According to Uwe Flick, “the essential features of qualitative research are the correct choice of appropriate methods and theories; the recognition and analysis of different perspectives; the researchers’ reflections on their research as part of the process of knowledge production; and the variety of approaches” (Flick 2009 p.14). In addition John Creswell notes that “unquestionably, the backbone of qualitative research is extensive collection of data, typically from multiple sources of information” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
In this weeks lecture we spent time thinking about how ethnographic research seeks to build pictures of different social situations and groupings that are holistic in the way that they portray the everyday experiences of the groups and situations we have chosen to study. The emphasis, according to Creswell should be on “portraying the everyday experiences of individuals by observing and interviewing them and relevant others.” And so in doing this, according to Creswell, ethnographic studies should include “in-depth interviewing and continual ongoing participant observation of a situation,” which will attempt to “capture the whole picture” and reveal “how people describe and structure their world” (Creswell 1994 p.163). More broadly, and as noted by Judith Bell, this means that “ethnographic researchers attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell 2005 p.17).
Our focus, then, is on learning about how people interact in both the physical world and also in the virtual world of electronic mediated communications, such as the Internet. According to Christine Hine, “online activities leave a myriad of traces, providing a valuable resource for researchers interested in experiencing emergent social structures and connections” (Hine, 2005, p. 112). As such, these situations and sites of interaction should be thought of as no less ‘real’ than those that we encounter in our physical social settings. They are ‘natural settings’ and we enter in to them in order to examine what they offer as an empirically grounded model from which we can draw insight that is just as useful as those that we might encounter in off-line settings. As Uwe Flick notes, “fields of study are not artificial situations in the laboratory but the practices and interactions of the subjects in everyday life” (Flick 2009 p.15). Therefore, as Flick explains “qualitative research’s central criteria depend on whether findings are grounded in empirical material or whether the methods are appropriately selected and applied, as well as the relevance of findings and the reflexivity of proceedings” (Flick 2009 p.15).
- “Qualitative research occurs in natural settings, where human behaviour and events occur.
- Qualitative research is based on assumptions that are very different from quantitative designs. Theory or hypotheses are not established a priori.
- The researcher is the primary instrument in data collection rather than some inanimate mechanism.
- The data that emerge from a qualitative study are descriptive. That is, data are reported in words [primarily the participants words] or pictures, rather than in numbers.”
Therefore, “a researcher begins a qualitative study with general questions and refines them as they study proceeds. In addition, the process of qualitative research includes a discussion of the context of the subject or case being studied. Nowhere is the context more apparent that in a qualitative case study, where one describes the setting for the case from the more general description to the specific description” (Creswell 1998 p.78).
The focus of qualitative research, therefore, is on participants’ perceptions and experiences, and the way they make sense of their lives. The attempt is to understand not one, but multiple realities. Qualitative research focuses on the process that is occurring as well as the product or outcome, and as such researchers are particularly interested in understanding how things occur. As Gale Miller argues “a major task of qualitative research… involves observing and specifying the unique and shared features of these socially organised settings, as well as analysing the implications of institutional structures and processes for people’s lives and/or social issues” (Gale Miller in Miller and Dingwall 1997 p.4).
“In a qualitative study,” according to Creswell, “one does not begin with a theory to test or verify. Instead, consistent with the inductive model of thinking, a theory may emerge during the data collection and analysis phase of the research or be used relatively late in the research process as a basis for comparison with other theories” (Creswell 1994 p.95). Idiographic interpretation is therefore utilised as a way of paying attention to the particulars of the social situations, the relationships and the symbolic interactions, with any data that is collected being interpreted in regards to the particulars of a case rather than any wider generalisations. Ethnographic research is not about mapping ‘historical’ or ‘ideological’ flows, but is instead a pragmatic and emergent design process that seeks contingently agreed outcomes. Meanings and interpretations are negotiated within the frameworks of human data sources because it’s the subjects’ realities that the researcher attempts to reconstruct.
The research tradition, of pragmatic, qualitative, social construction, therefore relies on the utilisation of tacit knowledge (intuitive and felt knowledge) because otherwise the nuances of the multiple realities cannot be appreciated. Data that is often thought to be un-quantifiable in the traditional sense of the word becomes accessible and describable. As Creswell notes, “objectivity and truthfulness are critical to both research traditions. However, the criteria for judging a qualitative study differ from quantitative research. First and foremost, the researcher seeks believability based on coherence, insight and instrumental utility and trustworthiness through a process of verification rather than through traditional validity and reliability measures” (Creswell 1994 p.163).
As Flick points out, “the first premise” therefore “is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them… The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” Blumer, 1967 quoted in (Flick 2009 p.58). And while “most field researchers use such data as questionnaires, interviews, observations and diaries” to “attempt ‘to get inside the black box’ of social institutions” this should be thought of, as David Silverman argues, an attempt to “gain access to their interior processes and practices” of the research subject, the agent acting in the social setting being described (David Silverman in Miller and Dingwall 1997 p.15).
Ethnographic field work therefore priorities attempts to gather notes by conducting observations as a participant. According to Flick the researcher should be attentive to the meanings, practices, episodes, encounters, roles, relationships, groups, organisations and lifestyles that are encountered (Flick 2009 p.102). And as Creswell points out, “given these phases in the design, one uses, either explicitly or implicitly, a set of philosophical assumption [to] guide the study. These assumptions speak to our understanding of knowledge: Knowledge is within the meanings people make of it; knowledge is gained through people talking about their meanings; knowledge is laced with personal biases and values; knowledge is written in a personal, up-close way; and knowledge evolves, emerges, and is inextricably tied to the context in which it is studied” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
“In a qualitative study,” therefore, “the investigator admits the value-laden nature of the study and actively reports his or her values and biases as well as the value-laden nature of information gathered from the field” (Creswell 1998 p.76). As such, according to Martyn Denscombe, “participant observation enables researchers, as far as is possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they act in the way they do and ‘to see things as those involved see things’ (Denscombe 1998: 69)” (Bell 2005 p.17). In this particular form of ethnographic study, often referred to as social constructionism, “experiences are structured and understood through concepts and contexts, which are constructed by this subject. Whether the picture that is formed in this way is true or correct cannot be determined. But its quality may be assessed through its viability; that is, the extent to which the picture or model permits the subject to find its way and to act in the world” (Flick 2009 p.71). “In ethnographic research,” therefore, “prolonged time in the field for the investigator minimises the distance as the investigator’s observational role shifts from that of an ‘outsider’ to that of an ‘insider’ during his or her stay in the field” (Creswell 1998 p.76).
The reason that ethnographers undertake interviews in an unstructured and open-ended way is because, as Uwe Flick notes, “knowledge is constructed in processes of social interchange; it is based on the role of language in such relationships; and, above all, it has social functions. The eventualities of the social process involved have an influence on what will survive as a valid or useful explanation” (Flick 2009 p.71). It is necessary, therefore, for the researcher to be attentive to the way that these social interchanges progress and develop, letting the interviewee feel free to follow the thought processes that best articulate the reality they are trying to understand. As Creswell argues, “for the qualitative researcher, the only reality is that constructed by the individuals involved in the research situation” (Creswell 1994 p.4) and therefore, “the qualitative researcher needs to report faithfully these realities and to rely on voices and interpretations of informants” (Creswell 1994 p.6).
Creswell outlines a set of protocols that are pertinent to undertaking interviews. According to Creswell, “this protocol would include the following components: (a) a heading, (b) instructions to the interviewer (opening statements), (c) the key research questions to be asked, (d) probes to follow key questions, (e) transition messages for the interviewer, (f) space for recording the interviewer’s comments, and (g) space in which the researcher records reflective notes” (Creswell 1994 p.152). According to Creswell “we ask open-ended research questions, wanting to listen to the participants we are studying and shaping the questions after we ‘explore’, and we refrain from assuming the role of the expert researcher with the ‘best’ questions. Our questions change during the process of research to reflect an in-creased understanding of the problem” (Creswell 1998 p.19).
On an individual basis, therefore, the research interview is a valuable tool, but when we are working with groups of people we need to find additional techniques that will allow us to facilitate discussion and interchange between a wider number of people simultaneously. Robert Kozinets suggests using focus groups, because “in a netnography, focus groups of existing community participants might be valuable for two main reasons. First, online community and culture members can be group interviewed – just as individuals can be interviewed singly. They can be used to learn about norms, conventions, histories, and roles of online community members as they interact online”(Kozinets 2010).
Kozinets also points out that when we are conducting an interview through our computer, it will be essential to keep in mind that these “communications are going to be shaped by the medium you use.” According to Kozinets, “studies seeking to understand the subjective impact of Internet connectivity can also collect documents from research participants.” And therefore help us to ground the study in empirical assessments. Kozinets suggests that “these documents often take the form of diaries or journals in which participants record day-to-day or even hour-by-hour events, reflections, or impressions of experiences”(Kozinets 2010).
At the heart of the principle of ethnographic study is the process by which the researcher understands and accounts of their role in the research process. As Flick points out, “the subjectivity of the researcher and of those being studied becomes part of the research process. Researcher’s reflections on their actions and observations in the field, their impressions, irritations, feelings, and so on, become data in their own right, forming part of the interpretation, and are documented in research diaries or context protocols” (Flick 2009 p.16). As Flick continues, “qualitative research therefore becomes – or is linked still more strongly with – a specific attitude based on the researcher’s openness and reflexivity” (Flick 2009 p.20).
So it is common practice to ask the informant keep a journal during the research study. According to Kozinets a “‘pure’ ethnography would be conducted using data generated via face-to-face interactions and their transcription in field notes, with no data from online interactions.” However, as Kozinets continues, a “‘blended’ ethnography/netnography would be a combination of approaches, including data gathered in face-to-face as well as online interaction. Blended ethnographies/netnographies could take many forms, using many particular methods and favour different rations of online to face-to-face interaction, data, and analysis”(Kozinets 2010). In this mixed-mode of study “cultural participants expound and explore, “ according to Kozinets. “They share their personal histories, spread rumours, and relate anecdotes. Collecting and decoding these free-form, free-wheeling conversations is a way of using archival data sources for netnography.” Though, as Kozinets adds, the “online interview is a more proactive venture” (Kozinets 2010).
Therefore, “in this combined process of acculturation and data collection, the keeping of fieldnotes can serve the critical function of recording and reflecting the all-important changes that occur outside the realm of the online text” (Kozinets 2010). According to Kozinets “in reflective fieldnotes, netnographers record their own observations regarding subtexts, pretexts, contingencies, conditions and personal emotions occurring during their time online, and relating to their online experiences. Through these written reflections, the netnographer records her journey from outsider to insider, her learning of languages, rituals, and practices, as well as her involvement in a social web of meanings and personalities. These fieldnotes often provide key insights into what the online culture is and what it does”(Kozinets 2010).
So, as Creswell states “writers agree that one undertakes qualitative research in a natural setting where the researcher is an instrument of data collection who gathers word or pictures, analyses them inductively, focuses on the meaning of participants, and describes a process that is expressive and persuasive in language” (Creswell 1998 p.14). Creswell lists the elements of additional media that can be collected by the informant and viewed by the researcher, that aid and promote the process of sense-making. Creswell suggests that we:
- Collect personal letters from informants.
- Analyse public documents (e.g. official memos, minutes, archival material).
- Examine autobiographies and biographies.
- Examine physical trace evidence (e.g., footprints in the snow).
- Videotape a social situation or and individual/group.
- Have informants take photographs or videotapes.
- Collect sounds (e.g., musical sounds, a child’s laughter, car horns honking).” (Creswell 1994 p.149)
In addition, and as Mackay suggests, “using the Internet is a process of writing and reading texts and the task of the ethnographer is to understand these principles. Understanding the meaning of texts, however, is far from straightforward. It is difficult to isolate, in any simple sense, a single text for analysis, because of the inter-discursive nature of textual meaning. Every media text is mediated by others, so no text is bounded. The text does not occupy a fixed position, but is always mobilised, placed or articulated with other texts in different ways” (Mackay, 2005, p. 131).
This point fits well with how Flick sees the ethnographic research process when he suggests that “reading and understanding texts become active processes of producing reality, which involve not only the author of (in our case social science) texts, but also those for whom they are written and who read them.” When this is “transferred to qualitative research,” according to Flick, “this means that in the production of texts (on a certain subject, an interaction, or an event) the person who reads and interprets the written text is involved in the construction of reality as the person who writes the text”(Flick 2009 p.79). “Online interaction,” therefore, “forces the learning of additional codes and norms, abbreviations, emoticons, sets of keystrokes and other technical skills in order to transfer the emotional information vital to social relations”(Kozinets 2010). And “whether we are talking about a blog’s audience, a social network, or a computer constructed ‘race’ in a virtual world, the participants in these groups often self-segment by arranging themselves into online groupings sorted by interests, tastes, or pre-existing communities”(Kozinets 2010). Though according to Shani Orgad “to maintain the interaction with informants and encourage them to collaborate and share their experience” with the researcher, therefore, it is “necessary to build a certain degree of trust,” is the “real challenge in building rapport online” (Orgad, 2005, p. 55).
We can now, therefore, start to think about the design of the research questions that we are going to use to guide us through this investigative process. At this stage it is not possible or desirable to tie-down the research question to a specific form, as would be done in a hypothesis-testing model. Instead, we will use a set of broad outline questions to guide the process of engagement, participation and observation to collect data in the social situations we are choosing to encounter and engage with. Therefore the following questions are relevant:
- What is the typical unit of analysis used in the design? [Interview, Survey, Journal, participant observation, document tracking, etc. Or, does this mean what is the theoretical model that is used – i.e. interpretive, grounded, conversation, discourse analysis?]
- Are there any alternative types of problems often studied by using the design? [Survey journals focussing on cultural practice, e-learning and social media, include Digital Ethnography]
- What are the various data collection processes? [Outline data collection mechanism, the relationship between online material and reported material, how they correspond or interact between informants and change over time. How will I physically record data and track this information? Will I use video recordings, audio recordings, field notes, etc.?]
- What are the various data analysis processes? [Outline modelling process, how different elements interact or correspond, and how they change over time. Will this include any specific models worked out via other studies, for example, organisation management, behavioural studies, conversational analysis?]
- What are the typical formats for reporting the information? [Tabulated, narrative, relationship mapping, etc?]
- Are there any other special characteristics of the design? [Does digital ethnography pose any specific problems? What are the contingencies between what people say and what they are observed to do? Are the observations of the researcher verifiable?]
To conclude, and as John Creswell notes, the ethnographic research process suggests the following data collection steps: “(a) setting the boundaries for the study, (b) collecting information through observations, interviews, documents and visual materials, and (c) establishing the protocol for recording information” (Creswell 1994 p.148). As Kozinets notes, “It can be useful to start with one set of research questions that evolve during the process of the investigation,” because, “by the time the final research project is complete, that original set of research questions may be changed quite dramatically, with new ones emerging in the process of investigation and analysis”(Kozinets 2010). We can be certain however, that as Kozinets suggests, “online communities are widespread phenomena, and their norms and rituals are shaped by the practices of cyberculture and those of the general cultural groups using them”(Kozinets 2010). How we attend to the symbolic interactions in these communities and cultures is as valid as it would be in the physical realm.
Therefore, this study will:
- 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 researcher.
- Use case studies to contrast contextual environments.
Themes will include:
- 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
- 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 can the discourse of food and nutritional literacy be tested and validated, both in principle and in experience in [online] communities?
- In other words, 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?
Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research Design: Qualitative and Quantative Approaches. London, Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design – Choosing Among Five Traditions. London, Sage.
Flick, U. (2009). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. London, Sage.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London, Sage.
Miller, G. and R. Dingwall, Eds. (1997). Context & Method in Qualitative Research. London, Sage.