On the case

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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 …

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Reflections

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.

Why We Post – Week 3

The Impact of social media on politics and gender

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This week’s field sites were a city in southeast Turkey and five villages in south India associated with a high-tech development centred. The findings from the study which we discussed over the course of the week included:

  • Public spaces on social media tend to conform more to the locally dominant social norms; and more private spaces on social media tend to include more alternative expression of gender and politics.
  • Social media is a technology that allows things to happen easily and this leads to it being a double-edged sword.
  • Scalable sociality as a means to increase the distance between the private and the public.

The two themes discussed in this week’s exercises are more sensitive issues, which presented me with an additional issue to consider. I’ve always been incredibly careful about what I post online, whether through social media or not, so I try to steer clear of topics which might result in someone developing a view of me I would not prefer. If for example I expressed particular views on ‘Brexit,’ immigration or the Health Service, then I would be concerned that someone would be uncomfortable with the views I espoused. Strangely, I’m far less worried about doing that offline, where I have the freedom to explain at greater length, to have the luxury of being able to gauge the mood and where I can quickly deal with any misunderstandings.

It is perhaps not surprising to find that readily sharing political views varies across cultures around the world. In some areas, expressing a particular view can attract unwelcome attention from the state or in some cases, more local sources of authority. The freedom to express our views is largely taken for granted here in the UK, but are not universally enjoyed. For some, social media have been liberating, providing a communication channel they never had previously. Others worry about the public exposure their views would receive, compared with airing them within the family home or local coffee shop. Scalable sociality once more comes into play, since thoughtful and considered use of social media enables the selection of different audiences, with different levels of public-private exposure. Interestingly, in the discussions, several people remarked how rapidly one’s views can be distributed. There are advantages and disadvantages here, but it’s worth considering whether rate of distribution might be another dimension within scalable sociality. To what extent is the speed with which your views spread under your control?

Reflections

The discussion posts related to politics entangled within social media taught me more about life in other countries than I could ever have expected. I never realised the situation in Brazil was so tense and so polarised. In fact it was only when I caught a world news slot on the mainstream media quite late in the week that I became aware of the political turmoil there. It was interesting to balance that overview from the perspective of British media with the ‘inside’ view of Brazilians posted in the discussions.

I was intrigued by how some fellow course members responded to the views of one of the Indian field site interviewees. He had intimated that some of his friends didn’t know how to use Facebook. My peers remarked how strange it was to think there might be a right or wrong way, which prompted me to think whether there a different way of thinking about this might be as multiple Facebooks. I discussed this at (much!) greater length here.

In a previous post I mentioned a fellow course member with particularly entrenched views. Although I had originally not intended to engage him, eventually I gave way … and was glad to have done so. I found that seeking to pose an alternative view, in the most respectful way possible, required me to revisit my own knowledge and positionality. Similarly, when I came across another post critical of the research methodology in the study, I found that before responding, I needed to review and refresh what I know about ethnography and to seek out further information. I didn’t just blindly respond with my opinion. This supplementary activity actually resulted in me unearthing new insights for which I was grateful.

With the halfway point of the course now passed, I’m starting to notice the same ‘regulars’ posting comments. I don’t often see new people, so I assume those who were going to stick around have stuck around. I wonder too whether people largely have a pattern to their studies? Some might have blitzed through all the materials at the start. Others might be working at the weekly pace, but within that may have their own patterns; working at the weekends for example. If you do develop a routine though, that means that you’re more likely to encounter others who have adopted a similar routine. Does this mean you’re restricting the number of people with whom you can interact? I guess it depends on the extent to which you can scroll through all the comments made in a particular exercise, and whether those people who did the work a while ago are still around to answer any questions you posed to them?

Why We Post – Facebooks?

An actor-network theory interpretation of Week 3’s activities on the FutureLearn ‘Why We Post’ course, prompted by a few brief comments from research participants in an all too short video.

Introduction

Week 3 opened as preceding weeks have done by introducing new field sites; this week was the turn of Turkey and South India:


Here we hear the views of a small sample of the people who live there, edited together to illustrate some of the findings from the study. On this occasion, one of the major platforms is allowed to take centre stage as the participants briefly describe how they used social media. In the accompanying course discussion, several fellow members remarked how dismissive some of those appearing in the video had been of how other people used Facebook – ‘they don’t get it’ remarked a young Indian man. My peers observed how strange it was that someone might think there was a right or wrong way to use social media. Perhaps this reflects their wider experience, being aware that different people use it in different ways.

As the course has unfolded, it’s become increasingly clear how risky it is to draw from one’s own cultural hinterland when interpreting the actions or views of people from other cultures. Although there appears to be some common uses of social media across cultures, we also see heterogeneity too. Rather than imagine this Indian man having a naive(?) view of social media, I wondered whether his notion that there is a specific way in which Facebook is used might be right? Or rather, that there might actually be different Facebooks, each individual user’s practice bringing their own Facebook into being? An example of the multiple realities I discussed previously?

Here then I’ll attempt to interpret three examples from the videos, illustrating three different Facebooks – the Three C’s (because all models these days have to start with the same letter don’t they?). To do that, I’m going to explore different Facebooks, by adopting an after-actor-network theory (ANT) sensibility, tracing associations and revealing the sociomaterial. Providing a detailed description of ANT is beyond the scope of this article (and possibly beyond me!), however, the aspects on which I’ll draw here include generalized symmetry (the idea that human and non-human actors should be afforded equal status), associations (the means by which actors become entangled and continue as such), and mediators and intermediaries (the former being actors which ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they carry’ and the latter which ‘transport meaning without transforming it’ (Latour, 2005)). I’m grateful to Leonardi et al (2012) for helping me begin to understand sociomateriality by first breaking it into materiality (‘those constituent features of a technology that are (in theory) available to all users in the same way’), then reforming it by reminding us that materiality and its effects are actively shaped by and shape social practices.

General principles

Despite there being several Facebooks, there are nevertheless some universals which we’ll interrogate by starting our journey with an individual user who we’ll call Alex. For Alex to ‘get onto’ Facebook, a mediator is required; a device of some kind. That might be a laptop, desktop computer or tablet, or as is often the case, a smartphone. Alone and isolated however, our device (and Alex) remains unconnected. Some means through which the device can become part of the Internet is required – network connectivity. This may be through a fixed, hard-wired cable system; through a local wireless network or through a digital cellular (mobile) network. The device<->connection is significant in what it allows Alex to do and what behaviour it influences. A smartphone with 3g connection is (usually) always on and (usually) always connected. Alex doesn’t have to go to the device and switch it on; it’s ready and waiting … but it’s often impatient. This state of on-and-connectedness invites another actor onto the scene. Push notifications from Facebook (and elsewhere) change Alex’s behaviour over time; the insistent ‘bing’ causing an immediate Pavlovian response to check the phone. A different push notification, delivered whilst at a computer, also clamours for attention by popping up in front of Alex’s forefronted activity, but is rendered latent when you step away from the computer to brew a coffee.

Having leapt too far ahead, let’s retrace our steps to pre-Facebook. Until signing up for an account, Alex and Facebook were apart. Was it an intermediary that briefly came into Alex’s life, initiated the liaison, then moved on? Or a friend with whom Alex subsequently connected and who continues to influence and be influenced by her? The signup process itself might be viewed as an obligatory passage point through which all pre-Facebookers must pass, but as Light and McGrath (2010) observed, there is much to be learned from probing further. The information which is sought and the options offered present different alternatives and begin to set in train the potential for different Facebooks. What details did Alex share and how private did she choose to make them? Will others be able to find her and what she posts later? A few checkmarks (or absences) at this stage will determine the Facebook she starts out with, but also hints at a more fluid conception – a mutable Facebook.

Account created, Alex now has a profile to manage, a profile which might influence other actors in different ways. Also fluid, the profile can change as Alex’s attitudes change and consequently influence the way her network develops. Her profile is only one actor amongst the many now available to translate. The search tool can be used to find other actors, be they people or different forms of content; some will be mediators, some intermediaries. While Alex is reaching out to others, others will be reaching out to her through friend requests, likes, highlights, status updates and ads which arrive by email, push notifications or pop-ups. What will Alex choose to share? A simple textual status update, a YouTube video she found, a re-shared meme from a friend? And what will the outcome be? What fresh associations will those sharings forge and will they be fleeting or long lasting? Is a ‘like’ button an actor before it is pressed? There is much to consider and many traces to follow, even from vanilla Facebook, but let us now return to our Why We Post friends.

The first example I’ll be considering is Connecting Facebook which links you with friends and allows you to communicate with them; would the word ‘traditional’ be appropriate for something only a decade old? Next is Community Facebook where people gather around a shared interest and finally Commerical Facebook which supports business enterprise. I hope to show how different practices, in Mol’s (2002) terms, generates its own material reality; three separate actor-networks. Three Facebooks.

Connecting Facebook

But Facebook is more about connecting with your old friends.. after school your friends may be abroad or you aren’t able to meet or speak even if they are residing locally then you can chat with them on Facebook…that’s what Facebook is about

This Facebook is one where communicating and connecting with friends is paramount. Status updates, messaging and the video call assemble with friends to establish those connections, and continue to do so as network associations continue to evolve through new friend requests, both outgoing and incoming. The friend request as a feature is an important actor here, but perhaps one to be distinguished from individual friend requests (denoted by default colour), which once made and fulfilled, have played their part. It’s like the agency that sticky notes confer or the activity they encourage, versus the one-off outcome of a single sticky note. It’s the (never ending) sticky note pad, versus each note stripped off, used, then forgotten

It would be helpful here to have more data than the brief video sequence available, but instead let us imagine Ajay walking to work. A bing from his pocket signifies that a friend across the city updated his status. This status update prompted the Facebook app on Ajay’s phone (and those of other friends) to enlist the phone speaker to make a sound and provoke Ajay into an action. His entanglement with other actors like status updates, messages and video calls renews his associations. Each anticipates a particular input and encourages specific and different forms of communication; one can be conducted asynchronously and extends temporality, the others demand synchronous participation; a shorter, choppier form and existing of the moment. All are fleeting associations brought into being, then are gone or are relegated by the timeline, yet nevertheless act to maintain the networks. These are the individual status updates, as opposed the feature, status update; specific messages as opposed to messaging. Status updates are a permanent constituent of Connecting Facebook; status updates are transient. Both cause other actors to do things.

Community Facebook

I created a group there … It is called Dağıskal Network Photography. There, I post the photos I have taken and the ones I edited. Or interesting things in nature… I don’t actually have a purpose, I just want to share in order to get likes.

The usual Facebook actor suspects are to be found acting here, but other actors gain significance. A group has been and is being formed (and reformed), enrolled by another (non-Facebook) actor we’ll call ‘shared interest’ (photography). While other human actors continue to be associated with shared interest, they also remain associated with group. However people may have shared interest, but not yet be members of group. A friend request, a photograph, a status update may translate them into Community Facebook, or search may have helped them seek out group.

Photographs are actors perhaps brought into being by the smartphones which are likely also significant in enacting Community Facebook. The metadata baked into digital photos may have used GIS to imprint the location of the subject of the photograph, each perhaps acting in a different way on members of group. “Where is that temple, so that I can go there and produce my own photos?” “What setting was used to produce such an interesting effect?” The subject of the photo ‘out there’ is brought into Community Facebook, present only in this artefact, but able to act through it.

Commercial Facebook

You cannot have your make up done or your hair done and not have your nails done because this is the number one thing people look at, your nails. The kind of nails people upload is well, you have Instagram now, the ones who have me on Instagram or Facebook once I do the nails they’ll say ‘can you take a pic please’ and they will upload and they will say done by Giselle …


Commercial Facebook may be one of multiple Facebooks, but itself is also multiple. We have learned that some users use Facebook pages to construct storefronts which sell their wares or promote their business. Here however, the photos others post, their status updates, enacting their own Facebooks bring into being Giselle’s widely dispersed and diverse Commercial Facebook. The materials and design Giselle uses to adorn a client’s nails are enrolled by the same client’s smartphone into photographic form and through Facebook have greater reach. The Trinidadian need (as we learned from the findings) to cultivate one’s appearance and be seen to be doing so also contribute to Commercial Facebook. The photo of the nails may translate others to become new clients for Giselle, and who will then further enact and extend this particular actor-network.

Reflections

Another helpful actor-network term is black-boxing where associations between actors become stabilised to such an extent, they no longer needed to be considered as individuals. They are now black boxed as a single actor within the wider actor-network. I wondered whether to black box the device<->connection, but thought better of it. Change the device or interrupt the connection (highly likely with any form of wireless connection) and the associated elements within the actor-network are invoked differently. So no black-boxing here.

As my first ANT interpretation, I have to confess how much I struggled choosing words. This stemmed from three sources:

  • My inexperience with ANT
  • That there have been different phases of ANT. Undertaking a largely after-ANT view here, is it legitimate to use vocabulary and concepts associated with earlier versions?
  • I’m not sure yet how explicit it is necessary to be when describing the actions of actors. Do they have to be names as such?
    My worry now however is that I’m beginning to see multiplicity in everything.

Writing this has been a tortuous process for me, but one I needed to undertake to continue my journey of becoming more familiar with ANT. I felt clumsy and know this carried through into the writing, so if I have blundered do please point out my errors by adding a comment. Many thanks.

 

LATOUR, Bruno (2005). Reassembling the social. London: Oxford, .
LEONARDI, Paul M., NARDI, Bonnie A., and KALLININKOS, Jannis (2012) . Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world. Oxford University Press on Demand.
LIGHT, Ben and MCGRATH, Kathy (2010). Ethics and social networking sites: a disclosive analysis of Facebook. [online]. Information technology & people, 23 (4), 290-311.

Ethics submission draft feedback – pilot methods

flickr photo by RLHyde https://flickr.com/photos/breatheindigital/4689159475 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

“Is the toolkit of methods I’m proposing for my pilot study realistic and feasible?” This is a question the feedback from my draft ethics submission suggested I need to answer, so it’s to that that I now turn in this post.

It’s perhaps worth reiterating at the outset that I’ve elected to employ an ethnographic approach to best answer my research questions. Which of course raises the question, what will that involve? Hammersley & Atkinson (2007) suggest:

ethnography usually involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, and/or asking questions through informal and formal interviews, collecting documents and artefacts – in fact, gathering whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the emerging focus of inquiry.

The notion of ‘people’s everyday lives’ might not quite transfer across entirely to the online realm, and the context of my study is a little more specific. I’m using an ethnographic approach, rather than conducting an ethnography. However, the need to seek data wherever they may be also aligns with the actor-network theory sensibility I’ll be bringing. O’Reilly (2012) also advocates a range of methods in order to recognise, record and report the complexities of the social world(s) I’ll be involved in.

Ethnography is a practice that: evolves in design as the study progresses; involves direct and sustained contact with human beings, in the context of their daily lives, over a prolonged period of time; draws on a family of methods, usually including participant observation and conversation; respects the complexity of the social world; and therefore tells rich, sensitive, and credible stories.

So to recap, the pilot methods I’m proposing are a mixture of conventional techniques applied within a digital context, and new techniques made possible as a result of the digital field. Ethnographic techniques applied in the field typically involve participant observation, semi-structured and informal interviews, and secondary data analysis. These are largely the methods I’m advocating, but with the digital twists that the online environment brings. I’m also keen to include a focus group discussion, though recognise that this isn’t usually considered an ethnographic method. Suter (2000) however views them as being able to ‘allow access to a process that qualitative researchers are often centrally interested in: interaction’ and ‘…also allow researchers to observe a large amount of interaction on a specific topic of interest in a limited amount of time and offer peer-to-peer interactions which might be worthy of observation in their own right.’ I tend to agree here, especially in the more free-form #edchat context I’m keen to explore, compared with that of the traditional focus group setting.

The question my supervisors raised whether all this is manageable (or desirable?) is absolutely valid, so here I’ll attempt to answer that. First, I’ve tried to break down the time required for each of the methods, then sum the individual parts to establish the time demands. That is summarised in this table:

The total time required is around 70 hours, or around two weeks work. Although I should be able to schedule that into my summer programme, it’s likely that my inexperience may be underestimating the time demands of each of these methods. This will become manifest most acutely in the analysis of the data, so here I’m not proposing a deep analysis which will feed forward into the future findings. The aim is to test the methods being used, the processes which will be needed and any consequences such a variety of data might have for the subsequent analysis. The outcome then will be a series of memos which can be used to inform the next stages of the research, rather than hard data used for preliminary analysis.

If it transpires that I’m still wildly underestimating the time demands, then I will need to prioritise these methods, perhaps discarding those that are less significant. I’ll start then with the two core methods of participant observation and semi-structured interview, which means my Twitter immersion study first, so that can inform the question schedule for the interview. Next I’d place the #edchat focus group, since this offers the potential for both interview and participant observation in the same study. Also using observation would be the single practitioner study (tight observation) and informal interviews would take place through open dialogue on blog posts and within Twitter. Collecting tweets on a particular theme is more akin to secondary data collection, but, like the #edchat, does allow the study to spread beyond the bounds of those I follow. Although I’m quite keen to explore the different perspective a social network analysis might bring (who are the influencers, if any; how are people interconnected; what are the pathways through which interactions occur?), I’m also aware of that to do this justice might require expertise I don’t have, nor have the time to develop. There are tools which allow visualisations to be assembled quickly (including NVivo), but deep, meaningful interpretations would only be possible with prolonged practice. I’m obliged to ask myself whether a brief pilot study will provide sufficient detail to establish whether it is a technique worth taking further?

It’s important too not to maintain alignment with my research questions. Do the methods in the pilot adequately help to answer them? In the following table I’ve attempted to map out where I think they should contribute, though acknowledge this might be overly optimistic. But then, surely one of the purposes of the pilot should be to identify which methods are better at answering which questions?

⬇RQs Methods ➡ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and other spaces?
What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?

The concern I have here is of potentially missing an opportunity. I proposed at the outset that one strand of my ‘contribution to knowledge and understanding’ will be methodological; investigating new techniques for gathering data. I feel that in the priorities I expressed above, I’m privileging the more traditional methods – observation and interviews, over the newer ones – focus group within a #chat. By narrowing avenues of enquiry, might I also be in danger of masking the complexity that ethnography seeks to illuminate (Wittel, 2000).

HAMMERSLEY, Martyn and ATKINSON, Paul (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. [online]. Routledge.
O’REILLY, Karen (2012). Ethnographic methods. [online]. Routledge.
SUTER, Elizabeth A. (2000). Focus groups in ethnography of communication: Expanding topics of inquiry beyond participant observation. [online]. The qualitative report, 5 (1), 1-14.
WITTEL, Andreas (2000). Ethnography on the move: From field to net to Internet. [online]. In: Forum qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative social research, .

Ethics 8 – So what?

flickr photo by PaoloMazzoleni http://flickr.com/photos/paolomazzoleni/436307747 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

That’s the question researchers have to continually ask themselves – why is what I’ve said/written/discovered important or why does it matter? The preceding seven posts have covered various topics around the ethics of conducting research on the Internet. So what? What matters in this instance is how that will help to ensure my research study is ethically sound. In this concluding post I’ll try to frame that learning within this context.

It’s worth reiterating the context with which my study is located. A specific group of teachers engaged in a particular activity – those using Twitter for professional learning. These are well educated people engaged in an activity (of their own volition) which would not be considered ‘sensitive.’ Charged with supporting young people in using technology and social media wisely, they are more likely to be aware of the consequences of engaging in the use of social media.

The pilot methods I outlined in a previous post are restated here:

  1. Immersion in my Twitter stream for 24 hours (possibly over three shifts) – ‘deep hanging out’. This will provide a snapshot of activity from a self-selecting sample of the two thousand plus educators I follow.
  2. Closely following the twitterstream of a teacher for a limited period, chosen from those who have made claims regarding the efficacy of Twitter. This is to investigate whether focusing on an individual might yield more informative data.
  3. Attempting informal interviews using the commenting feature on blogs. This will be across a small number of blog posts in which the authors make claims of how useful they found Twitter for professional learning.
  4. Conducting a single semi-structured interview with one of the more evangelical of those educators making claims for Twitter. This should tease out areas and themes to explore in more depth.
  5. Seeking permission, then attempting a focus group interview within a Twitter #edchat. This may push the boundaries of what constitutes a focus group, or the depth of discussion possible in a #chat.
  6. Using an automated routine to collect tweets over one month which reference a particular term e.g. “professional learning.” This will access the general Twitter stream and therefore a wider sample, offering the potential for unanticipated outcomes to emerge.
  7. Attempting to open dialogue within Twitter (or elsewhere) with anyone who makes claims about Twitter in relation to their professional learning. A ‘naive’ stance will be taken whilst attempting to draw out further information.
  8. Small-scale social network analysis of a topic or hashtag to explore the interconnections which are forming. The focus here is not on the content of the tweets, nor the people which are connected, but the ways they are connected with each other and the information flows between them.

In the following table, I highlight how the significant themes discussed in this ethics strand of posts apply to my proposed methods:

These are of course only my interpretations, based on being a user of Twitter for professional learning for the last seven years. It would be imprudent however to assume I am at liberty to speak for all teachers on Twitter. Ideally I should seek to verify the alignment of my perceptions with those of the potential participants. I could survey or interview people, as Beninger et al (2014) and Hudson and Bruckman (2010) did. But I suspect the outcome would be far from definitive, and I would find people expressing the same range of views from ‘this is an open platform and people should know what they’re doing’ to ‘I’m OK with people using my information so long as they ask first.’ The difficulty then is in being sensitive to and addressing the wishes of all participants. Is this even possible? It’s important therefore to behave in a way that responds to context; if a tweet or the content of a blog leans more towards personal reflection, than open debate, I would be less inclined to intrude. As Roberts et al (2004) advise – “expectation of privacy overrides the distinction between public and private spaces.” Better then to consider the micro-context very carefully.

Some factors in the summary (like ‘degree of interaction’) are less subjective, whilst other issues are open to interpretation. Views about what is public and what private often differ in degree, as indeed does the need to seek consent. Where possible, it would seem sensible to be guided by precedent and what has been deemed acceptable practice by researchers who have gone before.

My greatest dilemma is regarding anonymity. Based on experience and personal preference, I tend to concur with Roberts et al (2004) & Sixsmith & Murray (2001), and would prefer to seek to empower participants by offering them the choice of having their authorship recognised and being credited in published works. What I feel I’ve done, as can be seen in the table, is opt for the safer and simpler option of anonymising the data, rather than acknowledging the contributions of participants. Wrong decision? What would you prefer?

Despite all the dilemmas, dichotomies and disagreements, the touchstone to which I’ll always return is to ensure minimal impact/harm for participants and to maximise beneficence.

BENINGER, Kelsey, et al. (2014). Research using social media; users’ views. [online]. NatCen social research, .
HUDSON, James M. and BRUCKMAN, Amy (2004). “Go away”: participant objections to being studied and the ethics of chatroom research. [online]. The information society, 20 (2), 127-139.
ROBERTS, Lynne, SMITH, Leigh and POLLOCK, Clare (2004). Conducting ethical research online: Respect for individuals, identities and the ownership of words. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in virtual research ethics: Issues and controversies. IGI Global, 156-173.
SIXSMITH, J. and MURRAY, C. D. (2001). Ethical issues in the documentary data analysis of Internet posts and archives. [online]. Qualitative health research, 11 (3), 423.