Tag Archive for 'Ethnography'

Media Engagement – Looking at What People Do with Media

These are my notes for a presentation I’m giving at the University of Westminster, Media Engagement symposium.

The Problem with Media Studies

David Gauntlett & William Merrin – Media Studies 2.0. Focus on Media Production activity and DIY Media:

“The discipline… faces a choice. It has the potential to be one of the most important subject areas going into the 21st century, at the forefront of debates around digital technologies and their remaking of the world. But equally it has the possibility of being left behind, its focus on reception and content and broadcast forms and concepts condemning it to an increasing irrelevance for everyone but itself” (Merrin, 2014, p. 188).

“So media studies now is not so much about media content and is more about platforms – media as things you can do something with, and the platforms and supports that can be arranged to stimulate that. It’s about building creativity in society – and the thiungs that can get in the way of that. This means we are still engaged with institutions and organisations, and more generally with issues of social change and culture, learning, and power in society – but in a different way, with a more active role for creative individuals to make a difference” (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 188).

Henry Jenkins focuses on Participatory Culture, arguing that changes in expectations about participation in networks of media engagement require a rethinking of the concepts of consumption and assimilation that presently dominate the study of media (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013).

This paper argues that the study of participation-based media must prioritise the pragmatic concept of community-through-conversation, thereby rejecting critical stances and models of media determination (Oakeshott, 1975; Rorty, 1982, 1989).

Pragmatic Approach
This pragmatic approach suggests that people who are active media participants and activists are faced with a series of translation issues that occur when agents are operating from different frames of symbolic reference. Of practical importance is the idea that it is difficult to achieve operational sustainability if these translation differences are ongoing.

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

The point of the study of media, therefore, is to seek ways to resolve the incongruities faced by participants and agents in the different symbolic reference frameworks, as they are articulated and negotiated in practice by the different communities, organisations and agents.

According to Rorty by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times.

And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

As McCarthy and Wright affirm, “pragmatists theorising is a practical, consequential activity geared toward change, not representation” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.20).

Hence, the task at hand is to link and validate the commonsensical practical imperatives of people who are working in communities and networks, with the standard ideas and concepts that are associated with the analysis of media, and then come up with some practical suggestions that might help in pursuing change on the ground – both in practice, and in the formulation of the prevailing ideas and concepts associated with the study of media (Forster, 2010).

As Etienne Wenger notes, the core of media practice is now based on the ideals of participation and direct experience, enabling those who take part, and who form their communities, to gain “radically new insights” as they “often arise at the boundaries between communities” (Etienne Wenger in Lesser, Fontaine, & Slusher, 2000, p. 12).

Leonidas Donskis suggests that by “radically changing everyone’s field of reference and system of concepts would make it easier to take away the dimensions of the past” (Donkis in Bauman & Donskis, 2013, p. 134).

Therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Contingencies & Transience
Richard Rorty suggests that instead of looking for fixed and immovable accounts of social experience, we should instead be seeking out those things that are historically contingent, that can be described in their transience, and which can be theoretically revised.

With its heightened emphasis on collaboration and shared techniques of production, that are not expected of more conventional forms of media, participatory media, or forms of community and collaborative media, occupy a territory that is distinctive and challenging.

This distinction is characterised as a set of working and conceptual practices that are grounded in a real-world environment, in which individual and collaborative knowledge is blurred and indeterminate.

Our understanding of the importance of the every-day practices and experiences of the participants who volunteer in participatory media situations can therefore be usefully explained, on the one hand, as a form of social knowledge that is exchanged within a ‘societas,’ that is a group of people who share their corresponding life experiences together; or alternatively, as a set of social arrangements that takes the form of a ‘universitas’, in which there is a mutual self-interest between a group of people who want to achieve a particular goal or outcome (Oakeshott, 1975).

As Richard Rorty explains:

E”pistemology views the participants [of a community] as united in what Oakeshott calls an universitas – a group united by mutual interests in achieving a common end. Hermeneutics views them as united in what he calls a societas – persons whose path through life have fallen together, united by civility rather than by a common goal, much less by common ground” (Rorty, 2009 p.318).

Communities of Interest
It is possible to establish the basis on which participants in these communities of interest, identity and practice are able to understand their role, their identity and their accomplishments.

Furthermore, identifying the extent to which these communities of interest and correspondence are able to reflexively understand themselves in a way that can be described usefully as either a universitas or as a societas, or a blending of both.

The aim of our studies, therefore, should be to develop a pragmatic picture of the casual correspondence and contingent relationships that ‘fall together’ within fieldsites of community and collaborative media, with the assumption that this picture would open-up space for further discussion about the basis on which collaborative purpose is arrived at in accommodating communities.

In attempting to locate this presumed sense of common purpose, either as a society based on shared goals that are sometimes articulated in radical dreams of critical emancipation and utilitarian efficiency; or alternatively, as a society of correspondence, in which people just rub-along together. It is necessary to focus on the practical tasks that were useful as a wider example to people undertaking similar tasks or study.

These include: “predicting the behaviour of inhabitants” of the unfamiliar cultures of community media groups, learning to talk with different agents within overlapping community media groups,  despite the “incommensurability of [their] language” (Rorty, 2009 p.350); and the development of practical models that participants, students and supporters of community media can reflect on to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their ethical and practical operations.

As Rorty argues,

“The notion of culture as a conversation rather than as a structure erected upon foundations fits well with the hermeneutical notion of knowledge, since getting into a conversation with strangers is like acquiring a new virtue or skill by imitating models” (Rorty, 2009, p. 319).

According to Rorty, moreover, by mapping out the commensurable and the incommensurable terms within our languages and social routines, we should be able to identify and distinguish what is new from what is old, what has changed from what remains the same, and what is useful from what is unnecessary.

This is a pragmatic approach in which the adage, that we can strip away anything that doesn’t make a difference applies at all times. And while this might not seem to be particularly ‘deep’ or ‘critical’ set of aims or conclusions, when compared with other, more classically or critically oriented forms of social analysis, the degree to which this analysis provides insight as part of a wider discussion of emerging cultures of community and collaborative media, is significant.

The aim of pragmatic social thinking, according to Rorty, is to provide a space through which “commonsensical practical imperatives” can be validated against “the standard current theory about subjects” (Rorty, 2009 p.385).

By extension, therefore, if we shift our perspective about media and consumer transactionalism, to that of community and collaborative media, based on a sense of participation and agency, then we might be able to open-up some opportunities for some innovative thinking about the future development of our social engagements.

Put simply, it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

Symbolic Interaction
Therefore, it is in reintroducing Symbolic Interaction to the study of media that we will be able to make sense of how human beings act and achieve things on the basis of the meanings that they negotiate, and the potential lines of action that these meanings open up (Blumer, 1969; Prus, 1996).

Symbolic interaction proposes that the meanings that humans hold are themselves borne from social interaction, and that these interactions are modified and negotiated in an interpretative process as reflective agents interact with one another.

The social world is a world of social experiences that have been created in the process of interaction, and the meanings that individual agents hold are themselves shaped by their interactions and self-reflections.

“Any human event can be understood as the result of the people involved (keeping in mind that that might be a very large number) continually adjusting what they do in the light of what others do, so that each individual’s line of action ‘fits’ into what others do. That can only happen if human beings typically act in a non-automatic fashion, and instead construct a line of action by taking account of the meaning of what others do in response to their earlier actions. Human beings can only act in this way if they can incorporate the responses into their own act and thus anticipate what will probably happen, in the process creating a ‘self’ in the Meadian sense. (This emphasis on the way people construct the meaning of others’ acts is where the ‘symbolic’ in the ‘symbolic interaction’ comes from). If anyone can and does do that, complex joint action can occur” (Becker & McCall, 1990, p. 3).

This study has been able to demonstrate that the value of the ethnographic model lies in its ability to reflexively identify information from within complex, dynamic and transient social activities (Schensul, Schensul, & LeCompte, 1999).

While quantitative research methodologies are able to distinguish and characterise large-scale social issues, through a process of calculation and statistical analysis, what is not readily identified when using these techniques is the process by which social actors find meaning in their activities (Sim, 1999).

As a qualitative form of research, ethnography aims to narrate how social groups negotiate and allocate legitimacy for the meanings that they build-up in practical usage.

Moreover, ethnography is primarily concerned with the process of accumulated meaning as derived through social practice and experience. Ethnographic study puts a particular emphasis on how these meanings accord to contingent relationships, between different actors in temporary social groups, and how this changes and shifts as social norms change and shift.

This means that ethnographic study is able to ask questions about social relationships, such as how perceptions of on-going social and symbolic status are founded and regulated through, for example, power-related discourses of domination or subordination.

Or, what happens when new technologies are introduced to a social environment that changes the productive and cognitive capabilities of different participants of emergent communities?

In short, “ethnography tries to understand practices, relationships, and cultures from the inside” (McCarthy & Wright, 2004 p.34), with the provision that qualitative research, as Uwe Flick notes, does not seek to study “artificial situations in the laboratory, but the practices and interactions of everyday life” (Flick, 2009 p.15).

Symbolic Interactionism & Media Studies
Symbolic interaction, however, is not commonly taught as an orthodox research method in British media and cultural studies, although it is in many ways related and shares many common ideas and preconceptions.

The approach of media studies in the United Kingdom rests largely on political, industrial, economic, cultural, content, textual, discursive or archival analysis (Cobley, 1996; During, 1999; Hartley, 2011; Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2002; Livingstone, 2006; Long & Wall, 2009; Thornham, Bassett, & Marris, 2009). David Gauntlett suggests that “for a couple of decades, from the 1980s, media studies had settled into a reasonably stable cluster of subject areas, such as ‘institutions’, ‘production,’ ‘audiences’ and ‘texts’ (Gauntlett, 2015, p. 1).

Gauntlett argues, there are few opportunities to develop practice-based forms of media analysis grounded in the day-to-day experience of people, especially in the way that they use, create and experience media. Consequently, there is a clear lack of commitment to the training and schooling that is required when undertaking forms of investigation that can encompass the newer forms of participation and experimental media.

However, there is a useful affinity with the cultural studies tradition. Norman Denzin describes how Stuart Hall’s view of the cultural subject is “in part symbolic interactionist,” because people are defined as being able to work out the conditions in which they operate for themselves. According to Denzin, Hall explores how

“The meanings [a] subject brings to his or her situation are shaped by the larger ideological forces in the culture, for consciousness is ‘always infused with ideological elements, and any analysis of social frameworks of understanding must take account of the elements of ‘misrecognition’ which are involved’” (Hall quoted in Denzin, 1992, p. 118).

The pragmatist challenge to this notion of ideology as an extrinsic or determining force should be clear by now, but it is worth noting the significant differences that remain between the approach taken by Hall (hegemony) and that suggested by Rorty (interpretivism).

Communities of Practice
More recently, however, audience studies have gained currency in media studies approaches, combined with the expansion of the study of virtual communities and with the shift toward participative forms of ICT and social media.

Configurations of communities of practice and fan communities have shifted the focus of media studies away from the singularly textual approach, to the participative and experiential.

Therefore, is a contribution to the developing field of participative enactment that argues that it is not what academics and theorists say in their studies of media that matter, but what people living in different communities and lifeworlds achieve and accomplish with media that is important.

This places the use and development of symbolic interaction in a contested but central position. If symbolic interaction and participant observation are approaches that can be usefully applied to the study of people using media, then they need to be embedded in the mainstream media studies curricula. Symbolic interaction is a well-established methodology and field of study in its own right.

One that is time-honoured and proven to give meaningful insights into the operation of cultural and social activities.

Symbolic interaction, moreover, has the advantage that it recognises agency and diminishes ideology in its founding principles, and that these principles are expected to be enacted on the basis of pragmatic practicality. Norman Denzin summarises the predicament faced by the symbolic interactionist, however, when he explains that

“Of course, there are no real biographical subjects, independent of the stories told about them, and even these texts, in the telling, displace the teller. We can never get back to raw biographical experience. The closest we can ever get is when a subject, in an epiphanal moment, moves from one social world to another. In these instances the subject is between interpretative frameworks. When this happens, experience is described in words that are yet to be contaminated by the cultural understandings of a new group” (Denzin, 1992, p. 19).

The challenge then, is to define a set of tools and approach that can look at practices of media participation, engagement and the contingent, localised meanings that are articulated and accomplished within the lifeworlds and communities of people as they engage with media on a day-to-day basis.

Media & Ethnographic Study
At its most basic level, then, ethnography emerges from a series of anthropological and sociological investigative traditions, and can be thought of as a disciplined form of social enquiry that seeks-out accountable and practical approaches to the study of culture.

As Boellstorff et al suggest,

“Cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, 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)

It is therefore incumbent on ethnographic investigators to continue to “attempt to develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005, p. 17), and to describe and explain the many factors and historical movements that shape our cultural and social interactions. Put simply, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8).

An understanding that is founded in a shared affinity with the people being studied, and a sense of responsibility toward the use that those studies might be applied.

As Boellstorff et al specify, in ethnographic investigation

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).

If the mediatisation process has shifted to incorporate the practices and accomplishments of people, then the study of media must mark this with a shift to its focus of inquiry and exploration. This is about looking at what people ‘do’ with media all over again.

Bauman, Z., & Donskis, L. (2013). Moral Blindness – The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity. London: Polity Press.
Becker, H. S., & McCall, M. M. (Eds.). (1990). Symbolic Interaction and Cultural Studies. Chicargo: University of Chicargo Press.
Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cobley, P. (Ed.) (1996). The Communication Theory Reader. London: Routledge.
Denzin, N. K. (1992). Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies. Malden, MA: Blckwell.
During, S. (Ed.) (1999). The Cultural Studies Reader (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
Flick, U. (2009). An Introduction to Qualitative Research Design. London: Sage.
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Gauntlett, D. (2015). Making Media Studies: The Creativity Turn in Media and Communications Studies. Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing.
Hartley, J. (2011). Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.
Hine, C. (Ed.) (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture – Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
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Long, P., & Wall, T. (2009). Media Studies: Texts, Production and Context. Harlow: Pearson Education.
McCarthy, J., & Wright, P. (2004). Technology as Experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
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Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.
Rorty, R. (1982). The Consequences of Pragmatism. Brighton: Harverster Press.
Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rorty, R. (2009). Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (30th Aniversary Edition ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schensul, S. L., Schensul, J. J., & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). Essential Ethnographic Methods: Observations, Interviews, and Questionnaires. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
Sim, S. E. (1999). Evaluating the Evidence: Lessons from Ethnography. Paper presented at the Workshop on Empirical Studies of Software Maintenence, Oxford, England.
Thornham, S., Bassett, C., & Marris, P. (2009). Media Studies: A Reader (3rd ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

TECH3022 Lecture Week Seven: Research Tools & Techniques – Data Collection

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).

Slide04Our 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).

Slide07According to John Creswell:

  • “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.

Slide09The 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).

Slide12“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).

Slide17Creswell 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.

TECH3022 Lecture Week Five – Netnography

This week we’ve moved forward with our review of how ethnographic principles can be used to build a picture of communities and peoples lives online. As Robert Kozinets describes: “Applying a systematic mixed method approach can reveal many facets of a culture, such as its hidden social structures. But the grounding element, the core of these methods, should be cultural understanding if that approach is to be termed a netnographic one”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 182).

As we considered last week, the approaches to investigation identified in ethnography more generally, suggest that the researcher works on the basis that they are immersed in the settings that they are studying; that they act as participants within the setting so that they can listen to what people tell us about the lifeworlds they are part of. In order to capture what we hear it is a good idea that the researcher maintains a field journal that they can use to record any observations about what they have encountered in the field, and to reflect on their own experiences as a participant in the community.

For this project we will be working with a mix of ‘real-world’ and ‘virtual-world’ encounters and situations. But we shouldn’t immediately draw a fixed distinction between the two. As Kozinets points out, “online communities are not virtual. The people that we meet online are not virtual. They are real communities populated with real people, which is why so many end up meeting in the flesh”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). Therefore, we start from the premise that “Using the Internet is a culturally located experience” (Hine, 2005, p. 9), and that “Netnographers grant great significance to the fact that people turn to computer networks to partake in sources of culture and to gain a sense of community”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).

As Kozinets points out, “community and culture can inhere in many of the familiar forums and ‘places’ of the internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7). And that “social networking sites and virtual worlds [therefore] carry the complex markers of many cultures and both manifest and forge new connections and communities. Newsgroups and bulletin boards, as well as chat-rooms, although ‘old-style’ communities, may never go out of style completely”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).

The role of the ethnographic researcher is to be attuned to this experience, and to look at the different ways that people use the tools and technologies of online life to interact and communicate. As Kozinets goes on to suggest, “under-standing how members interact with the culture in general can pay off richly in understanding the complex lived experience of communal interaction”(Kozinets, 2010, p. p.133).

Kozinets boils this whole process down when he says that “Netnography examines the individual interactions resulting from Internet connections or through computer-mediated communications as a focal source of data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 8). But rather than thinking that this set of interactions can be mapped out in one form only, say recorded observations in a manually written journal, Kozinets suggests that in addition “Netnographic data analysis must include the graphical, visual, audio, and audiovisual aspects of online community data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 133).

Our priority as investigators, therefore, is to be attuned to the “symbol systems, rituals and norms, ways of behaving, identities, roles and, in particular languages, that help particular online social formations to organise and manage themselves?” Kozinets suggests that this process of investigation can be typified in a series of starting questions: “Are these linguistic systems, norms, actions and identities distinctive to online groups, and online communications? Are they taught? Are they common to some groups and not to others? Are they common to some media and not to others”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 12).

According to Kozinets, therefore, “Netnography is a specialised type of ethnography. It uses and incorporates different methods in a single approach focused on the study of communities and cultures in the Internet age. Qualitative online research such as netnography is ‘essential in shaping our understanding of the Internet, its impact on culture, and culture’s impacts on the Internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 157).

There are a number of issues that we should note. Online communities should be afforded the same status as offline communities. Netnographers seek out places of online community. Social networking sites carry markers of culture that netnographers can map. There are common elements to our online interactions – what Robert Prus terms Generic Social Processes.

Generic Social Processes

Generic Social Processes

Generic Social Processes are centred on three sets of concepts. Firstly, the extent to which social actors participate in different social situations, then, what the attributes might be of the sub-cultural lifeworlds that these situations are made up of, and then, how these relationships are formed and maintained through processes of coordination and association. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest, “these three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).

Generic Social Interactions

Generic Social Interactions

Generic Social Processes, relate, therefore, to the sets of practices and roles that people play in community situations, and the way that they make sense of them through the symbolic interactions they are involved with or undertake. Robert Prus lists how these processes operate and what the researcher might do to be attentive to them. According to Prus, “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of: (1) acquiring perspectives; (2) achieving identity; (3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments); (4) developing relationships; (5) experiencing emotionality; and (6) achieving communicative fluency. We may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).

What the pragmatic ethnographer is looking for, according to Prus, is to build a picture of interaction between actors and agents in situations that are meaningful to those agents. Prus describes how Symbolic Interactionism is attentive to these engagements and how the ethnographer spends their time looking for ways to record and describe those engagements. As Pus points out, “the interactionist, generally, concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).

Holistic Theories?

Holistic Theories?

The task before us, therefore involves, according to Prus, that we should be “(a) attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish, and (b) establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.” This means that as pragmatic ethnographers we should distance ourselves, Prus argues, from the process of theory-building which typifies much of the social sciences. Instead, as pragmatic ethnographers we should approach the investigation of these generic social process ‘minimally’. According to Prus, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136).

This process is far from straightforward and simple. There are many complex interactions taking place that are relevant to different groups of people in different ways. How we think about our involvement in these different lifeworlds is a core part of the pragmatic ethnographic process. As Prus points out “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).

Therefore, as practicing researchers working both online and offline, we are seeking out the interrelated sets of processes that people navigate and use when they are operating in a community. But we will do this on the basis that we are aware that people in different situations encounter generic processes differently, and that as a result we should be attuned to what do people do, and what do they accomplish. As pragmatic ethnographic researchers we have to think about how we attend to people’s life worlds, and therefore, in what way these life worlds overlap, and what distinctions we can draw from our observations?

Ethnographic work, therefore, is primarily focused on building a picture of social interaction and community engagement in the field. As Kozinets points out, “cultural knowledge must be grounded in detailed field knowledge of that culture, and in the data that fieldwork creates”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 166).

Fieldwork Priorities

Fieldwork Priorities

John Creswell lists the priorities for this field work:
1. “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
2. Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
3. The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
4. Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
5. Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
6. The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).

Approach to Data Collection

Approach to Data Collection

Robert Kozinets summarises this process when he suggests that the “idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward.” Firstly, according to Kozinets, we should “consider the online environment a social world.” Secondly, we should “assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.” Thirdly, we should “treat online data as a social act.” Then, we should “seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.” Before, and only “when appropriate,” broadening the “particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 132).

There are, according to Kozinets, three main types of data that we can work with: “Archival data… elicited data… field-note data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 98). Our focus in the projects associated with this module will be to look at how these different forms of data can be mapped and made distinguishable so that we can use them to build a picture of the social interactions that people in different online and offline communities undertake. To do this we will employ techniques associated with Computer Aided Research, and particularly the research application Nvivo.

“Psychologist Eben Weitzman and Matthew Miles (1995, p.5) suggest the following uses of computer software in qualitative research projects:
• recording fieldnotes
• correcting, extending, editing, or revising fieldnotes
• storing texts
• organising texts
• searching and retrieving texts and making them available for inspection
• connecting relevant data segments to each other, forming categories, clusters, or networks
• writing reflective commentaries or ‘memos’ on the data as a basis for deeper analysis
• performing content analysis by counting frequencies, sequences, or locations of words and phrases
• displaying selected data in a reduced, condensed, organised forms, such as in a matrix
• aiding in conclusion-drawing, interpretation, confirmation and verification
• building theory by developing systematic, conceptually coherent explanations of findings
• creating diagrams or graphical maps that depict findings or theories
• preparing interim and final reports” (Kozinets, 2010, p. 128).

Computer Aided Research

Computer Aided Research

In future lectures and workshops we will look at these techniques in more detail.

To summarise, it is worth going back to the wider process that we are engaged with, the sense that we are trying to build a picture of the attendant lifeworlds of different actors and communities. As Bauman and May suggest: “Individual actors come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence. Given that, regardless of what we do, we are dependent on others, the central questions of sociology, we could say, are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

Therefore, as Kozinets points out, “data collection in netnography means communicating with members of a culture or community. That involvement, engagement, contact, interaction, communion, relation, collaboration and connection with community members – not with a website, server, or a keyboard, but with the people on the other end”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 95).

Finally, as Kozinets states, in practical terms, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” (Kozinets, 2010).
To conclude, fieldwork is the primary method for collecting data. The online world is a social world and online data can be treated as a social act. There are standard data collection techniques that we will seek to become proficient with as this will allow us to talk with members of the communities we study in not only a more responsible and ethical way, but also in a more illuminating and insightful way. As ethnographers, therefore, we should remind ourselves that “online communities are communities; there is no room for debate about this topic any more. They teach us about real languages, real meanings, real causes, real cultures”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). And as good pragmatic ethnographers, we should use “our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’,” and establish how the “practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 4).

Ethnographic Approach

Ethnographic Approach

Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.