Crisis? What crisis?

“Ethnographic travels” by IaninSheffield is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

As I prepare for my supervisory meeting this week, I’m reminded of the previous meeting when I offered  this rendering (It’s a much smaller version of the full one and I’m far from happy with the way it displays what I want, but … well, compromise!). It’s an attempt to show some of the activity I’ve been engaged in as a participant observer, but also a little more than that. It serves several functions, providing:

  • a visual record of what came to my attention and whether I chose to interact;
  • direct hyperlinks back to the tweets, sites, posts or comments i.e. the original data which attracted my gaze;
  • a precis of the information/data behind that data point;
  • my observational comments – why it attracted my attention, what I thought and what I did; and
  • a kickstart of the process of analysis.

This sits alongside a slightly more conventional set of field notes, although much more brief than the notes which might usually accompany field work. I didn’t see them as needing to capture all the rich detail of the people in view – what they were doing and trying to achieve, what and how they communicated and so on. My notes certainly bear little resemblance to those of traditional ethnography, but then this isn’t a traditional ethnography.Read More »

I have a confession …

“Autumn Stream” flickr photo by Angus Thermopylae shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

A retweet dropped into my twitterstream the other day which immediately attracted my attention, headed as it was ‘Top 5 reasons to use Twitter.’ What were these reasons I of course wondered and what might they add to what I’ve already learned during my study? Now normally, at this point I’d embed the tweet for you to view before discussing how it had moved my learning forward, but not this time. Let me explain why.Read More »

Sentiment … ality?

During my pilot studies, a couple of findings suggested areas for further exploration I’d not previously considered. One of these was the degree to which people talking or writing about Twitter seemed to be ‘affected.’ Although it was not a topic I had gone looking for, nor had asked questions about, and although people rarely mentioned it explicitly, the language and terms they used implied some element of emotional response. Before I could take this much further, I needed to return to the literature and see how people have discussed and/or researched the affective side of teacher learning.

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To do is to be?

flickr photo by benwerd shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Next Saturday is the 2016 Sheffield Institute of Education Doctoral Conference; I’m both co-organiser and  presenting a seminar. With my pilot study completed, and following a successful Confirmation of PhD seminar, I had a lot of potential topics from which to choose. In a weaker moment, I thought I’d talk about my preliminary findings, as revealed by the sociomaterial sensibility that Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is enabling me to bring. The tricky part is that I’ve been wrestling with conceptual approach all year. I guess that’s why I chose to use it to frame my talk; at some point I have to lay out my understanding to scrutiny so that any weaknesses are exposed and I can begin to do something about them. Unfortunately I only have 30 minutes in which to discuss my findings, AFTER having introduced a perhaps unfamiliar audience to ANT, using my only limited (current) understanding. Here then, with only the space afforded by a brief blog post, I’ll attempt to summarise what I intend to cover.

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On the case

flickr photo by Helene Valvatne Andas shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m currently working on a longer document (which may need a couple of posts) which will outline my analysis strategy. As I read through Miles, Huberman and Saldaña (2014) to explore background material and underpinning concepts, the notion of the ‘case’ came up and it struck me that I’ve not yet articulated clearly what for me will constitute a case. Perhaps this is an extension of the omission I discussed in a previous post where I’ve also failed to mention what I’m conducting an ethnography of? Time to attempt put things right.Read More »

Sometimes it’s the simplest questions …

flickr photo by caseorganic shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

In the Q&A following my Confirmation seminar one question floored me, perhaps because of its simplicity.

‘What is your ethnography an ethnography of?’

The answer to me was obvious, but because it was being asked by someone much more experienced and acknowledged than I, I assumed there must be more to the answer than the obvious. But perhaps it was more a case that I hadn’t actually stated that anywhere in my presentation and it simply needed laying out. So here’s my attempt to set that record straight.Read More »

SM&Society Day 2: Academia

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

In the post break session,  four papers, each a work-in-progress, on the broad topic of social media in academia were given. I couldn’t help but notice two things: how they all drew from higher education contexts (perhaps that’s simply what ‘academia’ is) and how they were oriented towards the activities which lead to the production of data.

The first looked at the individual and collective factors contributing to use of social media by/in research teams. The second considered how imagined audience influenced social media participation. Next we heard how iSchool faculty members are connected by and participate in social media. Finally Sian Joel-Edgar explained the part played by social media in engineering student design teams.

Each seemed to be concerned, to different degrees, with what data were being produced. Additionally, how the data were produced, what the reasons for that were and in some cases, what outcomes there might be for the producers. All valuable information, but I was left wondering why the subjects (apologies for that term) might engage in the activity they do, and what the effects or impact might be on the recipients or audiences of their activity. Reflecting in this way helped me recognise and acknowledge my research philosophy which leans far more towards the interpretivist paradigm and exploring why a phenomenon is as it is, rather than what is occurring or how.

I know that conference attendees are largely from higher education contexts, but again I wonder where the studies are which, whilst still from educational contexts, focus their attention on different phases. The work is out there, but clearly not coming to the conference. Given what I said earlier, I’m pondering why that is? Are the topics presented in the conference from a higher educational context because that’s where conference audiences are from, or simply that’s where the researchers are? What (or where) are the audiences for research arising in different contexts? Now it’s occurred to me, I’ll be wanting to see whether that continues throughout the remainder of the conference.

SM&Society Day 2: Challenging Social Media Analytics

flickr photo by Steve Burt shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Susan Halford provided the opening keynote and reminded us that ‘data never sleeps’ and is being generated at ever increasing scales in real time and over time. Whilst this may constitute an ‘unexpected gift’, it’s meant we’re also ‘building the boats as we row’ in terms of the way we’re gathering and analysing those data.

Susan challenged us to consider three questions:

  1. What are social media data?
  2. Where are the data produced?
  3. Why does this matter?

There is genuine concern that much of the current evangelism around Big data may have done more harm than good, leading to inflated expectations about what is possible and what we can learn. If we’re not careful, our reliance on the platforms through which we access the data may unduly influence what we find, in a host of different ways, and in ways which vary over time. Demographic and geographic data especially need treating with caution, or at least with care and in full knowledge of their limitations. Perhaps we should go beyond demographics and make a virtue of the biases, limitations and specificities inherent in the data.

I hope in a sense that is what my research is doing, where I’m focusing on a particular,  self-selecting sample, engaged in a specific activity. For me, the demographics are in some senses pre-defined – teachers who using Twitter. What their gender, religion or ethnicity is, will be of no consequence since I’ll not be classifying my results using those criteria. Or at least I never intended to, until I though about location. I’ve assumed my participants will be teachers drawn from a global population, though due to my linguistic limitations, from the english-speaking world. The keynote has encouraged me to revisit my thinking; in different places (with different cultures?), might teachers have a different view of, and approach to, professional learning using Twitter?

Susan asked Les Carr, her colleague from Southampton, to join her on stage. Amongst other things, Les pointed out that vivas inevitably ask us to justify our methods and the data they generate, and how they are appropriate for the research questions we pose. I was grateful for that reminder as I begin to think about my RF2 submission. Duly noted!

SM&Society Day 1: Small data and big data controversies

This workshop session  had us split into groups to each consider one of the six ‘V’s of big data: variety, value, volume, velocity, veracity and variability. The three hours were split in two, each part session opened by a number of speakers presenting the findings of the papers they had contributed to the forthcoming Sage Handbook of of Social media Research Methods. We were asked to consider our ‘V’ (we had Variety) in the  context of any tension between Big and small data, if indeed there was any. Our table, as it transpired, consisted of social scientists rather than computational scientists, so unsurprisingly tended to focus on the positive aspects of small data.

I found the opening presentation by Claudine Bonneau and Mélanie Millette on their ‘small’ data projects spoke to my research – very much a hands-on,  immersive, participatory approach, where tweets were collected and analysed manually. The approach within the long-term observation was described as ‘agile’, following the conversations from place to place. There’s a resonance for me in the way teachers shift between Twitter, #chats on Twitter and blogs when discussing their practice. I yet to grasp how or if I can or should incorporate the offline places where these discussions occur. There are clear sites of interest where teachers gather to discuss and share practice (TeachMeets etc); my problem however, will be whether I have the scope to chase them down.

I found the topic of ‘Working out Loud’ practice on Twitter had a close fit with my own research, although I was surprised that other professions also engaged in this practice (how insular am I?!). However, the most compelling aspect was how we ‘thicken’ small data, perhaps reducing its breadth whilst enhancing its depth.

‘Doing Ethnography’ course

flickr photo by Alan Feebery shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

On Thursday and Friday last week, I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in a ‘ Doing Ethnography’ course at the University of Nottingham. This was a course in ‘Advanced’ ethnography funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Training Centre and drew participants from around the country. Given the specialisms of the course leaders, it was no surprise that the majority of my fellow learners came from health care sectors, which of course provided a very different slant to that with which I’ve become accustomed.

In aiming to ‘give students knowledge of the practical and theoretical underpinnings of the ethnographic method,‘ over the two days: we had an introduction to the ‘history’ of ethnography; were presented with a case study of a contemporary ethnography; discussed key issues in ethnography; explored the issues of ethics approval; analysed some ethnographic data; and began planning our own ethnographies. When I applied for the course way back in the Autumn, I was worried it might be too advanced, pitched as it was for those ‘who already have some understanding of the theoretical and conceptual issues which underpin qualitative research.’ I was hoping my Masters study was enough to provide me with that, and indeed that proved to be the case. In fact, the MRes modules I’ve been doing recently perhaps have taken me that bit further, so much so, that some of the aspects of the course were already familiar to me. It was nevertheless helpful to have some of the knowledge I’ve been developing reaffirmed and supplemented with different perspectives. The unique insights and experiences that experienced academic researchers can share is of such value in helping you to reflect on your own research.

What I brought home

  • The sense that I was on the right tracks in choosing an ethnographic approach for my own study. An exploratory technique which is open to possibilities, flexible, adaptable and responsive seems to be an appropriate and defensible choice in my circumstances.
  • That I’ve not fully acknowledged my own positionality yet, and given how that will undoubtedly impact my study, it’s crucial to have ‘formally’ done so. I feel another post is in the offing.
  • During the session exploring ‘Why ethnography,’ one of the justifications was that it allows you to see practice enacted, in addition to self-reporting during interviews for example – comparing what people say with what they do. This challenged me to think about the balance in my study between elicited and ‘found’ data.
  • The importance of being able to summarise your work for different audiences, whether for your friends in the pub, or an audience of specialist academics.
  • The simple tip of listening to your audio data whilst out running to become more familiar with it and perhaps gain fresh insights.
  • How powerful it can be to summarise your analysis and interpretation using a matrix of vertical arguments (thesis chapters?) and horizontal themes which cut across them (Moffatt, 2014: 291). Satisfactorily completing said matrix can be a helpful indicator that your analysis and interpretation are complete and robust. The matrix can also provide a succinct summary from which to defend your thesis in a viva.

The final session of the course asked us to begin to plan our ethnography, then present it back to the group. Eight months into my study, I’m already along that path, but what the session did was allow me the chance to incorporate the new thinking I’ve gained during this course. Having recently been informed of the date of my ‘Confirmation of PhD’ assessments, it was a timely opportunity to reflect on where I am and what my current thinking is. I know I need to: revisit my research questions; consider what I’ve learned recently about discourse analysis and whether that has a place in my research; think about my data and its analysis at micro, meso and macro levels; give much more serious thought to the method of audio-recording reports of activity with Twitter.


The success and usefulness of the course were in no small part due to the warmth, openness, sensitivity and responsiveness of the facilitators, Stephen Timmons and Fiona Moffatt. They had crafted a coherent course, successfully balancing information delivery, discussion and practical experiences, through ‘teacher’-led, individual and group sessions. Personally I would have appreciated a little more time spent on the analysis of data, and especially on the ways to write up an ethnography, two areas I’m still wrestling with, but they were issues specific to me. I also think the timing of the course didn’t quite work for me; a little too late in the year. It would have been ideal to have done this course prior to the MRes modules and would have set them up wonderfully. But we can’t have everything. Would I do it again or recommend it to someone else? Absolutely.


Moffatt, Fiona. Working the production line: productivity and professional identity in the emergency department. Thesis. University of Nottingham, 2014.