefactor and by running the café and bar, as well as putting on events and hiring the gallery space to the public. It was good to hear about the ethos of inclusivity that White Cloth pursues, so it will be worth keeping in contact and sharing some of the networking skills that Ian has developed with the White Cloth team.

Once again it was well worth the effort of travelling to visit these galleries and finding out more about the approach that each gallery takes to servicing its audience. There are so many variations of approach that it’s possible to pick and choose good practice from each of the galleries and to incorporate that into the development of Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery.

Apr 112013
 

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.