This week’s discussion for Advanced Social Media Production looks at how we can take forward the idea of investigating the social processes associated with the uses of social media. This means thinking about the methods and the principles that we might use to investigate in this field consistently, in a way that other people can share the data and make sense of the ideas that emerge from it.
Sociological Objectives: What Can a Sociological Outlook Achieve?
Our starting point recognises that “cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, [that] shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1). The role of the social researcher, therefore, is to “develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005 p.17).
For the research element of the project in this module we will be adopting the techniques and the approaches associated with ethnography. As Hines points out, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8). And in doing this the “goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).
Structure or Structures of Feeling?
When we look at society and start to attempt to build wider pictures about the events and routines that are happening in it, then we have to think about ways to deploy a sociological perspective that recognises the set of generic social processes that give form to our social relationships. C. Wright Mills famously called this the Sociological Imagination. A way of thinking about the processes within society and between social actors that “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (Mills, 1959, p. 5). As Mills points out: “Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science” (Mills, 1959, p. 8).
Hypothesising or Describing?
It’s essential to note that “Ethnographic research is fundamentally distinct from experimentations; the goal is not to determine how controlled variables account for difference, but to trace and interpret the complex currents of everyday life that comprise our collective lived experience as human beings” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).
And that sociology, instead, has an intense focus on the things that people do, as opposed to theoretical objectification. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest: “from this point of view we can say that sociology is distinguished through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: mutual dependency (dependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, do or may do). Sociologists ask what consequences this has for human actors, the relations into which we enter and the societies of which we are a part” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
Therefore, ad as Mills argues, “there is no ‘grand theory’, no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order taken uberhaupt [in the first place]“ (Mills, 1959, p. 46). What we have to focus on instead is the small interactions between agents working in a field of operations. It is the aggregation of the many operations and interactions that form the social. As Bauman and May argue: “Thinking sociologically is a way of understanding the human world that also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
The focus for our studies within this module, therefore, can be expressed in diagram form in which the interactions between different subjects are what give shape to the cultural frameworks. As Uwe Flick points out, the linear model of research looks for data in a sequential process, but the ethnographic process looks, instead, for data in a comparative process that is built-up over many repeated cycles of interaction.
Being in the Field – Observations of Lifeworlds:
“Usually ethnography is concerned with all aspects of social life, or all facets of a social setting. Broadly, the idea is for the researcher to be immersed in the setting, to generate an understanding of the context in which interaction is rooted” (MacKay in Hine, 2005, p. 134). Therefore, “when we set out to research social interactions we cannot specify in advance just what form those interactions will take, nor how we will be able to participate in or observe them” (p. 2).
Participant observation is the research process that “enables researchers, as far as is possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they act in the way they do and ‘to see things as those involved see things’ (Denscombe 1998: 69, Quotes in Hine, 2005 p.17). As Judith Bell suggests, “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Bell, 2005, p. 96).
According to Bauman and May, “sociology is an extended commentary on the experiences that arise in social relations and is an interpretation of those experiences in relation to others and the social conditions in which people find themselves” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 180). “Because ethnographers can anticipate large amounts of data, categories for interpretation emerge from the ground up, and research questions and foci shift during fieldwork. It is thus best to categorise and continually sort and re-sort the data as these are collected” [#ref?]. Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref?].
For examples, it is “valuable to record observational fieldnotes written in the margins of downloaded data, elaborating upon subtleties noticed at the time but which are not captured in the text or data itself. These fieldnotes offer details about the social and interactional processes that make up the members of online cultures and communities’ everyday lives and activities. It is best to capture them contemporaneously with interactive online social experiences is important because these processes of learning, socialisation, and acculturation are subtle and our recollection of them becomes rapidly diluted over time” [ref?].
In addition to noting the actions and events that take place in a field of study, the researcher also has to work out what impact and what difference their own interactions in the data collection process make. This process of reflection, as John Dewey argues “involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence – a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors” (Dewey 1910 p.2). As Dewey explains “reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance” (Dewey 1910 p.13).
For the researcher, therefore, reflexivity can be understood and the “extent to which the netnographic text acknowledges the role of the researcher and is open to alternative interpretations” [#ref?].
From which a number of important questions arise:
- What is the role of the researcher in this process?
- What kind if assumptions do we make and what kind of bias do we retain?
- How can we incorporate our own experience within the research process?
Empathising, Being and Participating with Others:
What, then, is the primary role of social research? According to Bauman and May both the researcher and the subject of the researcher’s attention are “both enabled and constrained in the everyday practices of freedom.” As Bauman and May point out, “at one level we are taught that there are types of desires that are acceptable and achievable within the group. Appropriate ways to act, talk, dress, conduct ourselves generally provide for the orientation that is needed to get us through life within the groups to which we belong. We then judge ourselves according to these expectations and our self-esteem is given accordingly” (Bauman and May 2001, p. 20).
Robert Prus outlines the associated process of interaction as Generic Social Processes. According to Prus: “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of:
(1) acquiring perspectives;
(2) achieving identity;
(3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments);
(4) developing relationships;
(5) experiencing emotionality; and
(6) achieving communicative fluency.”
According to Prus, “we may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).
As Bauman and May explain, “this overview of generic social processes is organised around three very broad concepts:
(a) participating in situations,
(b) engaging subcultural life-worlds, and
(c) forming and coordinating associations.
These three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).
“The interactionist, generally, [then] concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).
Accordingly “The very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer.” [#ref?]
The task before us, as Robert Prus argues, therefore, involves
- “attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish and
- establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.”
Importantly, as Prus points out that, even on the most basic level, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136). And that “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).
John Cresswell lists the main attributes of this process:
- “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
- Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
- The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
- Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
- Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
- The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).
In summary then “the idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward:
- Consider the online environment a social world.
- Assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.
- Treat online data as a social act.
- Seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.
- When appropriate, broaden the particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all” [#ref].
And that we should consider how as “individual actors” we “come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence.” And that regardless of what we do, we should acknowledge that we are “dependent on others.” According to Bauman and May the “central questions of sociology… are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
For Bauman and May, “the social scientist who spends his intellectual force on the details of small-scale milieux is not putting his work outside the political conflicts and forces of his time. He is, at least indirectly and in effect, ‘accepting’ the framework of his society. But no one who accepts the full intellectual tasks of social science can merely assume that structure. In fact, it is his job to make that structure explicit and to study it as a whole” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 78).
Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref].
To summarise, “In our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’, how do the practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001). That will be the question for later sessions, but for now we can be satisfied that our starting point has been established.
- Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
- Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
- Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnogrphic Research Online. London: Sage.
- Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Prus, R. (1999). Beyond the Power Mystique. New York: State University of New York Press.