Dec 022014

Intersubjectivity: This week’s lecture moves forward our thinking about qualitative research by looking at some specific case studies and discussing how examples of social media interaction can be understood as a series of regular sub-processes. Our starting point is to remind ourselves of the objective of ethnographic style research, in which, according to Kathy Charmaz we seek to “enter our research participants’ worlds to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. But we do so as genuine participants ourselves, not as distanced, unbiased observers who dispassionately record the doings of others?” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xii). As Charmaz goes on “to understand what people intend and why they act as they do we must enter into their experience. We must share it” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xiv).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001h-2014-11-26According to Robert Prus “at the heart of the sociological enterprise is the idea that human behaviour is the product of community life; that people’s behaviour cannot be reduced to individual properties. A major task facing sociologists (and social scientists more generally), therefore, revolves around the study of the accomplishment of intersubjectivity; that is, indicating how people become social entities and how they attend to one another and the products of human endeavour in the course of day-to-day life”(Prus, 1996, p. 2).

In examining these day-to-day interactions we should note, according to Prus, that “all constructions of reality, all notions of definition, identifications, and explanations, all matters of education, enterprise, entertainment, interpersonal relations, organisational practices, cultic involvements, collective behaviour, and political struggles of all sorts are rooted in the human accomplishment of intersubjectivity” (Prus, 1996, p. 2). In this pragmatic form of ethnography that Prus champions, then, it is the ‘intersubjective’ meanings, actions and routines that we establish as a community that enables people to work out on what basis they do things. As Prus comments, “the interpretivists observe that the study of human behaviour is the study of human lived experience and that human experience is rooted in people’s meanings, interpretations, activities, and interactions. These notions, they posit are the essential substance of a social science” (Prus, 1996, p. 9). And it is these interpretivists notions that we will use to determine the methodology for data collection and research in our study.

As Robert Prus explains: “Symbolic interaction may be envisioned as the study of the ways in which people make sense of their life-situations and the ways in which they go about their activities, in conjunction with others, on a day-to-day basis. It is very much a ‘down to earth’ approach, which insists upon rigorously grounding its notions of the ways in which human group life is accomplished in the day-to-day practices and experiences of the people whose lives one purports to study” (Prus, 1996, p. 10).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001a-2014-11-26Prus argues that “it is in the course of developing familiarity with the language of a community that people are able to approximate rudimentary understandings of, or perspectives on, human life-worlds. Only once people develop some fundamental conceptualisations of ‘the world’ may they begin to exhibit some sort of reflectivity and meaningful human agency. Only with the acquisition of a language-based set of understandings or perspective are people able to take themselves into account in developing and pursing particular lines of action. As Mead (1934) observes, it is the attainment of language that makes the possession of a ‘self’ possible” (Prus, 1996, p. 11).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001b-2014-11-26We are working, according to Prus “with stocks of knowledge (and conceptual schemes) gleaned through interaction with others, but now applying these in particular or situated contexts, in familiar and in different ways, people formulate thoughts, achieve unique experiences, experience novelty, and pursue creativity. Indeed, given the limitations of their existing (linguistic) stocks of knowledge on a collective basis as well as individual variants within, people’s experiences may well outstrip their abilities to retain and formulate more precise or lasting images of these events” (Prus, 1996, p. 12).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001c-2014-11-26As such, according to Prus “human activity does not simply involve someone invoking behaviour of some sort, but more accurately entails several sub-processes. Most notably, these include: defining the situation at hand, considering and anticipating both particular lines of action and potential outcomes, implementing behaviour, monitoring oneself along the way, assessing situations both in process and in retrospect, and adjusting or modifying one’s behaviour both during immediate events and following earlier episodes” (Prus, 1996, p. 14).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001d-2014-11-26We can identify some key principles when we enter into any social situations, based on the knowledge that

“Human group life is intersubjective…
Human group life is (multi) perspectival…
Human group life is reflective…
Human group life is activity-based…
Human group life is negotiable…
Human group life is relational…
Human group life is processual” (Prus, 1996, pp. 15-17)

Prus points out that “ethnographers generally rely on three sources of data (observation, participant-observation, and interviews) in their attempts to achieve intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of those they study” (Prus, 1996, p. 19). And that “observation encompasses not only those things that one witnesses through one’s visual and audio senses, but also includes any documents, diaries, records, frequency counts, maps, and the like that one may be able to obtain in particular settings” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).

“Participation-observation” accorsing to Prus, “adds an entirely different and vital dimension to the notion of observation. Although the practice of describing and analysing one’s own experiences has often been dismissed as ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ by those who think that researchers should distance themselves from their subject matters, the participant-observer role allows the researcher to get infinitely closer to the lived experiences of the participants than does straight observation” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).

“Like those doing straight observation,” Prus explains “researchers engaged in participant-observation normally try to remain fairly unobtrusive or nondisruptive in the setting being studied. However, participant-observation entails a more active (and interactive) and ambiguous role as researchers attempt to fit into the (dynamics) settings at hand. Insofar as more sustained participant-observation typically allows researchers to experience on a first-hand basis many aspects of the life-worlds of the other, it offers a rather unique and instructive form of data to those able and willing to assume the role of the other in a more comprehensive sense” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).

As such “interviews represent the third major method of gathering ethnographic data, and under some circumstances may provide the primary source of data for field researchers. By inquiring extensively into the experiences of others, interviews may learn a great deal about the life worlds of the other” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).

Workshop Activity:
Nvivo-Low-Carb-001In our lab activity this week we will use Nvivo to analyse a set of articles that contain forums and discussion boards in which readers relate their thoughts about the articles that are published.

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In analysing the interactions that are being made in these discussions we can work out what regular sets of processes are being followed. The generic social process and sub-processes of routine interaction. As Prus argues, as researchers we should attune ourselves to the processes that people follow, and not just the “significant key elements of people’s involvements in situations,” for these process also define the essence of community life.” According to Prus, “these processes are interdependent and need to be viewed holistically if we are to develop a fuller appreciation of each. Nevertheless, each process encompasses several (sub)processes within, and on these levels each is amenable to empirical inquiry” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).


So, as researchers we are attuning ourselves to the way that people, agents acting in the following:

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001f-2014-11-26“1. Acquiring Persepctives

  1. Achieving Identity
  2. Being Involved

Getting Started
Sustaining and intensifying involvements
Becoming disinvolved
Becoming reinvolved

  1. Doing Activity

Performing activities
Influencing others
Making commitments

  1. Experiencing Relationships
  2. Forming and Coordinating Relationships

Establishing associations
Objectifying associations
Encountering outsiders” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).

The way that people make sense of their interactions is a process of external interactions and the reflections that go into building a persons sense of identity. According to Rober Prus, this “’Identity work’ is contingent on people’s capacity for ‘self-reflectivity;’ it requires that one begin to take oneself into account in developing lines of action or that one became ‘an object unto oneself.’ Reflecting the perspectives one has on the world, people’s identities or self-other definitions are not only situated within those realities, but also are influenced by the ongoing shifts in perspectives that people normally undergo over time and across situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 152).

Identity work is series of processes in which people define their role and their position within community life through a set of generic social proceses. Therefore we are attuned to consider how people make sense of the interactions when:

  • “Encountering perspectives (definitions of reality) from others
  • Assessing (new, incoming) perspectives and resisting unwanted viewpoints
  • Developing images of objects (including images of other people and oneself)
  • Learning (cultural patterns of objects (e.g. rules of thumb, norms, fashion)
  • Defining situations (i.e., applying perspectives to the ‘cases at hand’)
  • Dealing with ambiguity (lapses and limitations in existing explanations)
  • Resolving contradictions (dilemmas within and across paradigms)
  • Extending or improvising on existing perspectives
  • Promoting (and defending) perspectives to others
  • Rejecting formerly held viewpoints
  • Adopting new viewpoints (Prus, 1996, p. 152).

“Like other (symbolic) interactions, emotional interchanges may be viewed best in process terms” (Prus, 1996, p. 179).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001g-2014-11-26“Many emotional interchanges (and themes) seem apt to dissipate when the interactants fail to endorse or acknowledge one another’s expressed interests or affections” (Prus, 1996, p. 184).

As Prus describes, “the focus is on people (a) developing generalised images and understandings of emotional states as these are viewed in the community at large, (b) learning cultural recipes or ‘rules of thumb’ (how to tell when) to define situations as emotional ones, and (c) applying those cultural understandings and recipes to specific ‘cases at hand’. This in no way denies the abilities of others to offer, suggest, or attempt to impose their understandings, rules of thumb, or definitions of the situation on the focal actor, but draws attention to the points at which people define themselves as being in emotional states or situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 177).

Therefore, according to Prus, “’human interaction is a positive shaping process in its own right. The participants have to build up their respective lines of conduct by constant interpretation of each other’s ongoing lines of action… Factors of psychological equipment and social organisation are not substitutes for the interpretive process; they are admissible only in terms of how they are handled in the interpretive process’ (Blumer 1966: 538)” (Prus, 1996, p. 69).

Prus quotes Blumer when he argues that “’the essence of society lies in an ongoing process of action – not in the posited structure of relations. Without action, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. To understand, a society must be seen and grasped in terms of the action that comprises it’ (Blumer 1966: 541)” (Prus, 1996, p. 70). And so, therefore, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus, 1996, p. 192). Being attuned to the many possibilities of action, interaction and meaningful interplay is a priority for the researcher, putting aside our own prejudices and onions so that we can engage as fully as we might in the social processes we are attempting to observe.

Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.

Dec 022014

This week’s lecture gives us an opportunity to review some of the central issues that we have been looking at during the previous eight weeks, and to start to build a plan so that we can research into the life-worlds of our intended communities. During the last week there has been considerable press interest in the issue of obesity and diabetes, what some newspapers are calling the ‘fat plague,’ and others describe as an ‘epidemic’. According to the BBC a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute said worldwide obesity will “cost £1.3tn, or 2.8% of annual economic activity” and the “UK £47bn.” According to the report obesity is now reaching “crisis proportions.”

Recently published government statistics note that between 1993 and 2012 the proportion of adults in the UK who are overweight (not just obese) increased from 57.6% to 66.6% for men, and 48.6% to 57.2% for women.

BBC-Obesity-002As The Guardian explained, according to the McKinsey report “Obesity is a greater burden on the UK’s economy than armed violence, war and terrorism, costing the country nearly £47bn a year.” The chief executive of NHS England has warned that “obesity will bankrupt the health service unless Britain gets serious about tackling the problem.” Reported in the Guardian, Simon Stevens told public health officials at a conference in Coventry that “Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.” During the same week the Mail Online reported that NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has approved the widespread use of gastric bands as a treatment for diabetes. According to the Mail Online “up to two million obese Britons will be eligible for weight-loss surgery on the NHS under new guidelines.” And that “NICE is telling doctors to suggest the operations to all patients above a given weight with type 2 diabetes.” Is this going to be the primary medical response to the growing number of people who are overweight or obese in the UK? According to the Mail Online, “more people are dying in Britain due to being overweight or obese than anywhere else in Europe.” “Around one in every 11 deaths in the UK is now linked to carrying excess fat – 50 per cent more than the rate in France.” With so much interest in this issue emerging into the mainstream media, it would be useful, therefore, to review some of the ideas that we have explored in the lectures to date.

TECH3022_15-Lecture-009-Research-Management-Plan-001a-2014-11-23Western Diets The diet that has been adopted in the West, (i.e. the industrialised countries), is designed to secure a cheap supply of calorie rich and carbohydrate-loaded food. And because there is an excessive level of production of these foods, with the subsidies that are given to the food producer, it means that corn, wheat and other commodity foods are often sold for less than the cost of production. The ever onward drive towards producing seemingly new and  diversified consumer food products is based on the premise that corn, wheat and sugar are in plentiful supply. In turn this is supported by the ‘low-fat’ public health campaigns that suggest that foods that are low in fat are better for heart health and other metabolic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes. The processed food industry has been able to market technically engineered food-like substances in massive quantities to consumers with the promise that they are healthy. However, the problem is that the Western Diet is nutritionally deficient and lacks the essential nutritional qualities to be a sustainable part of people’s healthy lives. The incidence of heart disease is not dropping, despite better medical treatments and interventions that we now have to correct the chronic problems that people end up with. There is now increasing evidence that suggests that saturated fat does not cause heart disease by increasing cholesterol levels as has been claimed for the last forty years. The lipid-hypothesis is looking shaky.

Mail-Obesity-001Big Food The food manufacturers have invested millions of pounds over the last forty years into standardising and industrialising the food economy. This has led to a breakdown in the social infrastructure that supports tacit and community food engagement. Local traditions, passed from generation to generation, within families and local communities, are being lost at an ever-greater rate as food is designed for processing as a packaged product rather than as something that is created from basic core ingredients. By undercutting decent labour practices, squeezing suppliers to adopt mass production and farming methods, the processed food industry has generated thousands of meaningless and nutritionally deficient food-like-substances that are branded to suggest that they are healthy. Take orange juice for example. It’s effect on blood-sugar levels are virtually the same as cola, but most parents insist they are supporting the nutritional health of their children by packing a carton of juice in a lunchbox, or giving their kids a glass of orange juice with their breakfast for their. The food industry is content to leave parents in a state of ignorant bliss, not knowing the effect that sugar is having on their children, from in whatever food it is packaged up in. The big food manufacturers control the advertising of consumer products, they lobby for government policies that benefit them at the expense of consumer rights, and they attempt to control the information that is given to consumers by obfuscating the food labels that are produced with their packaged goods. The use of high levels of carbohydrates in processed foods increases the shelf-life of the products, it reduces the amount of fat in the products, and it bulks out the products so that they appear to be better value for money. But what is most important, is that this process massively increase the profits of the manufacturers who are turning out these good on an industrial scale.

insulin-01Hormonal Correction So, why is thinking about carbohydrates so important, and can’t people just eat less and exercise more if they want to stay slim? The central fallacy, often repeated by experts, doctors and nutritionists, is that all calories that go into the body are equal. As Gary Taubes points out, the common belief is that a calorie eaten must be burnt in physical activity. The problem with this hypothesis is that it is wrong. If we take different elements of food, such as protein, fat, fibre and carbohydrates, we see them acting on the body in very different ways. Eating generous portions of protein and fat will not result in weight gain under normal circumstances, and may even result in weight loss. Eating fibre is generally good for us because of the impact it has on our health as green vegetables and low-sugar fruits are loaded with micronutrients. The real culprit, it seems, are the carbohydrates that we consume. The sugars and carbohydrates that are associated with processed food are killing us. Processed food is carb-loaded and has a detrimental effect on our body’s ability to deal with high blood sugar levels. To get to grips with this problem we have to shift our thinking that weight gain is the product of greed, gluttony or sedentary lifestyles. Rather the problem is founded on the cycle of hormonal imbalances that are centred on how the body uses insulin to control fat deposits. Insulin is the key hormone for signalling to the body that it should deposit excess blood sugars as fat. In the process insulin clobbers glucogon and leptin on the head and stops them from doing their jobs. Their job is to convert fat to usable energy reserves, and to tell us to stop eating because we are full. As our insulin levels are being thrashed almost continuously because our diets are excessively loaded with carbohydrates, we enter a cycle of increasing weight gain, food addiction and a loss of energy. If we get our comprehension of this process right, therefore, then much else follows that allows us to correct the dietary imbalances and health problems that Western society is plagued with. Weight gain is not a moral issue. It is a hormonal and an environmental product.

(Here’s a useful article that explains the process)

Food Literacies The call for an alternative approach, then, is based on some simple and uncomplicated thinking. Local food production and distribution that puts the emphasis onto the supplier to clearly differentiate the good food from the bad. So much of the food that is sold in our supermarkets screams health claims at us, and yet they are dubious at best, and harmful at worst. So dealing with food packaging and advertising is essential. But what is lacking most are the skills and capabilities that people need to act confidently when they are cooking their own foods. Food literacies. Keeping away from processed food sounds great, but it has to be seen in the context of the busy and demanding modern lives that people lead, and the access that they have to good quality, yet affordable food resources. The lack of local grocers store in the UK is a major problem. People are forced to keep food for longer periods in their homes, so the food requires a longer shelf-life. The food production cycle since the 1950s has been one that drives down the quality and nutritional value of foods so that they last longer in the home, and yet still have a sense of satisfaction that is associated with non-processed foods. Perhaps we should look at taxing food flavourings so that processed food that is reliant on artificial chemical stimulants start to become unattractive to producers. After all has been part of the success story of eliminating smoking. Processed foods are stuffed with salt and sugar. The fat is removed to extend the shelf-life, so as to make the food seem more healthy, and to ensure that it can be transported easily. The problem is that it isn’t worth eating, it is making us sick.

Premise: Insulin Management

Key Advocates
If you want to read more about these debates and find resources, then it is worth looking at the key advocates associated with the campaign to change our food thinking:

Gary Taubes

Robert Lustig

Michael Pollan

John Yudkin

Booth & Bilton

Low-Carb-PyramidFood Pyramid What is now becoming evident is that the recommendations of the health and diet industry, that we consume a diet that is heavy in grains, cereal and pasta is no longer tenable. It is the overconsumption of these foods that has caused the problem. We therefore should be looking to adopt a different model of food distribution, such as the low-carb food pyramid. Sticking to the main groups of food that we have evolved with, such as green vegetables, fruits, fish, moderate amounts of meat, moderate amounts of dairy, plenty of unprocessed oils and fats and only occasional or few grains. Not only is this more likely to satisfy our nutritional requirements, it is also likely to leave us feeling fuller and more satisfied for longer.

This Study Will So to look that the way we will develop this study, there are a couple of methodological points to note. This study will:

  • Be based on Netnographic/Qualitative Research principles.
  • Use mixed modes of constructivist qualitative data collection and interpretation such as participant observation.
  • Use reflexive critical methods to contextualise the situatedness of the re-searcher.
  • Use case studies to contrast contextual environments.

Food-Literacies-Research-Plan-001-2014-11-24Research Plan The documentation and discussion of the research plan will be undertaken on the module wiki page, and will be used to provide a framework for the investigation, the protocols and the ideas development that we need to be effective researchers.

Questions that we are going to raise include:

The Role of the Researcher:

  • What is the role of the researcher in the design?
  • How will the researcher relate and describe their own personal involvement in the research study, and what is the ongoing relationship between the researcher and the informants?
  • How will the researcher account for their involvement and how will this affect the research?
  • How will the researcher manage potential conflicts between the research role and the professional/personal roles?

As Robert Kozinets asks “is the ethnographer studying some phenomenon directly related to online communities and online culture? Or is the ethnographer interested in studying a general social phenomenon that has some related Internet group aspect? How important, or not, is the physical component that is always attached to human social behaviour?”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 63).

There are a series of questions we can think about that will help us to enter the field, such as:

  • How will the researcher gain entry to the situation being studied?
  • What are the parameters for the data collection?
  • What is the setting?
  • Who are the actors?
  • What are the events?
  • What is the process being followed?
  • What and who are being excluded from the study?

As Guimaraes Jr notes… “As Cohen points out: ‘the reality of community lies in its members’ perceptions of the vitality of its culture. People construct community symbolically, making it a resource and a repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity’” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 146). So we have to ask:

  • Why was the site chosen for study?
  • In what way does the researcher have direct access to the field they are studying?
  • How full will the researchers involvement be with the activities in the field?
  • Will the researchers professional and personal interests in the outcomes of the research direct any relationship they have with respondents?

“In order to conceptualise both the place of this group and its boundaries, I employed the idea of social environment, a symbolic space created in cyberspace through programs which allow communication between two or more users” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 148).

  • What will be done at the site during the research study?
  • How will the researcher observe, interact and collect data from informants?
  • What type of data collection will the researcher deploy?
  • Will it be disruptive?
  • How will this data collection be conducted unobtrusively and without disruption?
  • How will the researcher collect data ethically?

In undertaking our study we will be collecting data from many and multiple sources:

  • What form will any observations take? [Mixed-media recordings of discussions?]
  • What form will any interviews take? [Structured or unstructured? Recorded and annotated?]
  • What documents will be referred to? [Online media, email communications, Twitter Feeds, Facebook groups, station planning material, participant journals?]
  • What audiovisual materials will be referred to?
  • How will these activities be conducted simultaneously? [Collecting a range of data at the same time is going to be essential, how will the integrity and continuity of this data be ensured?]
  • What is to be recorded?
  • How is it going to be recorded?
  • In what way will the process of qualitative evaluation be based on data ‘reduction’ and ‘interpretation’?
  • How will the results be reported?

As John Creswell points out, “In a qualitative researcher works inductively, such as when he or she develops categories from informants rather than specifying them in advance of the research” (Creswell 1998 p.77).

Book CoverFood Literacies We are starting, therefore with a loose series of questions that we will be able to narrow and make more specific as we progress with the evidence gathering and the data collection. So our questions will take the form of the following:

  • What are the concepts of food and nutritional literacy held by agents in different [online] communities?
  • What characteristics of food and nutritional literacy are relevant to participation and experience in different types of [online] communities?
  • What are the experiences of food and nutritional literacy of agents in different types of [online] community?
  • How are the concepts of food and nutritional literacy understood by agents in different types of [online] community?
  • How do concepts of food and nutritional literacy relate phenomologically to different agents forming a [online] community?
  • What relevance do agents acting in an [online] community ascribe to their own concepts of food and nutritional literacy?
  • What can be derived from the conceptual debates between theories of food and nutritional literacy and [online] community engagement?
  • Can inferences, hypothesise and models be derived from an evaluation of participation and experience in [online] communities as a phenomenon in food and nutritional literacy?
  • To what extent, then, can the discourse of food and nutritional literacy be tested and validated, both in principle and in experience in [online] communities?

It’s important to keep in mind that the ethnographic process is founded on the study of people’s lived experiences, and the practical realities that they interact through, the ideas and actions that they seek to make sense of.

ecogastronomyeducation_1322260980_76Nothing, however, is unique or novel in this sense, most things usually have precedent characteristics and associated challenges that they share, coming together in our present sense-making activities and stories. For example, the whole issues of taking control of our food supply chain has happened before, it is nothing new that we talking here about attempting to do this. During World War Two there was a general mobilisation for food in the UK. The aim was that we would be a nation that was self-sufficient in food. This meant doing without things such as sugar, large amounts of imported flour, and other none essential basic foods. Food rationing shaped the food choices and memories of a generation, so perhaps looking at this period again would be productive for today’s generation?

If I was to sum up, therefore, the research question that we are aiming to answer at this point, it would take this form:

  • What do people do with food and nutritional literacy?
  • What do they say that they get from discussing food and nutrition, and
  • How does the use of social media change the things that they discuss and practice?

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bilton, R., & Booth, L. (2013). Know What to Eat. Formby: Supercritical.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defence of Food. London: Penguin Books.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. London: Penguin.
Yudkin, J. (2012). Pure White and Deadly: Penguin.

Nov 022014

We started this week’s lecture with a look at an online video shared by Martin Aleksiev in his blog The short video is an appeal for us rethink the nature of sociality in our constantly connected, online, social-media world, and is a good introduction to some of the ideas that we are going to be considering in future weeks.

This lecture summarises the five digital literacies that are identified by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart (2012). And looks at how social media technology has raised questions about what it means to be literate in the networked age, and how we can be successful in new social contexts using these new communication technologies. These are important issues that run through the social media strand of the course because they settle on the question, what does it mean to live a good life in an online and social media world?

We can start by asking a simple question, what are the fundamental things you need to do to thrive online? For some it means that we need to join as many social networks as we possibly can. What we get out of the connections that these networks brings is a sense that we are keeping up to date with other people; and that we are able to play a part in society because we have the right mix of skills and capabilities; and that we are can demonstrate that we have mastered certain types of social fluencies (or literacies) which allow us to use all the available aspect of social media. Indeed, we might reflect on the potential anxiety that is caused when we are unable to plug-in to our networks and we aren’t able to access the sites and apps that we have very quickly come to rely on in our day-to-day routines?

100 Essential Apps

100 Essential Apps

The Mail Online ran an article recently in which they listed the one hundred apps that are essential to modern living. What’s interesting is not necessarily what is included in this list, but rather what is excluded. There is a plethora of consumer apps and lifestyle apps, such as maps, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, cooking, health and fitness, and so on. The Mail Online’s recommendations read like a pretty wide ranging and typical consumer lifestyle magazine. What’s missing, however, is any kind of reflection or ethical intervention in our lives. There are no faith-based apps, no apps that help us to deal with ethical dilemmas, or political issues. History is absent and philosophy, literature and learning are non-existent. What the Mail Online has done, then, is to reduce living to a functional exchange. A consumer exchange in which money management takes priority over questions of ethicacy and morality?

7 Digital Deadly Sins

7 Digital Deadly Sins

The Guardian, on the other hand, ran a different web project called the Seven Digital Sins, in which contributors where asked to identify the ways that we might consider issues such as bullying or envy online. Are we subject to the same ethical rules in a virtual environment as we are in the real world the project asked? The Guardian’s Seven Deadly Sins gives us a simple choice between admonishment or denial that our actions online have consequences, and is an interesting counterpoint to the consumer-driven functionalism of the Mail Online.

So, this lecture raises some questions about the role of social media in our lives, and offers some discussion points about how we might think, or re-think, the challenges inherent in social interaction. In doing so we’ll look at two principle writers who have outlined some of their ideas about thriving online. Tom Chatfield who’s book How to Thrive in the Digital Age (2012) is published as part of the ‘School of Life’ series; and Howard Rheingold, long-time contributor to debates and discussions about virtual communities and his book Net Smarts – How to Thrive Online (2012). If you want to hear directly from Tom and Howard, there are plenty of YouTube videos available of interviews and talks they have done.

Social life on line is often discussed as if it is a new form of collective life. Chatfield’s book is a contribution to a wider debate about the value of our digitally mediated experiences, and he suggests that “if we are interested in living with technology in the best possible way, we must recognise that what matters above all is not the individual devices we use, but what we use them for.” According to Chatfield “digital media are technologies of the mind and of experience.” So ‘”if we wish to thrive in their company, the first lesson is that we can only hope constructively to comprehend them if we speak not of technology in the abstract, but of the experiences it enables” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 3).

Picture2According to Chatfield, “if there is a common thread” in our thinking about the use of social media, “it is the question of how individual experience fits into the new kind of collective life of the twenty-first century: how what ‘I’ am relates to what others know of me, what I share with those others, and what can remain personal and private” (Chatfield, 2012).

Chatfield’s view is that “we are entering a place where human nature remains the same, but the structures shaping it are alien.” According to Chatfield “ today’s digital world is not simply an idea or a set of tools, any more than a digital device is simply something switched on for leisure or pleasure. Rather, for an ever-increasing number of people, it is a gateway to the place where leisure and labour alike are rooted; an arena within which we seamlessly juggle friendships, media, business, shopping, research, politics, play, finance, and much else besides”(Chatfield, 2012).

The challenge offered to individuals in these circumstances is often put forward, not as a collective or environmental challenge, but often as a purely personal one. What takes priority is the idea of self-control and personal integrity in the face of the overwhelming changes and reconfigurations that are taking place in our social worlds. Chatfield believes, therefore, that we must “look to the nature of our experiences rather than the tools creating them if we hope to understand the present. We must cherish the best of these experiences – but also carve out a space apart from technology in our lives, and take control of our attention, apportioning our time knowingly rather than allowing always-on devices to dictate the texture of every moment” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 133).

As Chatfield continues, “we must too, understand something of the histories of the digital tools and services that we use, and critique them as we do other creations, rather than inhabiting them like a landscape. We must learn not simply to share, but to share well – and to participate in the digital commons with the kind of integrity that breeds integrity in others” (Chatfield, 2012, p. 133). According to Chatfield, therefore, “we need to make more time to be ‘unplugged’ from the network, to be on our own and with others away from the ‘default state’ of digital media” (p.30), since… “In an age of constant live connections, the central question of self-examination is drifting from ‘Who are you?’ towards ‘What are you doing?’ Much as we may hunger for connection, if we are to thrive, we need to keep some sense of ourselves separate from this constant capacity to broadcast. We need tenses other than the present – other qualities of time – in our lives’ (Chatfield, 2012, p. 32).

So, some immediate questions can be summarised. We can thrive online, but have to work out how? How do we face the challenges about managing who we are online? What do we understand about the tools we use and how they are different and do different things? What happens if we spend time unplugged from the network? Is it a good thing to be outside of the network of digital connections? How can we maintain a sense of self-examination in this environment and what does self-reflection bring? To what extent, therefore, is a life lived through social media a good thing?

Rheingold’s Fundamentals:
Picture1Howard Rheingold is a long-time participant in the debates and discussion about virtual communities since their development in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rheingold outlines five fundamental digital literacies and online skills that he believes, given his extensive experience, will help us use social media intelligently, humanely, and, above all, mindfully. According to Rheingold it’s a question of ‘know-how’ as much as anything else. Rheingold puts forward five fundamental skills that we would be well to attend to: Attention; Critical consumption (‘crap detection’); Participation; Collaboration; Network smarts.

Perhaps the most difficult part of living in any community is the extent to which we are able to make sense of those communities over time. For some our community life is consistent and predictable, but for others our experience of community life is unpredictable and precarious. One of the issues that is discussed within community studies, therefore, is the extent to which we are able to cope with change. The extent to which we can call on common stocks of social capital to bolster our resilience when it comes to coping with disruption? The online social media world is a place of persistent and constant disruption, so to what extent are we investing in building our resilience and skills to cope with the high levels of disruption that are evident?

Howard Rheingold points out that ‘humans pay a lot of attention to other humans – hence the success and seductive distractions of social media such as Facebook and Twitter’ (Rheingold, 2012, p.40). The question that Rheingold wants to develop an answer to is related to our experience in these online interactions. How do we cope with the disruption of always-on and everywhere media? As Rheingold suggests, ‘when it comes to interacting with the world of always-on info, the fundamental skill, on which other essential skills depend, is the ability to deal with distraction without filtering out opportunity’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 41).

Guardian-Reading-001According to Rheingold, and supported by Jones & Hafner (2012), attention management is emerging as one of the great driving forces or regulating principles in our thinking about online social life. You need to CONTROL ATTENTION by INTENTION is the suggestion. Having a goal, i.e. something you intend to achieve, can only be reached with an intense focus and by eliminating unwanted distractions. Take for example the recent Guardian article about finding the time to read books. According to the article “a survey last year found that almost 4 million British adults never read books for pleasure,… a lack of time was the dominant factor”

This level of disruption to our attentiveness is wide-ranging and pervasive, and has been a feature of social life for a long time. Few people have the time and available resources to devote to literary attentiveness. People work, have families and social networks. People find pleasure in other pastimes, doing things, going to places. Sitting around and studiously reading is not an easy thing to do, especially when our working environments have been taken over by noise and disruptive technologies that continually create more noise and distraction. Compare different libraries for example. Some you can hear a pin drop, while in others there is a constant hubbub and chatter.

Howard Rheingold therefore suggests that we should aim to create ‘mindfulness’ (‘mindful awareness’), as this can potentially be ‘the most important practice for anyone who is trying to swim through the infostream instead of being swept away by it’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 64) . This is a form of ‘metacognition’ (i.e. ‘thinking about thinking’) in which we apply what you know to control attention. Rheingold goes on to offer some tips for mindfulness meditation and strategic goal-achieving tips.

BREATHING ‘could be a tool to help moderate our unthinking, ultimately unhealthy reactions to many online stimuli’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 45).

MEDITATION: ‘pay attention to your breathing and return your attention to it when you find your mind wandering’ (p.60) and repeat if necessary.

• Don’t just control your attention, manage it.
• Manage your attention with ‘goal-setting rituals’.
• Daily short lists of intentions and related ‘to dos’ for that day.
• Write a goal, set your intention.
• Set the goal, create a ritual of goal-setting.
• Re-groove your attentional habits – short bursts of attention (25 minutes) with 5 minute breaks.

Overall then, thriving online should focus on ‘know-how’ based on an enhanced smartness about our participation in digital media so that we can cope more effectively with the disruptions that we encounter. Therefore it is up to us to manage our attention, and that we shouldn’t contract it out, instead we can the necessary learn attention management techniques that will help us to manage our resilience to these disruptions.

Next on the list of Net Smarts is critical consumption, or the ability to determine the difference between those things that are authentic and inauthentic. According to Rheingold, ‘if the rule of thumb for attention literacy is to pay attention to your intention, then the heuristic for crap detection is to make scepticism your default. Don’t refuse to believe; refuse to start out believing’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 77). As Rheingold goes on, ‘the first thing we all need to know about information online is how to detect crap, by which I mean information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate deception’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 16).

Internet Hoax

Internet Hoax

For example, the Independent reported this week on an Internet hoax suggesting that Nasa had confirmed that “the Earth is headed for ‘Six Days of Total Darkness’”–its-a-hoax-9822744.html

Picture8Now, while this kind of hoax might seem innocuous and enjoyable in its absurdity, other forms of misrepresentation online have wider and more immediate consequences. In 2013, for example, the well publicised libelling of Lord McAlpine created a huge media storm when Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the Commons, and George Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian, were among other people who claimed that McAlpine was the subject of a BBC Newsnight story about child abuse. The unfounded story, and the subsequent Tweeting of messages by Bercow and Monbiot, had associated Lord McAlpines with a set of false claims. Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, Andrew Reid, said the “nasty” tweets would “cost people a lot of money”, warning the guilty parties: “We know who you are.” Adding, “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it.” “It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that” (Swinford and Rayner, 2012).

Ford Ballons

Ford Ballons

We can see a wider emerging trend online about fake and real, or authentic and inauthentic media when we look at ‘Astroturfing’ and ‘Spoofvertising.’ Astroturfing is fake grassroots media that deploys covert strategies to make ‘viral’ commercial or campaign videos that appear to be authentic user-generated content. On the Internet user generated content is given a high degree of trust and credibility as it is considered to be more authentic and therefore more genuine. An example is Ford’s 2007 ‘balloon’ ad campaign, in which various cars are cleared from the streets by attaching balloons to them. Quite literally they just float away and out of mind. Seeing this ad in New Zealand a group of people get together to test if it is possible to do this in real life, and decide to attach helium filled balloons to a car. The accompanying hand-held video has all of the traits of user-generated video. It’s casual and spontaneous; it has shaky camera movements and sudden edits, and it ‘s shot from a single persons perspective.



A number of websites then picked-up on the video and asked if this was real or not? Though I’m not sure that really matters, what is more important is that the YouTube video has been seen by 1,756,471 people. Probably far more than have seen or acknowledged the original advert in the first place.

The art of hoaxing, faking and spoofing demonstrates, therefore, a playfulness in the use and deployment of digital media culture that blurs the forms and experiences of traditional media, and creates instead a form of advertainment. The fact that supposed DIY videos subvert the form of professional adverts is further challenged because this form of subversion itself has become a deliberate attempt to deceive or playful ‘teasing’ of the audience? When we look at the overall content of YouTube we can see that it is a mixture of the corporate and the user-generated, creating an ideal social media space to plant videos that imitate the DIY aesthetic (low resolution, hand-held, webcam, camcorder-produced home videos). As O’Neil points out is this a case of a “great gimmick” or are these astroturf videos a “counterproductive, unethical ‘dirty schemes’” (O’Neill 2010).

A couple of other examples:

Spreadable Media:

Spreadable Media

Spreadable Media

What this leads to, then, is a re-evaluation of the way that media is circulated in a network. Rather than thinking of social media audiences as passive dupes of the centralised and corporate media cultures of the broadcast age, consumers in the social media age play a more active role in “spreading” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013) content rather than being the passive carriers of viral media. What is circulated online amounts to the aggregation of choices that are made by different members of the audience in which we can potentially trace their investments, the actions that determine what gets valued in the new mediascape. This is a different model that we will come back to and explore in more detail. It argues that Content is spread based not on an individual evaluation of worth, but on a perceived social value within community or group, and that we have to look at the social factors that motivate the sharing of information and content with others. The shared values and experiences, the way that users and audiences make sense of things and understand things, how they to establish boundaries, cope with the disruptions and to express their feelings as part of the routines of interaction.

To thrive online, then, according to Rheingold and Chatfield, we need to be aware of our own sense of awareness as we encounter different forms of media and different situation in which we use media. We should be attuned to detecting the ‘crap’ in different instances of media – to the point that they might cost us a lot of money. We should be aware that commercials and marketing strategies are designed to pull us in to the circle of commercial mediation by faking it, but that it is ultimately now up to audiences to decide what they want to spread what they find meaningful.

According to Howard Rheingold, networks have structures that influence the way individuals and groups behave. To thrive within these networks we have to gain a sense of the routines and the boundaries of the interactions within these networks. Understanding what networks are and how they work is essential in being able to be a successful participant in online social networks. As Jones and Hafner suggest, ‘because social media platforms allow individuals to easily create and share content through the internet, they provide us with opportunities to get and give attention’ (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 92). A primary factor in the social media landscape then, is what is called the ‘attention economy’. The extent to which we are able to offer our attentiveness for short or significant periods of our days, and what this experience feels like. Howard Rheingold contrasts the way that emails work and the way that Twitter functions to keep hold of our attention. According to Rheingold, ‘Twitter is a flow, not a queue like your email in-box, to be sampled judiciously’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 145). But that ‘to oversimplify, the successful use of Twitter depends on knowing how to tune the network of people you follow, and how to feed the network of people who follow you’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 144).

Howard Rheingold is an interesting example of a social media user, in the way that he regulates his interactions. For example, he tends to only follow people he knows offline. He interacts with people who he finds interesting in terms of where they live and what they do. Rheingold values people who are knowledgeable about something that interests him, and who provide useful links to issues that he cares about. He follows a few that he considers to be wise or funny, and who put out the right mixture of personal tweets, informational tidbits (such as useful links), self-promotion (about his work as an educator). Rheingold is happy to socializes and answers questions, and is willing to respond to people who send @hrheingold messages as much as he can. And, every once in a while Howard tries to be entertaining.

According to Rheingold, ‘if it isn’t fun, it won’t be useful. If you don’t put out, you don’t get back. But again, you have to spend some time tuning and feeding if Twitter is going to be more than an idle amusement to you and your followers (and idle amusement is a perfectly legit use)’ (Rheingold, 2012, p. 144)

To conclude, there are several points that we can hold on to as we think about our own social media interactions. Firstly, the network is a place – we have to learn what the rules are. Secondly, each form of social media has its own rules and ways of doing things so we have to learn to be ‘in-tune’ with the other people in a network and look for good examples of social media users and model what they do. And remember, if it’s not fun, why are we doing it?

Social Media Principles

Social Media Principles

Finally, Dan Gillmor’s offers a similar set of five ‘Principles of Media Consumption’

• Be Sceptical – start out not believing.
• Exercise Judgment – don’t be cynical, exercise caution.
• Open Your Mind – find things that disagree with your own beliefs.
• Keep Asking Questions – investigative mind-set.
• Learn Media Techniques – learn by doing, participate in social media production to.

A useful way of looking at this process is if we familiarize with the attitudes of cultural producers, and ask how do we know if we are being fooled or not? What are the skills that we need to learn to help us to focus online? If someone wants our attention how do we ration it and change them for it? How do we spread the stuff that we find meaningful and disregard the rest?choices-are-infinite-300x300

Jenkins, H. , et al. (2009) If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead: media Viruses and Memes. Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Weblog [Online] 11th February. Available from [Accessed 08/12/09].
Jones, R. and Hafner, C. (2012) Understanding Digital Literacies: A Practical Introduction. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
O’Neill, M. (2010) 5 Fake Viral Video Campaigns: Great Gimmicks or Bad for Business? [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed 06/02/11].
Rheingold, H. (2012) Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Cambridge Mass. and London: MIT Press.
Swinford, S. and Rayner, G. (2012) Peer to sue tweeters who linked him to sex abuse as BBC pays £185,000 damages [WWW]. Available from: [Accessed 26/11/12].

Chatfield, T. (2012). How to Thrive in the Digital Age. London: Macmillan.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Rheingold, H. (2012). Net Smart – How to Thrive Online. Cambridge, MA: MIT 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

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.

Oct 232013

Since the start of the term I’ve been introducing first year BSc Media Production students to bloging as part of their module TECH1002 Social Media & Technology. The aim is to get each student to share and post content on their own individual DMU Commons blog and then to share posts that are relevant to the Future Media site.

We started off in week one by setting up a basic account on the DMU Commons. First of all we changed things such as how the user names are displayed, what the domain for the site is called, and how to set up categories. This went well, and each of the students is now up and running with their own individual blog that they are free to post to whenever and however they want.

wpid-dscf1262-2013-10-23-11-341.jpgI asked everyone to add a ‘category’ to their blog called Future Media, so that when a post is created, and the learner feels that it is relevant to the work we are doing in the module, they can select that category and it will be pulled into the Future Media site from an RSS feed and shared with all the other learners on the module – and beyond. This means that all the learners on the module are listed as contributors to the Future Media site, which is acting as an online aggregation point, or even magazine, of their posts.

The links to each of the posts points back to the original blog site, so each learner gets the chance to build more followers for their own site, who can read and interact with any other blog posts that the learner is posting. We’ve covered a lot of ground quite quickly since week one. Some learners have integrated their Twitter feeds into the sidebars. Some have started to embed YouTube videos, and everyone is starting to use hyperlinks to connect to other sites, articles and feeds of interest. I’ll be encouraging all the bloggers to experiment with different forms of media. They are all keen on producing video, audio and images, so why not showcase this work in a portfolio of blogs!

wpid-dscf1266-2013-10-23-11-341.jpgThe challenge now is to enhance the Future Media site with a better sense of graphic design, and a gallery of images that can be shared publicly. We also need to develop a moderation policy, so that any issues that might push the boundaries are dealt with sympathetically and appropriately. I’m hoping we can do this by self-management and peer-working, rather than trying to impose a centralised and hierarchical policy on everyone. This is going to be crucial to the ongoing success of the work we are doing, and I’ll be reflecting on it quite regularly.

Underpinning this is a focus on building individual and group capabilities in collaborative and social media. I’m asking learners to think about what capabilities they need to develop as producers of social media content, what kinds of sociability they will need to practice and perform in order to make their posts engaging and attention worthy? In trying to make this as ‘playful’ as possible at this stage, and working in reflection and analysis later, I’m hoping that we can cover the initial ground more quickly, before we really start to reflect on the processes and the affordance of social media production.

I’m very grateful to Andrew Clay for passing on such a well-developed and organised module. The clarity of the rational, the focus on critical and technical practice is clear. The challenge in moving away from a linear mind-set of media production, with a sense of externalised authority, to one that is interactive and sociable can’t be underestimated. This module is proving a great learning experience for myself, never mind the enrolled learners. I’m looking forward to expanding my thoughts on the process and the tools of social collaboration. It’s something I’ve been working on for years in other work I’ve been doing, trying to develop a more collegiate and social form of working. So this module is taking up many of the themes that have been in the back of my mind, from a more practical and experiential perspective. The key difference here is the extent to which this module affords me and my fellow learners with the ability to reflect and analyse this process as we go along.