Tag Archive for 'TECH3022'

Round the Counter Podcast Number Thirteen – Gaming & Energy Drinks

This is our Round the Counter podcast discussion for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production, in which we talk about gaming and the association with energy drinks. There’s a good article by Duncan Aird from way back in 2010 that explains this phenomenon, and from which I’ve used one of Duncan’s pictures.

TECH3022 Lecture 004 Video Summary

This video gives a short overview of the topics discussed in the fourth lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.

TECH3022 Lecture 003 Video Summary

This is a short video introduction to the issues that we will be covering in the third lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.

TECH3022 Lecture Summary Number Two

This is a short video that gives an overview of the topic covered in the second lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.

TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production Intro Number One

This video gives an introduction to the first lecture and workshop of TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.

TECH3022 – Sweet Truth Campaign

I’ve finished marking the coursework blogs for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production. The assignment focused on developing a social media campaign that engaged a group of participants in the debate about sugar and it’s role in the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

The idea was to develop a campaign that used social media to raise awareness of the role of sugar that the way that messages about processed food are embedded in our food culture. The impact that sugar and refined and processed foods have on people has become more prominent in recent years, with a lot of attention being paid to the issues in the press, and the government announcing plans for a Sugar Tax in the last budget.

Sweet Truth Logo

Sweet Truth Logo

The campaign that was developed by the learners on TECH3022 is described and explained in their collaborative wiki post on the DMU Commons Wiki. It gives a good overview of the shift in attitudes by the learners from thinking about media as something that is predominantly industrial and focused on mass entertainment, to something that is participative and based on DIY principles.

Given the seemingly unending increase in rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK, it’s essential that we use all forms of media to form communities that are equipped and empowered to make changes in their lives, to go back to the simple skills of family cooking, and to avoid the crap that is promoted by the major food manufacturers.

While this project is limited in its scale, we’ve identified some important lessons that will help to develop projects that are better equipped and funded. After all, prevention is always better than cure.

Face-to-Face Feedback

You might think that as I teach about using social media that I would want to interact with my students using Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, in order to give them feedback about their work. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, and the more that I teach about social media, the more I am reminded of the value of face-to-face discussions.

It’s become all too easy to suggest to learners on my modules that they can catch-up with the notes from each of the lecture sessions by reading the PDF documents that I post on my website. In a way this get me off a massive hook. I can assume that my teaching responsibilities have been exercised because I have sent out an email pointing learners in the direction of the notes.

Likewise I can safely assume that everything that is written in the notes is understandable and legible, and that any reasonable person – in my mind at least – would be able to figure them out.

But this isn’t really the case, and the more that I interact with learners on my modules, the more I have a growing sense that all of the digital forms of communication we have available to us are actually leading to lower levels of understanding.

When I sit with a learner, and we discuss the issues that have been covered in the lectures, or that crop-up in the reading, I can only really get a good sense of what is being understood by reading their face, looking at their eyes, and giving them time to think through the ideas that we are contemplating.

The stress of modern learning delivery is all focussed on delivery by technology and what’s being squashed is the one-on-one learning, in which a student sits with a tutor and they ask each other questions about the tasks or the issues to be discussed. I can’t do this very well with social media. Yes, it’s possible to give feedback using Skype or other visual and audio forms of social media, but this doesn’t get anywhere close to sitting and chatting.

One thing I would like to develop in my modules, then, are more sessions where we sit and chat with each other about the topics and the ideas we are covering. A café-style room would be ideal. Small tables that three of four learners can sit around and participate in discussions. I’d even suggest that we order tea or coffee every now and again, and really settle in to a vibrant discussion.

Those learners who are able to sit with me, I hope are well adjusted to the extended process of learning at university, rather than just being people who process information and regurgitate so-called knowledge.

Down With Selfie Sticks?

Are people who want to use selfie sticks getting unfairly treated in public spaces? It looks like the latest social media technology that has spread among users of camera-phones, are getting it in the neck for wanting to enhance their photographs when they go visiting public places and galleries. According to the BBC “The National Gallery in London has banned selfie sticks. The gallery says it has placed them in the same category as tripods, which are banned ‘in order to protect paintings, individual privacy and the overall visitor experience’”

It seems that users of selfie sticks have broken some kind of taboo? A taboo that says that we shouldn’t be so obvious when we take our self-images using our phones? But what are we expected to do, I’m not so sure? For such a simple piece of equipment, the radical change that the selfie stick affords is quite dramatic. Selfie sticks allow users to situate themselves within the place that they are visiting. In a way the selfie stick breaks the rules that means that people should be dutiful and respectful of the environment they are in, and that they should act with a high-degree of public decorum.

According to the Guardian, “a spokeswoman for the National Gallery said staff had been told to help enforce the ban. She said: ‘Photography is allowed for personal, non-commercial purposes in the National Gallery – however, there are a few exceptions in order to protect paintings, copyright of loans, individual privacy and the overall visitor experience. Therefore the use of flash and tripods is not permitted’”

Instead, the selfie stick allows an individual or a small group of friends to take control of the photo-moment for themselves in a completely inclusive way. Rather than one person being behind the camera to take an image, the selfie stick is inclusive and participatory, and allows the entire group to be included in the photo. No more missing mums or dads, taking turns to capture a picture of the family that they are a part of, but otherwise forced to be behind the camera.

“Selfie sticks are the wildly popular extending rods that can be fitted with a smartphone for a different angle self-portrait.” Time Magazine suggests that “they’ve been banned at a number of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery. The Centre Pompidou and the Louvre are considering bans”

The taker’s of these selfies become much more active participants in the environment that they are visiting. No longer determined by the dynamic of just snapping what’s in front of the visitors, we can now include ourselves in the vista and the setting. The wide-angle lens affords a wider view of the scene, and we can respond to one another in a more natural manner, rather than posing for a formal image in the traditional portrait manner.

USNEWS suggests that “’Selfie sticks’ have now been banned at a French palace and a British museum, joining a growing list of global tourist attractions to take such measures. The devices are used to improve snapshots, but critics say they are obnoxious and potentially dangerous. Officials at Palace of Versailles outside Paris, and Britain’s National Gallery in London, announced the bans Wednesday, saying they need to protect artworks and other visitors”

So before anyone wants to ban the use of selfie sticks in other public places, just consider for moment what you would be trashing. The active participation of people as a social group who have strong social ties, and that are embedded in a location or a venue. How can anyone complain about that?

Zotero – Web Reference Management Tool

One of the best tools I’ve used online in recent years is Zotero, the web reference management tool that allows me to capture links and web pages for use later in my lectures, research and blogs.

The good thing with Zotero is it’s free and can sync to different PCs that I have. This means I can keep all my tags coordinated across all my devices and update them wherever I am.

Zotero is designed as a reference management tool, so I can create bibliographies automatically in different formats. I tend to use Harvard, so it’s a good tool for an exptended list of online articles I can share with my students.

It’s not difficult to get into the habit of using, and when I’m reading articles online each morning, I make a point of saving them in the different folders I’ve categorised in Zotero, so I know where I’m looking for stuff.

Zotero is no completely integrated into my daily routine, and I can band out a reference list at the touch of a button.

Social Learning & Face-to-Face Contact

While the modules I’ve been running this year have been based on the way that we use media to socialise our experience through social networks, I’ve come to realise just how much I value the face-to-face contact that comes from interacting with students in the workshops.

It’s one thing to circulate and share ideas on social media platforms, but its so much better to be able to talk with people directly on a one-to-one basis in a workshop session. Rather than assuming that learners are going to immediately understand the concepts that we are using in the module, it’s important instead, to read people’s faces and their eyes to see what’s going on inside their heads as they process the ideas we are using.

This face-to-face interaction tells me so much more about what learners are actually able to process and make sense of than any electronic survey or report could ever do. Those who have completed a tasks and feel that they have learnt something show the pleasure and joy on their faces. Those who think they have dodged a bullet find it harder to obfuscate and divert my attention when they clearly haven’t done the work that was expected of them.

There’s a danger that we instrumentalise the learning experience in our modules by including too many electronic check-boxes, too many feedback and survey points, and too many remote systems for monitoring learners access with the online information that we post.

I’ve come to value, once again, the traditional interaction of sitting and talking with learners. With playing with ideas in a conversation, and taking our time to think about things that at first don’t make sense to us, but which change in our minds as we process them through chat.

If there is an underlying approach to the scholarship in my teaching, it is the socialisation of learning has to be diverted away from the banking model of learning, in which privatised consumers of knowledge store-up their expertise, skills and capabilities in order to complete a future assessment. Instead, I’m much more interested in the socialisation of learning and using our learning as it happens in a flow of reciprocal interaction that challenges the assumptions that we hold about phenomenon in the social media world.

Experiments in Open Web Communities – DMU Commons Wiki

One of the innovations I’ve made in my teaching this year has been the introduction of the DMU Commons Wiki system to my first and final year social media modules. In the past we’d used the inbuilt wiki in Blackboard, but I was never satisfied that this was not outward facing or industry standard. It’s difficult to encourage learners to take on a social media system sometimes, when it is behind an enclosure or garden wall. The system that is built into Blackboard only uses the propriatorial system that they provide, and I was keen to get learners to use something that is more widely recognised in the real world – which doesn’t come much better than MediaWiki, the system that Wikipedia uses.

So I’ve introduced regular wiki posts into the coursework for TECH1002 Introduction to Social Media & Technology and TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production as a way of providing a space for learners to experience posting to an open wiki system, where they are in charge of the process of submission and can see the posts that are created by other learners. Indeed, the aim is to encourage learners to collaborate on posts and to encourage other people to contribute to them.

The DMU Commons comprises as set of blogs and the Wiki. The skills needed for each are fairly straightforward and give immediate access. There is no coding or complex set-up. WikiMedia is a simple ‘syntax’ based system that can automatically generate a set of standard formatting functions in a page just by adding some simple punctuation/syntax. For example MediaWiki creates a contents box based on the use of headers in the text, which are simply identified by adding a couple of ‘=’ wrapped around the text that forms the title. My estimate is that you can learn to post a page with some basic information in about twenty minutes.

DMU-Commons-Wiki-001Once the basic skills in creating a page and mastering how to format some simple content are established the main issues is how to name the page so that it can be found by other people on the wiki. There are two main ways to navigate around a wiki, either by following a hypertext link or by searching for a key word. This is a rhizomatic approach to information management, with no centralised or ‘tree-like’ information structure. All points are available to all other points in the system at all times. Indeed, planning wiki entries requires a shift in our thinking that eschews structure and instead works on tags, key words and links. You don’t have to worry about what comes first, or what follows. Each page is posted discretely and stands alone. So it has to be named in such way that it can be found without it being linked to any other pages.

The great advantage in this form of publishing is that there is no central control exerted over the production process, and it can be revised and updated at any time. There’s no need for an editorial board or a publishing schedule. Users can post content when they want, and if it needs to be published in an initial form that is incomplete, then it can be revised and updated later, by any of the other contributors. It’s a perfect development tool for collaborative teams as they work on documents that form a centralised information point. The information can be shared easily and updated as networks of developers go along. Behind each page is the tracking system that maintains a record of what changes were made and by who.

I’ve encouraged my learners to create a profile page for themselves, so that they can add information about what they have been producing, what their biographical information is, and examples and links of work that they have developed. Another advantage of a wiki is its relative anonymity. So users only get identified by the P:Number (DMU ID), and nothing on a page is publicly credited. The most experienced users can sit alongside the newbies and develop content that is of equal worth in the wiki. There’s less opportunity in a wiki to exercise your ego, and as a result those of us who are more introvert and retiring get the chance to make our mark while the loud-mouths have their sense of entitlement to recognition toned down. The blogs that the learners write can be as egotistical as they like, but the wiki entries have to be written to a general standard that isn’t based on who you are, but is instead about what you have to add.

I thought it was important to encourage contributions by asking learners to post content that they are interested in, so there’s a selection of fan pages, sports pages and gaming pages, all in different stages of development. There’s a lot of interest in TV programmes such as Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Firefly; and then there’s pages about DC and Marvel Comics and Films. The games pages are interesting, because there are a lot of students who game at DMU, with a good deal of expertise and knowledge about different game worlds and systems. As a platform for grass-roots interest, a wiki is a pretty good way of allowing contributors to express their own interests. Interests that are representative of the diversity of interests that exist at DMU. With a wiki, no one page can be flouted as being above any other page in terms of its value or appreciation except that it is of interest to the users and contributors of the wiki. All content is equal on a wiki.

The advantage of a wiki goes beyond simply sharing information, but also allows users to develop collaborative plans when working on projects. Rather than sending around different versions of a document, a wiki page is a living document that can be updated in real time. Changes can be made easily and with clear agreements from the contributors. There are other collaborative document systems, such as Microsoft SharePoint, but for what MediaWiki costs to host, and the level to which it enables collaboration, I don’t think I’d use anything else for project planning in the future. My final year students are about to write a project development plan using the wiki for a social media project they are undertaking, so I’ll be able to share how this goes later on.

So, what’s likely to be of use on the DMU Commons Wiki in the future? One thing that I think has loads of potential is the development of How-to-Guides. Already there are a couple of pages dedicated to media production techniques, such as photography, audio recording and video production. The sharing of hands-on information by learners, technical staff and academics alike, heralds a good opportunity to pass on information to a wider audience, a community of practitioners. With expertise often split over different departments and buildings at DMU, the DMU Commons Wiki could be a cost effective way of bringing practitioners together, regardless of their chosen discipline, to share and collaborate in how to get the best from the media technologies that they are working with. Indeed, why stop at media technology, this wiki is open to all technologies, disciplines and subjects, across the whole of the university.

So I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges from the DMU Commons Wiki, what kind of communities of interest emerge, how they share and collaborate knowledge, and how they enhance communication so that people who wouldn’t normally get to collaborate and share are able to with minimum fuss.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Eleven – Netnography Ethical Questions

This week we are discussing the role of the ethnographer as an ethical researcher and how we can assess if our research activities are likely to result in harm to the volunteers and participants who are helping us. To start it’s worth refreshing our memory about what ethnographic and netnographic study is about. As Christine Hine points out: “The Internet has frequently been understood by social scientists as providing a new space for social interaction and for the development of social formations, and innovation in research methods is needed to address these new spaces. However, this does not mean that the traditional sites of research into everyday life become irrelevant” (Hine, 2005, p. 109). Therefore, and as Robert Kozinets suggests, “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).

Kozinets goes on to suggest, “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).

In developing our research plans, then, we have to consider how the activities that we undertake and the roles that we play as investigators, will affect the lives of the people that we are studying. As researchers we have a duty to ensure that harm is minimised and that any situation that might negatively impact on the wellbeing or reputation of the research subjects we are working with is minimised. Boellestorff et al have identified “eight fundamental areas in which ethnographers should consider the ethics of the impacts of their research on informants. These areas – informed consent, mitigation of institutional risk, anonymity, deception, sex and intimacy, compensation, taking leave, and accurate portrayal” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 130). To which I would like to add some comments about the following: Entering the Field, Negotiating with Gatekeepers, Confidentiality and Harm, Protecting the Under-Eighteens.

When we start our investigation, and have identified the general area of social and community life that we would like to examine, we have to think about how we might gain access to that area. This is commonly called ‘entering the field’, and requires ethnographic researchers to make a careful evaluation of the type of social interactions we are likely to find and encounter in these communities. As Robert Prus reminds us, while researchers “needn’t accept the viability of the viewpoints of those they encounter as reference points for all matters of personal activity, ethnographers are faced with the task of acquiring perspectives, or at least attaining a good working familiarity with the world views of those they purport to study” (Prus 1996). Therefore any activity that we undertake as part of our research has to be mindful that the role that we play as researchers isn’t straightforward or simple. As Prus explains, “Like others who venture into particular arenas and attempt to deal with the people (often strangers) they encounter there, ethnographers may find themselves dealing with considerable ambiguity, uncertainty, and stage fright. Not only do they attempt to learn about and define the parameters of the field, but they must also tentatively envision their own lines of action and contemplate ways of approaching and relating to these in the field” (Prus 1996).

Therefore, according to Prus, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus 1996). Prus suggests that instead of worrying about the specifics of research protocols and management plans, it is more important that researchers are attuned to the people with whom they will be interacting within the defined ‘life-worlds’ that people operate. And rather than putting the researcher on a pedestal and regarding them as an independent and objective entity, the whole enterprise of ethnography is founded on the ability of the researcher to develop a familiarity and intimacy with the researcher subjects. As Prus describes “There my be times when people in the settings expect researchers to protect auras of significance, but for the most part I’ve found that people very much appreciate contract with someone who is genuinely interested in learning about, as opposed to trying to impress them. In this regard, I’ve become more attentive to the importance of explaining things to people, telling them of my own limited knowledge in the area, and asking them if they would like to help me with the project at hand” (Prus 1996).

 Prus is clearly not naive about this process of engagement, and suggests that the initial efforts of the researcher to “establish intersubjectivity [are] complicated by the fact that while participants may be open, sincere, and cooperative, they may also resist and deceive researchers by both concealing and selectively revealing information. As well, participants may unintentionally forget, become confused, and otherwise inadvertently mislead researchers” (Prus 1996). Which means that researchers must accept that the interactions, discussions and actions of the research subjects are human and therefore multi-faceted, complex and ambiguous. We each live our lives subject to emotional and symbolic forces that our not in our control, being attuned to how we make sense of these contradictions is the role of the ethnographer in the field. As Prus adds, “this means that researchers are faced not only with the task of selecting and organising material that depict in central manners the lived experiences of the other, but also with selecting ways of conveying and contextualising these to prospective readers so that they find these experiences (transcontextually) meaningful and comprehensible” (Prus 1996). Therefore, as Boellstorff et al remind us, “Ethnography cannot be done on the side, nor is it an enterprise to undertake lightly” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 76).

 When we enter into a social situation as a researcher we have to make an assessment about the social structure and the possible lines of action that are available to us. In many circumstances this means that we have to establish a rapport with the ‘gatekeepers’ who have acquired status and a controlling influence within the community. As Boellstorff et al point out “Negotiating entrée via group gatekeepers is something that often has to be done when working with more formal organisations or groups that keep tighter boundaries around themselves” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 77). This process of negotiation is important at all levels of participation, as “Ethnographers cannot simply observe because, by definition, [but] must participate in the fieldsite” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 142). Therefore being clear, honest and trustworthy about our intentions when we are conducting our research is a priority.

 Key to our access to social situations that we want to study is the way in which we are able to negotiate and maintain as sense of familiarity and conviviality with the participants in the life world that we wish to engage with. As Robert Prus identifies, “Given their goal of achieving intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of the other in a more comprehensive sense, researchers may wish to be mindful of the sorts of affiliations that they develop with particular others in the setting. These may significantly affect researchers’ abilities to access other people in the setting as well as their opportunities to learn more fully about the life-worlds at hand” (Prus 1996).

 This involves not only working with information or recording observations of fact and action, but also being attuned to the emotional states of the participants in the life worlds we study. As Robert Prus explains, “In addition to the challenges entailed in learning about the life-worlds of the other in more direct sense, ethnographers face the task of managing their own emotional states (as private experiences) as well as the ways in which they express any emotional themes to others” (Prus 1996). And therefore, “In working with people, it is also important that researchers try to adopt and sustain a congenial disposition throughout their contract with the field”(Prus 1996).

There are no fixed rules about how we sustain this sense of congeniality, because each situation and each group of people that we interact with will require a different set of operations and performance criteria that we are attuned to. Even assessing this form of congeniality as a form of role playing is problematic, as sincerity and genuine affection is not something that can be performed. To limit and manage the expectations that arise from our contact researchers might want to consider how their disposition is managed, for as Robert Prus states, “Maintaining composure is somewhat related to the matter of congeniality, but draws attention to the importance of researchers developing a more, trustworthy image or reputation in the setting. Composure should not be taken as synonymous with a lack of interest, but rather denotes an element of balanced control over oneself in the field situation” (Prus 1996). Indeed, as Prus goes on, “Researchers may inadvertently and innocently become embroiled in matters beyond their control, but it is more unfortunate when they are the source of their own undoing” (Prus 1996).

 Our hope as ethnographers is that we have established a sense of confidence and trust to such an extent that there is clear benefits in “encouraging open conversations,” reassuring them that there is no right answer, and providing positive feedback will all help to build the special report to crucial to a successful interview” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 95). As Boellstorff et al point out “One of our goals as interviewers should be to help people feel authorised to speak freely, to honour their expertise and encourage them to convey their insights to us” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 99). If we get this right, and we have settled on a level and form of congeniality that is welcoming and trust worth, then the benefit is one where “Informants will… remember us, the ethnographers. They will recall our gifts of listening, the deep interest displayed in small details of their lives, and the way we took care to discern and follow the complexities and enigmas of their everyday pursuits and dreams” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).

Perhaps the most important issue in any form of research that involves interaction with participants is that of informed consent. Robert Kozinetts explains that “Inherent in the nature of ethnography and netnography, the researcher must constantly maintain a tension, taking back and community and culture, and the more abstract and distanced worlds of theory, words, generality, and research focus”(Kozinets 2010). And therefore, according to Kozinets, “The foundation of an ethical netnography is honesty between the researcher and online community members”(Kozinets 2010).

According to Robert Kozinets “From the beginning of the research through to its end, good netnographic research ethics dictates that the researcher: (1) openly and accurately identifies her or himself, avoiding all deception, (2) openly and accurately describes their research purpose for interacting with community members, and (3) provides an accessible, relevant, and accurate description of their research focus and interests. Finally, it is highly recommended that the netnographer set up a research web-page providing positive identification as well as a more detailed explanation of the research and its purpose, and perhaps should eventually share the initial, interim, and final research findings with online community members”(Kozinets 2010).

We can list some useful questions that might help us to identify the ongoing ethical issues associated with our research:

  • Will informed consent be required from participants?
  • If so, what procedures to obtain consent will be followed? (E.g., print or digital signatures, virtual consent tokens, click boxes or waiver of documented consent).
  • Will consent be obtained just from individuals or from communities and online system administrators?
  • In situations whereby consent is desired but written informed consent is impossible (or in regulatory criteria, impracticable) or potentially harmful, will procedures or requirements be modified?
  • What harm might result from asking for consent, or through the process of asking for consent?
  • What ethical concerns might arise if informed consent is not obtained?
  • If an ethics board deems no consent is required, will the researcher still seek subjects’/participants’ consent in a non-regulatory manner?
  • If informed consent is warranted, how will the researcher ensure that participants are truly informed?

Risk in the research situation is not confined to that which might potentially affect the participant, but also the role of the researcher and the organisation that they are part of. Because the form of research that is being undertaken in an ethnographic study is participant based, it would not be appropriate for the researcher to adopt a tone of oversight or advantage with their respondents. As Boellstorff et al points out “When not placed on a pedestal above participant observations and other qualitative approaches, quantitative methods can play a valuable role in some ethnographic research projects” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 128). This does not imply, however, that the controls and the checks that most institutions place on the research enterprise are any less necessary. Questions that are raised by organisational involvement include:

  • Does our research adequately protect the researcher and their organisation, as well as the community/author/participant?
  • What are potential benefits associated with this study?
  • Who benefits from the study – do the potential participants? If not, what greater benefit justifies the potential risks?
  • Is the research aiming at a good or desirable goal and how does this fit in with the goals of the supporting organisation?
  • Can we be sure the data collected from online sites, fora, communities, is “legitimate” and “valuable” and what procedures and process of monitoring and approval must it go through to be supported by the organisation?
  • How are we recognizing the autonomy of others and acknowledging that they are of equal worth to ourselves and should be treated so?

Significant commitment is given to the protection of participants identity in an ethnographic study, as even the ‘piecing together’ of seemingly unrelated facts can be problematic for individuals, particularly if what they are sharing with the researcher is of an intimate and personal nature. As Boellstorff et al points out “In ethnographic research, identifying a person potentially identifies their social network” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 141). In netnography this can be a more demanding issue than at first anticipated, as “In many cases, a blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed for our research project might provide a way to show we care about our informants while keeping our private lives, and the private lives of informants, reasonably separate” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 146). What should remain foremost in the mind of the researcher then, is working in such as way that we minimise any potential harm or damage that might be experienced or perceived by the respondents. As Boellstorff et al point out, generally “Ethnography results in neither bodily harm nor psychological distress”, though it might be thought of as typically carrying “what is termed ‘informational risk’, the risk that private information could be made public” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 133).

Confidentiality therefore forms a major focus of the research management process. Ensuring that respondents who wish to remain anonymous and the protection of the personal information of general respondents is crucial. As Boellstorff et al points out, “If we have acquired privileged information in interviews or conversations, it should not be discussed as the conflict unfolds, or even in its aftermath, unless we are certain it will cause no harm” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 137). Therefore, “Upholding the confidentiality and anonymity of our participants is central. Keeping in mind the unanticipated consequences if people’s identities and activities were revealed should promote reflectivity on our part when deciding what is important to include in the written work” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 138).

Under no circumstances should research be attempted that plans to deceive or deploy engagement strategies that are founded on deception. Kozinets states this categorically. “Netnographers should never, under any circumstances, engage in identity deception”(Kozinets 2010). Likewise Boellstorff et al are clear about the consequences of any such attempt to deceive: “The very basis of the data gathering activity of ethnography is compromised, if not destroyed, through deception” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 143). Therefore, “Deceiving informants remains firmly outside the bounds of ethical ethnographic research” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 142).

In some circumstances we will be dealing with information that is of a sensitive nature, that individual participants would not normally share or discuss with other people, let alone something that might go into a research study. In these circumstances, as Boellstorf et al point out, “We must use our best judgement, operating from the core principle of care, as to not only what is public versus private from an etic* perspective, but also what the people we study empirically perceive as public or private. Such notions will vary from one culture to the next” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 135). As such “Ethnographers strive to avoid negative outcomes by playing special attention to the potential consequences and risks of what we see and hear, and remembering that not everything is grist for the data mill, no matter how interesting it may be” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 137).

[*Emic and etic, in anthropology, folkloristics, and the social and behavioral sciences, refer to two kinds of field research done and viewpoints obtained; from within the social group (from the perspective of the subject) and from outside (from the perspective of the observer). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic]

Not everyone that we engage with in a study is able to give researchers their informed consent, either because they lack the personal capability to understand the process, or because they do not have the legal independence to give consent. In circumstances in which research wishes to engage with people who are under the eighteen years old we should consider the following issues:

  • What particular issues might arise around the issue of minors or vulnerable persons?
  • Are minors being excluded from the study because of the difficulties of getting ethical permission to study them?
  • In situations where identity, age, and ability of the participant is unknown or hidden, and harm cannot be determined as an a priori category based on known vulnerability of participant, how will harm be considered as an ethical concern and operationalized in the study?
  • How are minors identified as ‘minors’ in contexts where demographic information is not required?
  • What harm might result from asking (or not asking) for participants to reveal their age?
  • How will parental or guardian consent be obtained in addition to assent where required by research regulations? What risks might arise in this particular consent process? (for any or all parties, including the minor, the parents, and the researcher)?

Our assessment and explanations of the benefits of ethnographic research are often crucial to the way that we win people over to the idea of participating in a study. But there are a series of questions that we should explain that allow us to tell the story of the research and give participants the confidence that participating in the study has compensations and advantages – either direct or indirect. So researchers should be able to explain:

  • How are findings presented?
  • What immediate or future risk might occur by using exact-quoted material in published reports? (For example, while a participant might not think his or her information is sensitive now, this might change in five years. What protections might be put in place to anticipate changing perceptions?)
  • Are individuals adequately protected in pre-publication reports, such as workshops, conferences, or informal meetings?
  • Could materials be restricted because of copyright? (For example, many countries have strong restrictions on using screenshots or images taken from the web without permission.
  • Certain sites have restrictions in their terms of service. Whereas there may be allowances for the scholarly use of copyrighted materials without permission, such as the U.S. doctrine of fair use, this is not a guarantee of protection against copyright infringement.)
  • How are texts/persons/data being studied?
  • Does one’s method of analysis require exact quoting and if so, what might be the ethical consequence of this in the immediate or long term? (For example, would quoting directly from a blog cause harm to the blogger and if so, could another method of representation be less risky?) What are the ethical expectations of the research community associated with a particular approach (e.g, ethnographic, survey, linguistic analysis)?
  • Do one’s disciplinary requirements for collecting, analysing, or representing information clash with the specific needs of the context? If so, what are the potential ethical consequences?

Despite our efforts to maintain a sense of coherence through our research, there are occasions when the participants in the study wish to withdraw and exclude any data that has been collected. Participants are entitled to withdraw from a study at any point, and to have any data that clearly relates to their participation reviewed or withheld. Sometimes this can be managed by making the pool of data, though if specifically pressed researchers have to be able to assure participants that data can be destroyed. So, how participants take leave from a study is an essential part of the information exchange at the start. Can participants in the research study ask to leave the study at any time, and what will happen to the data that has been accumulated so far?

At some point as we make progress with the note taking, journaling and writing up our notes, based on the conversations and activities that we have been privileged to witness, we have to make a decision about how these events and issues will be depicted. According to Boellstorff et al “a basic principle of ethnographic research is that we should take our lead from our informants, following them to wherever they engage irrelevant activity” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 118). Keeping in mind that the process of observation and writing is not an equal exchange, but involves some privilege on the part of the researcher that they may be considered by the participants in a study to be in a position of power and authority. Boellstoff et al described this as an ‘asymmetrical relationship’, and ast that we consider that as “a key consequence of this asymmetry is the imperative that the ethnographer ‘take good care’ of information. This notion goes beyond simply doing no harm; it means ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that informants gain some reward from participating in research” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129). Which means that “we must commit, ethically, to whatever it takes to experience the activities where the data we require are generated” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).

Because we are witness to a wide range of issues and activities in the lives and the life-worlds of the people and communities that a study may focus on, it does not follow that we have to record everything that takes place. Some things will clearly be outside of the remit of the area of study, other things might be counterproductive for the people involved in the study to have written about them and recorded. As Boellstorff et al suggest, “the point is not that everything that we write should be readable by the communities studied, or by all academic communities; it is that we should write in the clearest manner possible that is appropriate for a particular genre” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150), while also respecting the needs of the individuals who have given us privileged access. As Boellstorff et al go on to point out “Overall, then, the ethnographic enterprise hinges on engaging others in ethical conversation and preparing careful, accurate accounts that do not compromise informants” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 150).

This brings us to the central idea at the heart of the ethical evaluations that we are considering. That of harm and the potential that what are undertaking as ethnographic researchers might have the potential to cause harm to the participants in our study, and those who might be associated with the study. As Kozinets points out “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Kozinets 2010).

In these circumstances, because we are seeking to make sense of the interactions of actual agents acting in their respective life worlds, the ethnographer is faced with the challenge of respecting and accounting for the impact of their actions. While content analysis has a limited set of potential impacts on people, participant observation is replete with many possibilities for harm. As Robert Kozinets suggests, “ethnographers, netnographers, and other qualitative researchers have no […] clear and measurable standards of evaluation”(Kozinets 2010), and therefore must consider their actions and the results of those actions from a wider frame of reference. As Boellstorff et al point out “Care is a core value to be internalised and acted on through the vigilance and commitment of the researcher. Any sets of research ethics guidelines and dicta will be ineffective if researchers do not have embedded into their practice strong values establishing ethical behaviour built on the principle of care” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129).

But as Boellstorff et al go on to explain “the principle of care arises in part from asymmetrical power relations and imbalance of benefit between investigator and investigated” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 129), and so, “if we cannot know in advance if harm will occur because determination of harm is ‘an empirical question’, then acceptability is ‘unknown’. How can informed content be informed when the nature of the potential harm is not assessed until after the fact” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 132).

Some routine questions that ethnographic researchers should consider include:

  • What are the potential harms or risks associated with this study.
  • What is the potential harm or risk for individuals, for online communities, for researchers, for research?
  • Are risks being assessed throughout the study as well as in advance of the study? (Harm is only certain after it occurs. Thus, a priori assessments of risk might be useful but inadequate).
  • How are the concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘harm’ being defined and operationalized in the study? How are risks to the community/author/participant being assessed?
  • How is vulnerability determined in contexts where this categorization may not be apparent?
  • Would a mismatch between researcher and community/participant/author definitions of ‘harm’ or ‘vulnerability’ create an ethical dilemma? If so, how would this be addressed?
  • What harms–to life, to career, to reputation–may occur from the research? (e.g., would the research “out” an LGBTQ individual who is not publicly out and perhaps cause them to lose their jobs? Would the research cause someone to face criminal or civil penalties?)
  • What possible privacy-related harms may occur? For example, might online groups disband or individuals cease to use an online support group or withdraw from blogging activities because of the presence of researchers; Might individuals be upset that their perceived privacy has been violated; might individuals object to having their writing or speech anonymised, preferring to remain known and public in any published results?
  • Who or what else could cause harm to the author/participant beyond the researcher? Are we acting in ways that minimizes risk?

As we narrow the issues associated with our research we can focus on two primary areas of consideration that have to be articulated for the benefit of those who are involved in the study, and for the benefit of those who are supporting the study. That is:

  • What is the primary object of study?
  • How will these objectives be stated?

Here is an example of a research management statement that we might consider using to explain the rational and the data collection processes that will be used:

“The data collection methods that are required for this study will take the form of recorded interviews, questionnaires, surveys, interviews, online discussion boards, observations of online activity and discussion forums, practical observation, and recording of workshops. The research project involves gathering information from voluntary participants, community volunteers and community organisations representatives working in volunteer-based community media organisations. The research will be gathered by undertaking recorded semi-structured interviews. These data collection methods will be used to identify to what extent, and in what way, the volunteers of different community media groups use social media as a practical tool for the development of content, as a social tool for the development of relationships, and as a method of facilitating communication. The initial pilot study will trail and assess the potential methods that might be used in the extended study period. The initial aim of the pilot study is to identify and note a broad range of issues, following from which further focus on more convergent research imperatives can be defined. The research will be based on the observations of human behaviour as volunteers participate in the development of content and associated services.”

Statements of this kind are designed to give some context to the wider range of questions that are raised in any research study. We might list and ask further questions:

How is the context defined and conceptualized?

Does the research definition of the context match the way owners, users, or members might define it? (Parameters such as ‘culture,’ ‘person,’ ‘data set,’ and ‘public text’ each carry different ethical expectations for researchers).

Are there distinctions between local contextual norms for how a venue is conceptualized and jurisdictional frameworks (e.g., Terms of Service, other regulations)? For example, if the TOS defines the space as off limits for researchers but the individuals want to participate in public research of this space, what risk might exist for either the researcher or individuals involved?

  • What are the ethical expectations users attach to the venue in which they are interacting, particularly around issues of privacy? Both for individual participants as well as the community as a whole?
  • How is the context (venue/participants/data) being accessed?
  • How are participants/authors situated in the context?
  • How are participants/authors approached by the researcher?
  • How is the researcher situated in the context?
  • If access to an online context is publicly available, do members/participants/authors perceive the context to be public?
  • What considerations might be necessary to accommodate ‘perceived privacy’ or the notion that individuals might care more about the appropriate flow of information as defining it as public or private?
  • Who is involved in the study?
  • What are the ethical expectations of the community/participants/authors?
  • What is the ethical stance of the researcher? (For example, a mismatch between the ethical stance of the researcher and the community/participant/author may create ethical complications).
  • What are the ethical traditions of researchers’ and/or author/participants’ cultures or countries?

On collecting the data that we are accumulating through our research we are then faced with issues about how we might manage that data. Expressed as a routine set of questions we might want to consider how:

  • If research data is housed in a repository for reuse, how might individuals or communities be affected later? For example, data collected for one purpose might be reused later for a different purpose but the researcher’s relationship with the community from which the data came no longer exists.
  • What possible risk or harm might result from reuse and publication of this information?
  • What are the ethical expectations commonly associated with these types of data? (For example, working with aggregated, de-identified data carries different ethical expectations than working with interview data.)
  • Does the object of analysis include persons or texts beyond the immediate parameters outlined by the study? What are the potential ethical consequences and how might these be addressed? (For example, collecting data from a blog often includes comments; collecting data from one social media stream reveals links to people or data outside the specific scope of the study.)
  • If information collected in the course of a study can be linked back to an individual by means of internet search or other technology, what process will the researcher use to determine how that information will be treated? (For example, many challenges surround the responsible use of images and video).
  • To what extent might data be considered by participants to be personal and private, or public and freely available for analysis and republication?
  • What other questions might arise as a result of the particular context from which this data was collected?
  • How are data being managed, stored, and represented?
  • What method is being used to secure and manage potentially sensitive data?
  • What unanticipated breaches might occur during or after the collection and storage of data or the production of reports? (For example, if an audience member recorded and posted sensitive material presented during an in-house research presentation, what harms might result?
  • If the researcher is required to deposit research data into a repository for future use by other researchers (or wishes to do so), what potential risks might arise? What steps should be taken to ensure adequate anonymity of data or to unlink this data from individuals?
  • What are the potential ethical consequences of stripping data of personally identifiable information?
  • How might removal of selected information from a dataset distort it such that it no longer represents what it was intended to represent?
  • If future technologies (such as automated textual analysis or facial recognition software) make it impossible to strip personally identifiable information from data sets in repositories, what potential risks might arise for individuals?
  • Can this be addressed by the original researcher? If so, how? How will this impact subsequent researchers and their data management?

At this stage, we can now put some flesh onto the bones of the study that we are planning to undertake for this module. Our research management statement can be listed as follows:

  • By using ethnographic research techniques this study will attempt to identify and validate the processes that are emerging through social media participation.
  • These processes are largely meaning driven, and depend on a specific and contingent social context to make sense.
  • Information will be collected and organised reflexively, with the experience of the researcher playing as important a role as the participants who are being represented.
  • This information will be drawn from experiences taking place in the field, through specific activities taking place in the main location of production and online.
  • This information will be represented using descriptive techniques.
  • Theory and abstraction will only be built-up once sufficient descriptive examples have been accumulated.

As such, this study will ask:

  • How concepts of social media are used by participants engaged in different communities?
  • How the experience of social media networks are made sense of by participants in different social media groups associated with food, diet and health?
  • How the structure of different food, diet and health communities are informed by the practices of agents acting with a social media mind-set?
  • How participants involved in different food, diet and health communities behave, act and communicate when using or producing content using social media techniques?
  • What kind of interpersonal dynamics occur between agents using and producing social media content in different food, diet and health communities?
  • What topics are discussed, and what information, opinions and beliefs are exchanged among the participants in different food, diet and health in relation to social media?

A range of ethical issues are expected to impact on these studies as data will be collected using a mixed methodological approach that might include participant observation, digital ethnography and forms of action research. However the mechanism of specific research practices has not yet been identified, and therefore the impact on ethical assessment cannot yet be made in detail.

All that remains now is to list the actions that researchers will engage in as the study is put into practice. Likely issues to be dealt with by the researcher therefore include:

  • Close and open communication among the volunteers involved.
  • Ensuring that any relevant persons, committees and authorities have been consulted, and that the principles guiding the work are accepted in advance by all.
  • Deciding if participants are allowed to influence the work, and respecting the wishes of those who do not wish to participate.
  • Developing the work in a visible and open form that respects the principles of social collaboration but maintains data integrity and confidentiality.
  • Obtaining appropriate permissions before making observations or examining documents produced for other purposes.
  • Negotiating and gaining consensus on the description of the work of others and acknowledging any concerns prior to publication.
  • Accepting responsibility for maintaining confidentiality.
  • Ensuring a balance is struck between decisions made about the direction of the projects and the probable outcome of the research as an academically publishable document.
  • The researchers is explicit about the nature of the research process from the beginning, including all personal biases and interests.
  • There is appropriate access to information generated by the process for all participants.

The researcher and the initial design team must create a process that maximizes the opportunities for involvement of all participants, therefore, the researcher will identify the following:

  • Matrix of key issues for on-going monitoring.
  • Timeline and milestone plan setting out key objectives.
  • Prioritisation matrix mapping risk factors associated with any proposed activities.
  • Review and monitoring of data management systems and audit of actions and responsibilities resulting from changes to the data and its use. [Adapted from http://www.web.net/~robrien/papers/arfinal.html]

Finally, we must state and list the sources of information that we have made reference to in putting together our the ethics review we have produced. For example, a full ethics and data integrity review proposal would usually be submitted to the Faculty of Technology Research Ethics Committee before any pilot or preparatory studies are undertaken. The researcher will make reference to the recommended faculty codes of practice, but will further develop this as part of the methodology planning and review based on other sets of ethical guidelines.

http://www.dmu.ac.uk/faculties/technology/current_students/hre/forms_links.jsp

http://www.theasa.org/downloads/ASA%20ethics%20guidelines%202011.pdf

http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/34088_Chapter4.pdf

References:
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. (2012). Ethnography and Virstual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hine, C. (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in Social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London, Sage.
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York, State University of New York Press.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Ten: Frameworks of Understanding – Symbolic Interaction

Intersubjectivity: This week’s lecture moves forward our thinking about qualitative research by looking at some specific case studies and discussing how examples of social media interaction can be understood as a series of regular sub-processes. Our starting point is to remind ourselves of the objective of ethnographic style research, in which, according to Kathy Charmaz we seek to “enter our research participants’ worlds to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions. But we do so as genuine participants ourselves, not as distanced, unbiased observers who dispassionately record the doings of others?” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xii). As Charmaz goes on “to understand what people intend and why they act as they do we must enter into their experience. We must share it” (Kathy Charmaz in Prus, 1996, p. xiv).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001h-2014-11-26According to Robert Prus “at the heart of the sociological enterprise is the idea that human behaviour is the product of community life; that people’s behaviour cannot be reduced to individual properties. A major task facing sociologists (and social scientists more generally), therefore, revolves around the study of the accomplishment of intersubjectivity; that is, indicating how people become social entities and how they attend to one another and the products of human endeavour in the course of day-to-day life”(Prus, 1996, p. 2).

In examining these day-to-day interactions we should note, according to Prus, that “all constructions of reality, all notions of definition, identifications, and explanations, all matters of education, enterprise, entertainment, interpersonal relations, organisational practices, cultic involvements, collective behaviour, and political struggles of all sorts are rooted in the human accomplishment of intersubjectivity” (Prus, 1996, p. 2). In this pragmatic form of ethnography that Prus champions, then, it is the ‘intersubjective’ meanings, actions and routines that we establish as a community that enables people to work out on what basis they do things. As Prus comments, “the interpretivists observe that the study of human behaviour is the study of human lived experience and that human experience is rooted in people’s meanings, interpretations, activities, and interactions. These notions, they posit are the essential substance of a social science” (Prus, 1996, p. 9). And it is these interpretivists notions that we will use to determine the methodology for data collection and research in our study.

As Robert Prus explains: “Symbolic interaction may be envisioned as the study of the ways in which people make sense of their life-situations and the ways in which they go about their activities, in conjunction with others, on a day-to-day basis. It is very much a ‘down to earth’ approach, which insists upon rigorously grounding its notions of the ways in which human group life is accomplished in the day-to-day practices and experiences of the people whose lives one purports to study” (Prus, 1996, p. 10).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001a-2014-11-26Prus argues that “it is in the course of developing familiarity with the language of a community that people are able to approximate rudimentary understandings of, or perspectives on, human life-worlds. Only once people develop some fundamental conceptualisations of ‘the world’ may they begin to exhibit some sort of reflectivity and meaningful human agency. Only with the acquisition of a language-based set of understandings or perspective are people able to take themselves into account in developing and pursing particular lines of action. As Mead (1934) observes, it is the attainment of language that makes the possession of a ‘self’ possible” (Prus, 1996, p. 11).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001b-2014-11-26We are working, according to Prus “with stocks of knowledge (and conceptual schemes) gleaned through interaction with others, but now applying these in particular or situated contexts, in familiar and in different ways, people formulate thoughts, achieve unique experiences, experience novelty, and pursue creativity. Indeed, given the limitations of their existing (linguistic) stocks of knowledge on a collective basis as well as individual variants within, people’s experiences may well outstrip their abilities to retain and formulate more precise or lasting images of these events” (Prus, 1996, p. 12).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001c-2014-11-26As such, according to Prus “human activity does not simply involve someone invoking behaviour of some sort, but more accurately entails several sub-processes. Most notably, these include: defining the situation at hand, considering and anticipating both particular lines of action and potential outcomes, implementing behaviour, monitoring oneself along the way, assessing situations both in process and in retrospect, and adjusting or modifying one’s behaviour both during immediate events and following earlier episodes” (Prus, 1996, p. 14).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001d-2014-11-26We can identify some key principles when we enter into any social situations, based on the knowledge that

“Human group life is intersubjective…
Human group life is (multi) perspectival…
Human group life is reflective…
Human group life is activity-based…
Human group life is negotiable…
Human group life is relational…
Human group life is processual” (Prus, 1996, pp. 15-17)

Prus points out that “ethnographers generally rely on three sources of data (observation, participant-observation, and interviews) in their attempts to achieve intimate familiarity with the life-worlds of those they study” (Prus, 1996, p. 19). And that “observation encompasses not only those things that one witnesses through one’s visual and audio senses, but also includes any documents, diaries, records, frequency counts, maps, and the like that one may be able to obtain in particular settings” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).

“Participation-observation” accorsing to Prus, “adds an entirely different and vital dimension to the notion of observation. Although the practice of describing and analysing one’s own experiences has often been dismissed as ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ by those who think that researchers should distance themselves from their subject matters, the participant-observer role allows the researcher to get infinitely closer to the lived experiences of the participants than does straight observation” (Prus, 1996, p. 19).

“Like those doing straight observation,” Prus explains “researchers engaged in participant-observation normally try to remain fairly unobtrusive or nondisruptive in the setting being studied. However, participant-observation entails a more active (and interactive) and ambiguous role as researchers attempt to fit into the (dynamics) settings at hand. Insofar as more sustained participant-observation typically allows researchers to experience on a first-hand basis many aspects of the life-worlds of the other, it offers a rather unique and instructive form of data to those able and willing to assume the role of the other in a more comprehensive sense” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).

As such “interviews represent the third major method of gathering ethnographic data, and under some circumstances may provide the primary source of data for field researchers. By inquiring extensively into the experiences of others, interviews may learn a great deal about the life worlds of the other” (Prus, 1996, p. 20).

Workshop Activity:
Nvivo-Low-Carb-001In our lab activity this week we will use Nvivo to analyse a set of articles that contain forums and discussion boards in which readers relate their thoughts about the articles that are published.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 19.44.19http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/27/gastric-surgery-five-ways-change-health-culture-obesity#show-all

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 19.57.09http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2768442/It-s-not-easy-overweight-benefits-says-25-stone-mother-two-wants-MORE-money-government-help-diet.html

https://www.facebook.com/LowCarbZen?fref=ts

In analysing the interactions that are being made in these discussions we can work out what regular sets of processes are being followed. The generic social process and sub-processes of routine interaction. As Prus argues, as researchers we should attune ourselves to the processes that people follow, and not just the “significant key elements of people’s involvements in situations,” for these process also define the essence of community life.” According to Prus, “these processes are interdependent and need to be viewed holistically if we are to develop a fuller appreciation of each. Nevertheless, each process encompasses several (sub)processes within, and on these levels each is amenable to empirical inquiry” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001e-2014-11-26

So, as researchers we are attuning ourselves to the way that people, agents acting in the following:

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001f-2014-11-26“1. Acquiring Persepctives

  1. Achieving Identity
  2. Being Involved

Getting Started
Sustaining and intensifying involvements
Becoming disinvolved
Becoming reinvolved

  1. Doing Activity

Performing activities
Influencing others
Making commitments

  1. Experiencing Relationships
  2. Forming and Coordinating Relationships

Establishing associations
Objectifying associations
Encountering outsiders” (Prus, 1996, p. 149).

The way that people make sense of their interactions is a process of external interactions and the reflections that go into building a persons sense of identity. According to Rober Prus, this “’Identity work’ is contingent on people’s capacity for ‘self-reflectivity;’ it requires that one begin to take oneself into account in developing lines of action or that one became ‘an object unto oneself.’ Reflecting the perspectives one has on the world, people’s identities or self-other definitions are not only situated within those realities, but also are influenced by the ongoing shifts in perspectives that people normally undergo over time and across situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 152).

Identity work is series of processes in which people define their role and their position within community life through a set of generic social proceses. Therefore we are attuned to consider how people make sense of the interactions when:

  • “Encountering perspectives (definitions of reality) from others
  • Assessing (new, incoming) perspectives and resisting unwanted viewpoints
  • Developing images of objects (including images of other people and oneself)
  • Learning (cultural patterns of objects (e.g. rules of thumb, norms, fashion)
  • Defining situations (i.e., applying perspectives to the ‘cases at hand’)
  • Dealing with ambiguity (lapses and limitations in existing explanations)
  • Resolving contradictions (dilemmas within and across paradigms)
  • Extending or improvising on existing perspectives
  • Promoting (and defending) perspectives to others
  • Rejecting formerly held viewpoints
  • Adopting new viewpoints (Prus, 1996, p. 152).

“Like other (symbolic) interactions, emotional interchanges may be viewed best in process terms” (Prus, 1996, p. 179).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-010-Symbolic-Interaction-001g-2014-11-26“Many emotional interchanges (and themes) seem apt to dissipate when the interactants fail to endorse or acknowledge one another’s expressed interests or affections” (Prus, 1996, p. 184).

As Prus describes, “the focus is on people (a) developing generalised images and understandings of emotional states as these are viewed in the community at large, (b) learning cultural recipes or ‘rules of thumb’ (how to tell when) to define situations as emotional ones, and (c) applying those cultural understandings and recipes to specific ‘cases at hand’. This in no way denies the abilities of others to offer, suggest, or attempt to impose their understandings, rules of thumb, or definitions of the situation on the focal actor, but draws attention to the points at which people define themselves as being in emotional states or situations” (Prus, 1996, p. 177).

Therefore, according to Prus, “’human interaction is a positive shaping process in its own right. The participants have to build up their respective lines of conduct by constant interpretation of each other’s ongoing lines of action… Factors of psychological equipment and social organisation are not substitutes for the interpretive process; they are admissible only in terms of how they are handled in the interpretive process’ (Blumer 1966: 538)” (Prus, 1996, p. 69).

Prus quotes Blumer when he argues that “’the essence of society lies in an ongoing process of action – not in the posited structure of relations. Without action, any structure of relations between people is meaningless. To understand, a society must be seen and grasped in terms of the action that comprises it’ (Blumer 1966: 541)” (Prus, 1996, p. 70). And so, therefore, “Given the complex, ambiguous and emergent nature of human relations, there is no definitive set of instructions that can provide to insure success in the field” (Prus, 1996, p. 192). Being attuned to the many possibilities of action, interaction and meaningful interplay is a priority for the researcher, putting aside our own prejudices and onions so that we can engage as fully as we might in the social processes we are attempting to observe.

References:
Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism and Ethnographic Research. New York: State University of New York Press.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Nine: Research Management Plan

This week’s lecture gives us an opportunity to review some of the central issues that we have been looking at during the previous eight weeks, and to start to build a plan so that we can research into the life-worlds of our intended communities. During the last week there has been considerable press interest in the issue of obesity and diabetes, what some newspapers are calling the ‘fat plague,’ and others describe as an ‘epidemic’. According to the BBC a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute said worldwide obesity will “cost £1.3tn, or 2.8% of annual economic activity” and the “UK £47bn.” According to the report obesity is now reaching “crisis proportions.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30125440

Recently published government statistics note that between 1993 and 2012 the proportion of adults in the UK who are overweight (not just obese) increased from 57.6% to 66.6% for men, and 48.6% to 57.2% for women. http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB10364

BBC-Obesity-002As The Guardian explained, according to the McKinsey report “Obesity is a greater burden on the UK’s economy than armed violence, war and terrorism, costing the country nearly £47bn a year.” http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/20/obesity-bigger-cost-than-war-and-terror. The chief executive of NHS England has warned that “obesity will bankrupt the health service unless Britain gets serious about tackling the problem.” Reported in the Guardian, Simon Stevens told public health officials at a conference in Coventry that “Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.” http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/17/obesity-bankrupt-nhs-warning. During the same week the Mail Online reported that NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has approved the widespread use of gastric bands as a treatment for diabetes. According to the Mail Online “up to two million obese Britons will be eligible for weight-loss surgery on the NHS under new guidelines.” And that “NICE is telling doctors to suggest the operations to all patients above a given weight with type 2 diabetes.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2851060/Two-million-eligible-gastric-bands-operation-bill-12billion.html. Is this going to be the primary medical response to the growing number of people who are overweight or obese in the UK? According to the Mail Online, “more people are dying in Britain due to being overweight or obese than anywhere else in Europe.” “Around one in every 11 deaths in the UK is now linked to carrying excess fat – 50 per cent more than the rate in France.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-171497/Britains-obesity-death-rate.html. With so much interest in this issue emerging into the mainstream media, it would be useful, therefore, to review some of the ideas that we have explored in the lectures to date.

TECH3022_15-Lecture-009-Research-Management-Plan-001a-2014-11-23Western Diets The diet that has been adopted in the West, (i.e. the industrialised countries), is designed to secure a cheap supply of calorie rich and carbohydrate-loaded food. And because there is an excessive level of production of these foods, with the subsidies that are given to the food producer, it means that corn, wheat and other commodity foods are often sold for less than the cost of production. The ever onward drive towards producing seemingly new and  diversified consumer food products is based on the premise that corn, wheat and sugar are in plentiful supply. In turn this is supported by the ‘low-fat’ public health campaigns that suggest that foods that are low in fat are better for heart health and other metabolic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes. The processed food industry has been able to market technically engineered food-like substances in massive quantities to consumers with the promise that they are healthy. However, the problem is that the Western Diet is nutritionally deficient and lacks the essential nutritional qualities to be a sustainable part of people’s healthy lives. The incidence of heart disease is not dropping, despite better medical treatments and interventions that we now have to correct the chronic problems that people end up with. There is now increasing evidence that suggests that saturated fat does not cause heart disease by increasing cholesterol levels as has been claimed for the last forty years. The lipid-hypothesis is looking shaky. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11246112/High-fat-diets-not-as-dangerous-as-high-carbohydrate-plans-claim-scientists.html

Mail-Obesity-001Big Food The food manufacturers have invested millions of pounds over the last forty years into standardising and industrialising the food economy. This has led to a breakdown in the social infrastructure that supports tacit and community food engagement. Local traditions, passed from generation to generation, within families and local communities, are being lost at an ever-greater rate as food is designed for processing as a packaged product rather than as something that is created from basic core ingredients. By undercutting decent labour practices, squeezing suppliers to adopt mass production and farming methods, the processed food industry has generated thousands of meaningless and nutritionally deficient food-like-substances that are branded to suggest that they are healthy. Take orange juice for example. It’s effect on blood-sugar levels are virtually the same as cola, but most parents insist they are supporting the nutritional health of their children by packing a carton of juice in a lunchbox, or giving their kids a glass of orange juice with their breakfast for their. The food industry is content to leave parents in a state of ignorant bliss, not knowing the effect that sugar is having on their children, from in whatever food it is packaged up in. The big food manufacturers control the advertising of consumer products, they lobby for government policies that benefit them at the expense of consumer rights, and they attempt to control the information that is given to consumers by obfuscating the food labels that are produced with their packaged goods. The use of high levels of carbohydrates in processed foods increases the shelf-life of the products, it reduces the amount of fat in the products, and it bulks out the products so that they appear to be better value for money. But what is most important, is that this process massively increase the profits of the manufacturers who are turning out these good on an industrial scale.

insulin-01Hormonal Correction So, why is thinking about carbohydrates so important, and can’t people just eat less and exercise more if they want to stay slim? The central fallacy, often repeated by experts, doctors and nutritionists, is that all calories that go into the body are equal. As Gary Taubes points out, the common belief is that a calorie eaten must be burnt in physical activity. The problem with this hypothesis is that it is wrong. If we take different elements of food, such as protein, fat, fibre and carbohydrates, we see them acting on the body in very different ways. Eating generous portions of protein and fat will not result in weight gain under normal circumstances, and may even result in weight loss. Eating fibre is generally good for us because of the impact it has on our health as green vegetables and low-sugar fruits are loaded with micronutrients. The real culprit, it seems, are the carbohydrates that we consume. The sugars and carbohydrates that are associated with processed food are killing us. Processed food is carb-loaded and has a detrimental effect on our body’s ability to deal with high blood sugar levels. To get to grips with this problem we have to shift our thinking that weight gain is the product of greed, gluttony or sedentary lifestyles. Rather the problem is founded on the cycle of hormonal imbalances that are centred on how the body uses insulin to control fat deposits. Insulin is the key hormone for signalling to the body that it should deposit excess blood sugars as fat. In the process insulin clobbers glucogon and leptin on the head and stops them from doing their jobs. Their job is to convert fat to usable energy reserves, and to tell us to stop eating because we are full. As our insulin levels are being thrashed almost continuously because our diets are excessively loaded with carbohydrates, we enter a cycle of increasing weight gain, food addiction and a loss of energy. If we get our comprehension of this process right, therefore, then much else follows that allows us to correct the dietary imbalances and health problems that Western society is plagued with. Weight gain is not a moral issue. It is a hormonal and an environmental product.

(Here’s a useful article that explains the process) http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/insulin-and-glucagon-how-to-manipulate-them-and-lose-fat

Food Literacies The call for an alternative approach, then, is based on some simple and uncomplicated thinking. Local food production and distribution that puts the emphasis onto the supplier to clearly differentiate the good food from the bad. So much of the food that is sold in our supermarkets screams health claims at us, and yet they are dubious at best, and harmful at worst. So dealing with food packaging and advertising is essential. But what is lacking most are the skills and capabilities that people need to act confidently when they are cooking their own foods. Food literacies. Keeping away from processed food sounds great, but it has to be seen in the context of the busy and demanding modern lives that people lead, and the access that they have to good quality, yet affordable food resources. The lack of local grocers store in the UK is a major problem. People are forced to keep food for longer periods in their homes, so the food requires a longer shelf-life. The food production cycle since the 1950s has been one that drives down the quality and nutritional value of foods so that they last longer in the home, and yet still have a sense of satisfaction that is associated with non-processed foods. Perhaps we should look at taxing food flavourings so that processed food that is reliant on artificial chemical stimulants start to become unattractive to producers. After all has been part of the success story of eliminating smoking. Processed foods are stuffed with salt and sugar. The fat is removed to extend the shelf-life, so as to make the food seem more healthy, and to ensure that it can be transported easily. The problem is that it isn’t worth eating, it is making us sick.

Premise: Insulin Management
Low-Carb-Awareness-Hormones-001a-2014-11-27

Key Advocates
If you want to read more about these debates and find resources, then it is worth looking at the key advocates associated with the campaign to change our food thinking:

Gary Taubes
http://garytaubes.com/

Robert Lustig
http://www.responsiblefoods.org/

Michael Pollan
http://michaelpollan.com/

John Yudkin
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Yudkin

Booth & Bilton
http://www.actiononsalt.org.uk/

Low-Carb-PyramidFood Pyramid What is now becoming evident is that the recommendations of the health and diet industry, that we consume a diet that is heavy in grains, cereal and pasta is no longer tenable. It is the overconsumption of these foods that has caused the problem. We therefore should be looking to adopt a different model of food distribution, such as the low-carb food pyramid. Sticking to the main groups of food that we have evolved with, such as green vegetables, fruits, fish, moderate amounts of meat, moderate amounts of dairy, plenty of unprocessed oils and fats and only occasional or few grains. Not only is this more likely to satisfy our nutritional requirements, it is also likely to leave us feeling fuller and more satisfied for longer. http://lowcarbfoodshere.com/

http://www.medbio.info/horn/time%203-4/homeostasis_2.htm

This Study Will So to look that the way we will develop this study, there are a couple of methodological points to note. 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 re-searcher.
  • Use case studies to contrast contextual environments.

Food-Literacies-Research-Plan-001-2014-11-24Research Plan The documentation and discussion of the research plan will be undertaken on the module wiki page, and will be used to provide a framework for the investigation, the protocols and the ideas development that we need to be effective researchers.

https://wiki.our.dmu.ac.uk/w/index.php/TECH3022_Research_Planning

Questions that we are going to raise include:

The Role of the Researcher:

  • What is the role of the researcher in the design?
  • How will the researcher relate and describe their own personal involvement in the research study, and what is the ongoing relationship between the researcher and the informants?
  • How will the researcher account for their involvement and how will this affect the research?
  • How will the researcher manage potential conflicts between the research role and the professional/personal roles?

As Robert Kozinets asks “is the ethnographer studying some phenomenon directly related to online communities and online culture? Or is the ethnographer interested in studying a general social phenomenon that has some related Internet group aspect? How important, or not, is the physical component that is always attached to human social behaviour?”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 63).

There are a series of questions we can think about that will help us to enter the field, such as:

  • How will the researcher gain entry to the situation being studied?
  • What are the parameters for the data collection?
  • What is the setting?
  • Who are the actors?
  • What are the events?
  • What is the process being followed?
  • What and who are being excluded from the study?

As Guimaraes Jr notes… “As Cohen points out: ‘the reality of community lies in its members’ perceptions of the vitality of its culture. People construct community symbolically, making it a resource and a repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity’” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 146). So we have to ask:

  • Why was the site chosen for study?
  • In what way does the researcher have direct access to the field they are studying?
  • How full will the researchers involvement be with the activities in the field?
  • Will the researchers professional and personal interests in the outcomes of the research direct any relationship they have with respondents?

“In order to conceptualise both the place of this group and its boundaries, I employed the idea of social environment, a symbolic space created in cyberspace through programs which allow communication between two or more users” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 148).

  • What will be done at the site during the research study?
  • How will the researcher observe, interact and collect data from informants?
  • What type of data collection will the researcher deploy?
  • Will it be disruptive?
  • How will this data collection be conducted unobtrusively and without disruption?
  • How will the researcher collect data ethically?

In undertaking our study we will be collecting data from many and multiple sources:

  • What form will any observations take? [Mixed-media recordings of discussions?]
  • What form will any interviews take? [Structured or unstructured? Recorded and annotated?]
  • What documents will be referred to? [Online media, email communications, Twitter Feeds, Facebook groups, station planning material, participant journals?]
  • What audiovisual materials will be referred to?
  • How will these activities be conducted simultaneously? [Collecting a range of data at the same time is going to be essential, how will the integrity and continuity of this data be ensured?]
  • What is to be recorded?
  • How is it going to be recorded?
  • In what way will the process of qualitative evaluation be based on data ‘reduction’ and ‘interpretation’?
  • How will the results be reported?

As John Creswell points out, “In a qualitative researcher works inductively, such as when he or she develops categories from informants rather than specifying them in advance of the research” (Creswell 1998 p.77).

Book CoverFood Literacies We are starting, therefore with a loose series of questions that we will be able to narrow and make more specific as we progress with the evidence gathering and the data collection. So our questions will take the form of the following:

  • 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 [online] community?
  • 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, then, can the discourse of food and nutritional literacy be tested and validated, both in principle and in experience in [online] communities?

It’s important to keep in mind that the ethnographic process is founded on the study of people’s lived experiences, and the practical realities that they interact through, the ideas and actions that they seek to make sense of.

ecogastronomyeducation_1322260980_76Nothing, however, is unique or novel in this sense, most things usually have precedent characteristics and associated challenges that they share, coming together in our present sense-making activities and stories. For example, the whole issues of taking control of our food supply chain has happened before, it is nothing new that we talking here about attempting to do this. During World War Two there was a general mobilisation for food in the UK. The aim was that we would be a nation that was self-sufficient in food. This meant doing without things such as sugar, large amounts of imported flour, and other none essential basic foods. Food rationing shaped the food choices and memories of a generation, so perhaps looking at this period again would be productive for today’s generation?

If I was to sum up, therefore, the research question that we are aiming to answer at this point, it would take this form:

  • 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?

References:
Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bilton, R., & Booth, L. (2013). Know What to Eat. Formby: Supercritical.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defence of Food. London: Penguin Books.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. London: Penguin.
Yudkin, J. (2012). Pure White and Deadly: Penguin.

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?

References:
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

References:
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.

TECH3022 Lecture Week Four: Thinking Sociologically

This week’s discussion for Advanced Social Media Production looks at how we can take forward the idea of investigating the social processes associated with the uses of social media. This means thinking about the methods and the principles that we might use to investigate in this field consistently, in a way that other people can share the data and make sense of the ideas that emerge from it.

Sociological Objectives: What Can a Sociological Outlook Achieve?

Our starting point recognises that “cultures, as shared systems of meaning and practice, [that] shape our hopes and beliefs; our ideas about family, identity, and society; our deepest assumptions about being a person in this world” (Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012, p. 1). The role of the social researcher, therefore, is to “develop an understanding of how a culture works” (Bell, 2005 p.17).

For the research element of the project in this module we will be adopting the techniques and the approaches associated with ethnography. As Hines points out, “ethnography is a method for understanding culture” (Hine, 2005, p. 8). And in doing this the “goal is to grasp everyday perspectives by participating in daily life, rather than to subject people to experimental stimuli or decontextualized interviews. Ethnographers often speak of their work as ‘holistic’. Rather than slicing up social life according to variables chosen for their contribution to variance in a statistically drawn sample, ethnographers attend to how cultural domains constitute and influence each other” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

Structure or Structures of Feeling?

When we look at society and start to attempt to build wider pictures about the events and routines that are happening in it, then we have to think about ways to deploy a sociological perspective that recognises the set of generic social processes that give form to our social relationships. C. Wright Mills famously called this the Sociological Imagination. A way of thinking about the processes within society and between social actors that “enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals” (Mills, 1959, p. 5). As Mills points out: “Perhaps the most fruitful distinction with which the sociological imagination works is between ‘the personal troubles of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’ This distinction is an essential tool of the sociological imagination and a feature of all classic work in social science” (Mills, 1959, p. 8).

Hypothesising or Describing?

It’s essential to note that “Ethnographic research is fundamentally distinct from experimentations; the goal is not to determine how controlled variables account for difference, but to trace and interpret the complex currents of everyday life that comprise our collective lived experience as human beings” (Boellstorff et al., 2012, p. 3).

And that sociology, instead, has an intense focus on the things that people do, as opposed to theoretical objectification. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest: “from this point of view we can say that sociology is distinguished through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: mutual dependency (dependency being a state in which the probability that the action will be undertaken and the chance of its success change in relation to what other actors are, do or may do). Sociologists ask what consequences this has for human actors, the relations into which we enter and the societies of which we are a part” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

Therefore, ad as Mills argues, “there is no ‘grand theory’, no one universal scheme in terms of which we can understand the unity of social structure, no one answer to the tired old problem of social order taken uberhaupt [in the first place]“ (Mills, 1959, p. 46). What we have to focus on instead is the small interactions between agents working in a field of operations. It is the aggregation of the many operations and interactions that form the social. As Bauman and May argue: “Thinking sociologically is a way of understanding the human world that also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

TECH3022_15-Lecture-004-Thinking-Sociologically-001-2014-10-14The focus for our studies within this module, therefore, can be expressed in diagram form in which the interactions between different subjects are what give shape to the cultural frameworks. As Uwe Flick points out, the linear model of research looks for data in a sequential process, but the ethnographic process looks, instead, for data in a comparative process that is built-up over many repeated cycles of interaction.TECH3022_15-Lecture-004-Thinking-Sociologically-002-2014-10-14

Being in the Field – Observations of Lifeworlds:

“Usually ethnography is concerned with all aspects of social life, or all facets of a social setting. Broadly, the idea is for the researcher to be immersed in the setting, to generate an understanding of the context in which interaction is rooted” (MacKay in Hine, 2005, p. 134). Therefore, “when we set out to research social interactions we cannot specify in advance just what form those interactions will take, nor how we will be able to participate in or observe them” (p. 2).

Participant observation is the research process that “enables researchers, as far as is possible, to share the same experiences as the subjects, to understand better why they act in the way they do and ‘to see things as those involved see things’ (Denscombe 1998: 69, Quotes in Hine, 2005 p.17). As Judith Bell suggests, “the very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer” (Bell, 2005, p. 96).

http://wps.pearsoned.co.uk/ema_uk_he_plummer_sociology_3/40/10342/2647687.cw/content/

According to Bauman and May, “sociology is an extended commentary on the experiences that arise in social relations and is an interpretation of those experiences in relation to others and the social conditions in which people find themselves” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 180). “Because ethnographers can anticipate large amounts of data, categories for interpretation emerge from the ground up, and research questions and foci shift during fieldwork. It is thus best to categorise and continually sort and re-sort the data as these are collected” [#ref?]. Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref?].

For examples, it is “valuable to record observational fieldnotes written in the margins of downloaded data, elaborating upon subtleties noticed at the time but which are not captured in the text or data itself. These fieldnotes offer details about the social and interactional processes that make up the members of online cultures and communities’ everyday lives and activities. It is best to capture them contemporaneously with interactive online social experiences is important because these processes of learning, socialisation, and acculturation are subtle and our recollection of them becomes rapidly diluted over time” [ref?].

In addition to noting the actions and events that take place in a field of study, the researcher also has to work out what impact and what difference their own interactions in the data collection process make. This process of reflection, as John Dewey argues “involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence – a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors” (Dewey 1910 p.2). As Dewey explains “reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance” (Dewey 1910 p.13).

For the researcher, therefore, reflexivity can be understood and the “extent to which the netnographic text acknowledges the role of the researcher and is open to alternative interpretations” [#ref?].

From which a number of important questions arise:

  • What is the role of the researcher in this process?
  • What kind if assumptions do we make and what kind of bias do we retain?
  • How can we incorporate our own experience within the research process?

Empathising, Being and Participating with Others:

What, then, is the primary role of social research? According to Bauman and May both the researcher and the subject of the researcher’s attention are “both enabled and constrained in the everyday practices of freedom.” As Bauman and May point out, “at one level we are taught that there are types of desires that are acceptable and achievable within the group. Appropriate ways to act, talk, dress, conduct ourselves generally provide for the orientation that is needed to get us through life within the groups to which we belong. We then judge ourselves according to these expectations and our self-esteem is given accordingly” (Bauman and May 2001, p. 20).

Robert Prus outlines the associated process of interaction as Generic Social Processes. According to Prus: “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of:

(1) acquiring perspectives;

(2) achieving identity;

(3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments);

(4) developing relationships;

(5) experiencing emotionality; and

(6) achieving communicative fluency.”

According to Prus, “we may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).

As Bauman and May explain, “this overview of generic social processes is organised around three very broad concepts:

(a) participating in situations,

(b) engaging subcultural life-worlds, and

(c) forming and coordinating associations.

These three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).

“The interactionist, generally, [then] concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).

Accordingly “The very act of participating in a community changes the nature of later data analysis. This is what makes ethnography and netnography so thoroughly different from techniques such as content analysis or social network analysis. A content analyst would scan the archives of online communities, but she or he would not be reading them deeply for their cultural information, pondering them and seeking to learn from them how to live in this community and to identify as a community member. This is the task of the netnographer.” [#ref?]

The task before us, as Robert Prus argues, therefore, involves

  1. “attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish and
  2. establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.”

Importantly, as Prus points out that, even on the most basic level, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136). And that “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).

John Cresswell lists the main attributes of this process:

  1. “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
  1. Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
  1. 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.
  1. Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
  1. Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
  1. The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).

In summary then “the idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward:

  • Consider the online environment a social world.
  • Assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.
  • Treat online data as a social act.
  • Seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.
  • When appropriate, broaden the particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all” [#ref].

Netnographic Approach 001 2013-03-04And that we should consider how as “individual actors” we “come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence.” And that regardless of what we do, we should acknowledge that we are “dependent on others.” According to Bauman and May the “central questions of sociology… are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).

For Bauman and May, “the social scientist who spends his intellectual force on the details of small-scale milieux is not putting his work outside the political conflicts and forces of his time. He is, at least indirectly and in effect, ‘accepting’ the framework of his society. But no one who accepts the full intellectual tasks of social science can merely assume that structure. In fact, it is his job to make that structure explicit and to study it as a whole” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 78).

Therefore, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” [#ref].

To summarise, “In our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’, how do the practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001). That will be the question for later sessions, but for now we can be satisfied that our starting point has been established.

References:

  • Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Bell, J. (2005). Doing Your Research Project (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
  • Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnogrphic Research Online. London: Sage.
  • Mills, C. W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Prus, R. (1999). Beyond the Power Mystique. New York: State University of New York Press.

TECH3022 Lecture Week Three – Participation

In this week’s TECH3022 Lecture I wanted to introduce some concepts that would help us to situate the role of participation in the function of social and collaborative media. Our discussions are looking at developing our understanding about social media, and the way it has the potential to encourage civic or grassroots media engagement. I wanted to highlight some ideas, therefore, that have been associated with the way that public sphere has been used as a way to explain how civic discussion is understood. Coupled with this I also wanted to introduce the idea of hegemony and the critique of dominant ideas within society, and how they are controlled by ruling elites. To do this I wanted to introduce some examples drawn from DIY and alternative media, as well as thinking about the relevance of community media.

It is useful to keep in mind that despite what many voices in the mass media might want us to believe, it’s entirely possible to imagine alternative ways of communicating with media that aren’t dominated by corporate control and the dominant social discourses that define Western society. This challenge to the dominant monoculture of ideas and thinking in Western capitalism can be examined, on a number of levels. Either from the point of view of social movements and historical forces that might be argued to shape society, or, by paying attention to the daily life practices of ordinary people working on the day-to-day functions of living and interacting. In the context of social media we should remember, as Henry Jenkins points out, that “what people collectively and individually decide to do with [new media] technologies as professionals and as audiences, and what kinds of culture people produce and spread in and around these tools, is still being determined” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. xiii).

I’ve been working and researching in the field of community media quite a bit over the last ten years or so, and I’ve developed a familiarity with the way that participants in community media can find the confidence to articulate their individual voices, nurturing and developing alternative ideas and practices. Community media has the potential to offer something different for participants that is not as fixed or determined by the controlling influence of mainstream corporate media. Follow this link to listen to one of my Community Media World Podcasts.

Kevin Howley notes that “community media represent a unique site to interrogate the process of identity formation through communication technologies, and to examine the dramatic impact of social and technological change on the everyday lived experience of disparate groups within a geographically based community. Put another way, attending to the institutions, forms, and practices associated with community media provides enormous insight into the relationship between people, places, and communication technologies” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

So, a focus on participation, and the development of social media practices that promote participation, have the potential to afford us, as Delwiche & Henderson suggest, a mechanism by which individuals and grassroots groups can challenge the domination of centralised and hierarchically organised media organisations. According to Delwiche & Henderson:

“Armed with inexpensive tools for capturing, editing, and organising, people tap into a vast ocean of real-time data and multimedia content to promote personal and political interests. Functions once monopolised by a handful of hierarchical institutions (e.g. newspapers, television stations, and universities) have been usurped by independent publishers, video-sharing sites, collaboratively sustained knowledge banks, and fan-generated entertainment” (Delwiche & Henderson, 2013, p. 3).

This notion of a usurping function for community and collaborative media is echoed by Howley, when he explains how an “emphasis on ‘social-political policies’ is instructive insofar as it highlights the constructed and contested character of media systems. In other words, rather than view these systems as the natural or inevitable outgrowth of any given technology, this perspective illuminates the social, political, economic, and cultural dynamics involved in creating a media system” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Howley goes on to give an example and suggests that, “for instance, radio broadcasting operates in terms of a hierarchical, one-way flow of information between media producers and media audiences. This centralised form of message production and distribution positions audiences as relatively passive consumers of media messages. And yet, there is nothing inherent in broadcast technology that precludes decentralised communication between message producers and received. Indeed, in its early days, radio was a vibrant, participatory, and decidedly two-way medium of popular communication” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

If we keep in mind that the choices that have been made to regulate broadcasting and media services in Western societies come from a particular set of ideological conventions and ideas, then we can start to examine how the process of organisation shapes and structures our wider expectations about media democracy. As Howley points out,  “terrestrial radio broadcasting, as we know it today, developed as a result of explicit policies – rules and regulations covering every aspect of broadcasting, from technical specifications governing spectrum allocation and transmission power, to the conditions for licensing, ownership, and financial support mechanisms – that favoured well-financed private ownership or some form of state sponsorship and control” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

Therefore, and as Howley continues, “as media and cultural historians remind us, the policies and structures that set the terms of broadcasting in the first half of the past century were the result of a series of negotiations and bitter disputes over how broadcasting would be organised, regulated, and paid for. Critically, the level of public participation was constrained by a number of social, economic, and political conditions. As a result, powerful economic and political forces, representing an narrow range of interests, prevailed and established the foundation for present-day broadcast structures and regulations” (Howley, 2010, p. 280).

In this respect as Howley argues, media and political theorists would be well advised to acknowledge that “community media provide a unique site to illuminate hegemonic processes,” and that “community media demonstrate not only signs of resistance and subversion but evidence of complicity and submission as well” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). In this respect, it can be argued that “Social media breaks down the control and the hierarchy between the mainstream media and the population” (Hill, 2013, p. 53). Marking out spaces and territories that can be populated with alternative voices, contrary opinions and distinctive, and clearly non-mainstream, participants.

This argument rests on some assumptions about the role and the function of alternative and community media Firstly that the levels of control exercised by corporate media actively excludes people. Secondly, that the highly structured hierarchies that are set in place to manage corporate media encourage a largely one-way flow of information, and mark clear distinctions between producers and consumers which are absolute. All of which is held in place by state organised mechanisms and regulations that are designed to hold these economic, civic and social policies in place. What community media is useful for, therefore, is to gain some insight and sense of how an alternative model might work in practice and what it might mean when encountered in the life-worlds of different participants.

Underpinning many of the ideas and thinking about the role of community and participant media is the concept of the Public Sphere:

“The concept of the public sphere, as described by Jürgen Habermas, provides a robust theoretical framework to examine the crucial link between democratic self-governance and communication. Habermas (1993) argues that the public sphere is the foundation for civil society; it is a forum for the citizenry to reach consensus on the issues and policy decisions that affect public life. In Habermas’ formulation, the public sphere is a realm, insulated from the deleterious influence of state and commercial interests, in which citizens openly and rationally discuss, debate, and deliberate upon matters of mutual and general concern to a self-governing community. Isolated or ‘bracketed’ from both state and market forces, this public sphere is the space in which a public comes to understand and define itself, articulate its needs and common concerns, and act in the collective self-interest. In short, it is a space in which a social aggregate become a public” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

In this sense then, “the concept of the public sphere [is] in a very general and common-sense manner, as, for example, a synonym for the processes of public opinion or for the news media themselves. In its more ambitious guise.” However, as the idea of the public sphere was developed by Jürgen Habermas, and according to Peter Dahlgren, “the public sphere should be understood as an analytic category, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a specific social phenomenon can also aid us in analysing and researching the phenomenon” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 2).

Howley points out that “according to Habermas, an effective and robust public sphere depends on two conditions: the quality of discursive practices and the quantity of participation within this discourse. The first requirement calls for rational-critical debate based not on the speaker’s identity or social standing, but upon the reasoned and logical merits of an argument. The second requirement entails opening up the debate to the widest public possible and encouraging the inclusion of competing opinions and perspectives” (Howley, 2005, p. 19).

Who constitutes a ‘public’ is one of the key questions to emerge from this line of thinking. Indeed, working out who in practice is capable or given permission to be included in this sense of civic engagement is one of the fundamental critical questions we can seek to establish.  As Habermass himself suggests: “we call events and occasions ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 81). And the extent to which “the private sphere of civil society [is] no longer confined to the authorities but [is] considered by the subjects as one that was properly theirs” (Habermas, 1994, p. 89) is the foundation for much of the ethical interventions that are associated with participation.

According to Howley, however, “the threat to the public sphere, as Habermas sees it, is the encroachments of the state and commercial interests into this realm. Habermas observes that as the public sphere shrinks, there is a marked increase in political apathy, a relentless pursuit of economic and material self-interests, and a rising tide of cynicism and social alienation” (Howley, 2005, p. 19). Therefore, “the concept of the public sphere has enormous relevance for the ongoing project of building and sustaining a more democratic media culture… As the nature of citizenship changes in an increasingly integrated world, the question of who deliberates has enormous implications… There is relatively scant popular participation in this deliberative process” (Howley, 2005, p. 20).

So, to recap, the public sphere is a way of understanding the role of the media in civic spaces. Participation is at the heart of what is said to constitute a healthy public sphere. Media participation formulates ‘publics’ that challenge ‘private’ interests, and therefore the public sphere cannot be thought of as free standing – it is challenged by the state and commercial interests, and therefore the he idea of the ‘citizen’ or ‘agent’ is vital to participation because it the actions of citizens that bring about change.

Across this debate it is widely asserted that “politicians whose views and policy recommendations challenge corporate interests are rarely seen or heard in the mainstream media.” And that, “conversely, those who are sympathetic to and support corporate policy tend to receive favourable coverage in the press. As a result, alternative positions on public policy and oppositional views on corporate culture are rarely publicised, let alone opened up for broad popular debate” (Howley, 2005, p. 23).

So practices do exist that point to an alternative way of thinking about and producing media. As Delwiche points out: “creative cultures flourished beneath the surface of the mainstream media; many of these cultures were nurtured and extended by mimeographed zines” (Delwich, 2013, p. 19). If, as Howley suggest, “corporate media depoliticises both the public and private spheres. In their efforts to deliver audiences to advertisers, commercial media socialise people to believe that health, happiness and the good life are to be found in the implacable, competitive, pursuit of consumer goods” (Howley, 2005, p. 24). Then alternative forms of media, such as zines elude to a different way of thinking about media and media participation, As Delwiche points out: “researchers have demonstrated that participatory cultures are characterised by commitment to access, expression, sharing, mentorship, the need to make a difference, and the desire for social connections” (Delwich, 2013, p. 11).

It’s worth watching each of these documentaries about zine culture to get a sense of how embedded the idea of participation is and what consequences it has for the development of a participation-based outlook.

 

If, as Howley suggests: “advertising was instrumental in engineering a shift from a producer ethic to a consumer ethic. In so doing, advertising and consumer culture divert the public’s attention, energy, and resources away from society’s fundamental needs like public education, health care, the environment, economic justice, and racial, ethnic, and gender equality that are essential to the institutions, needs, and values that are not based on capital accumulation or profit generation are all but ignored by commercial media” (Howley, 2005, p. 24).

One such example that is said to define online media and the notion and practices of virtual communities was The Well. “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, normally shortened to The WELL, is one of the oldest virtual communities in continuous operation” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_WELL. According to Delwiche the “WELL was firmly rooted in participatory cultures, with founding principles that included self-governance, community connections, user-driven design, open-endedness, and low barriers to access. Power was deliberately decentralised and the network’s programmers carefully embedded ‘a countercultural conception of community’ into the entire fabric of the system’”(Delwich, 2013, p. 19).

This optimistic and (sometimes) utopian view of participation, as an alternative to the corporate and consumerist notions of civic engagement, presents us with a conundrum, such that as Howley argues, when all is said and done “the commodification of public communication belies claims that the information age will free the minds and liberate the spirits of the world’s people” (Howley, 2005, p. 26).  As Jenkins points out: “the growth of networked communication, especially when coupled with the practices of participatory culture, provides a range of groups who have long struggled to have their voices heard” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv). And that these “new platforms create openings for social, cultural, economic, legal, and political change and opportunities for diversity and democratisation for which it is worth fighting” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

To echo our starting point for this discussion, and as Jenkins et al suggest “the terms of participation are very much up for grabs, though, and will be shaped by a range of legal and economic struggles unfolding over the next few decades” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. xiv).

So, to summarise, the terms of this discussion suggest that it is possible to challenge corporate interests through creativity. That participation that is based on access, expression and sharing will make a difference to the quality of social and civic engagement in the public sphere, and therefore the producer ethic needs to be nurtured. Self-governance, networking and user-generated content are the principles that will drive participation, and that new platforms as well as giving us a wider range of affordances also change our expectations about how, and who, can participate.

Kevin Howley uses the work of Martin-Barbero to “demonstrates how mass media are embedded in the everyday lived experience of local populations and illuminates the distinct role various cultural forms (e.g., theatre, cinema, radio dramas and telenovelas) play in the construction of national and cultural identities. In this way, the concept of mediation encourages the examination of both micro and macro level processes of cultural production from a socio-historical perspective. As such, mediation provides a valuable analytical perspective from which to consider community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

According to Howley, community media is “akin to the practice of appropriation so often celebrated by cultural analysts, community media form and content is a bricolage of artefacts and routines generally associated with the culture industries. Like textual poachers (e.g. Jenkins 1992), community media producers glean bits and pieces of media culture and invest this material with their own social experience in attempts to make sense of their lives. And, like the fan culture commonly associated with textual poaching, community media represents distinctive cultural practices that create and nourish affective relations” (Howley, 2005, p. 34).

Likewise, “the culture industry’s dismissive attitude toward the technical abilities of ‘non-professionals’ and the social value of their work underscores the adversarial relationship between dominant and community media. All too often, the work of ‘amateurs’ is marked as esoteric, frivolous, and apolitical. Rarely do commercial or public service broadcasters even acknowledge the existence of community media organisations. More often than not, when community media is acknowledged, it is invariably depicted as a refuge for outsider artists, hatemongers, pornographers, and the radical fringe: a perception some community media producers enthusiastically embrace” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

And that “community media also represents strategic alliances between social, cultural, and political groups mounting and organising resistance to the hegemony of dominant media institutions and practices. As a resource for local service agencies, political activists, and others whose missions, methods, and objectives are antithetical to existing power structures, community media publicise oppositional messages that are either distorted by or altogether omitted from mainstream media coverage” (Howley, 2005, p. 35).

“These initiatives” according to Howley, “diminish the debilitating effects of political-economic systems that cater to well-heeled special interests by enhancing the capacity of local communities to organise themselves and participate in political processes” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). And, “as a result, producers and audiences alike are complicit in accepting and circulating the notion that community media are aesthetically inferior to mainstream media form and content, and socially and politically irrelevant for popular audiences. Perhaps the reluctance of communication scholars to engage more thoroughly with the phenomenon of community media” (Howley, 2005, p. 36).

As Howley describes, “This emphasis on participation, local content, and especially the impulse to revitalise the civic life of place-based communities is the motivation behind yet another strain of the community networking movement, so-called civic networking” (Howley, 2005, p. 78). Any that of equal importance are the ‘civic networks that are “designed to encourage and facilitate discussion within and between local residents, thereby promoting participatory democracy at the community level” (Howley, 2005, p. 78).

And it is through this process of facilitation that we are able to observe how communities and participants are able to underpin the “creation of new cultural territories,” and work for the “preservation of existing cultural spaces.” According to Howley, this “takes on enormous significance in light of the ease with which people, sounds, imagery, and cultural practice circulate about the globe.” Community media, according to Howley contributes to the “reterritorialization of culture by establishing new structures and creating new spaces for local cultural production. In this light, community media can be viewed as a dramatic expression of the felt need of local populations to exploit as well as contain these forces in their efforts to make sense of the dramatic, and at times traumatic, upheavals associated with globalisation” (Howley, 2005, p. 38).

The question at hand, then, is how do we build the capacity for participation? On what basis should we plan and support the necessary social and symbolic resources that extend participation as a general social process. As Christopher Keilty points out, “those who provide the capacity for participation expect something as well. Participation is now a two-way street. Government now provide participatory democracy, citizens are engaged by the government or corporations, and publics are constituted, consulted, and used to legitimate decision-making” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).

And as such, “participation is now expected to have an effect on the structures, institutions, organisations, or technologies, in which one participates. Participation is no longer simply an opening up, and expression, a liberation, it is now also a principle of improvement, and instrument of change, a creative force. It no longer threatens, but has become a resource: participation has been made valuable” (Kelty, 2013, p. 24).

So we can see that community media is a useful way to examine how media functions. It is also a useful for building a picture of how our own social experience is essential to defining how we participate in different types of social process, both media and intersubjective. We can see this in the way that the amateur has become central to participative media, and how the subsequent resisting of the dominance of corporate culture is played out through oppositional messages in alternative and community media projects. Generally, community and participation-based media is poorly thought of, but if civic-life is to be invigorated, then participation must be given more status.

To summarise: “community media are strategic initiatives to counteract a climate of political apathy and social alienation that confounds a sense of belonging in local communities” (Howley, 2005, p. 35). “The challenge of building a participatory medium hinges upon the extent to which a diverse user population can not only access the system, but also make safe and productive use of it” (Howley, 2005, p. 250). And likewise, “without full consideration of the enormous variations within a given user population, community networks are unlikely to meet the needs, competencies, and preferences of heterogeneous users” (Howley, 2005, p. 250).

It is necessary, therefore that we take a closer look at the “institutional configurations of the public sphere” so that we can make sense of the participative phenomenon, both at the macro-level of structures and at the micro-level of structures. In this sense, and as Peter Dahgren points out, “an understanding of its dynamics requires that we also consider the processes and conditions of sense-making, whereby subjects link experience and reflection to generate meaning (political or otherwise)” (Peter Dahlgren in Dahlgren & Sparks, 1991, p. 16).

If we are to ask one question as a consequence of this process it would be, as Kelty proposes that we ask: “What is participation like today? How has it become newly important with respect to yesterday? Are participatory democracy, audience participation, user-generated content, peer production, participant observation, crowdsourcing all the same phenomena? If they are different, what characterises the difference” (Kelty, 2013, p. 23).

References:

Dahlgren, P., & Sparks, C. (Eds.). (1991). Communication and Citizenship – Journalism and the Public Sphere. London: Routledge.

Delwich, A. (2013). The New Left and the Computer Underground – Recovering Antecedents of Participatory Culture. In A. Delwich & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 11-21). London: Routledge.

Delwiche, A., & Henderson, J. J. (Eds.). (2013). The Participatory Cultures Handbook. London: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1994). The Emergence of the Public Sphere. In Polity (Ed.), The Polity Reader in Culutral Theory (pp. 81-90). Cambridge: Polity.

Hill, S. (2013). Digital Revolutions – Activism in the Internet Age. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications.

Howley, K. (2005). Community Media – People, Places and Communication Technologies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.

Kelty, C. M. (2013). From Participation to Power. In A. Delwiche & J. J. Henderson (Eds.), The Participatory Cultures Handbook (pp. 22-31). London: Routledge.

TECH3022_15-Lecture-003-Participation-001-2014-09-17

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

I’ve started a YouTube playlist of videos, talks, documentaries about the sugar and carbohydrate crisis. This lecture by Robert Lustig is very clear and well explained, and ties in well with his book of the same title ‘Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth about Sugar, Obesity & Disease‘.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Two: Digital Literacies

The second lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production is an introduction to the concept of digital literacies, the principle of media engagement and our capability to understand and make sense of these media engagements. The lecture discussed the underlying principle that our culture is defined by a set of ideas, routines and doctrines that people strive to make meaningful, which as a social process of sense-making, is shaped by a series of social regulations and interrelationships.

For the American pragmatist thinker John Dewey, the important to keep in mind that our culture is shaped by the people within it, some of whom are regarded as the arbiters of what is passed on in our culture. As Dewey says:

“Certain men or classes of men come to be the accepted guardians and transmitters – instructors – of established doctrines. To question the beliefs is to question their authority; to accept the beliefs is evidence of loyalty to the powers that be, a proof of good citizenship” (Dewey, 1910, p. 149).

In general terms, then, we might think of the practices and the products of our symbolic interactions, particularly when they are shaped into a common set of experience and ideas, as a common culture, and as a store-house, as Andrew Tudor points out, “is above all a repository of human value: humanity’s most significant beliefs and achievements are articulated and ‘stored’ in culture. Or, at least, this is how it should be” (Tudor, 1999, p. 23).

To demonstrate this type of thinking we watched a brief extract from the landmark 1960s British television series ‘Civilisation’, as it is a good example of a way of thinking about culture as a collation of all the ‘best’ things that we produce.

Noting, as Matthew Arnold famously points out, that culture not only acts as a store of our social values and experiences, but also as a process that changes us and works on us as individuals.

“Crucial to [Matthew] Arnold was the insight that culture fosters the internal growth of our humanity; that we have a ‘best self’ as well as an ‘ordinary self’, based on a commitment to ‘a growing and becoming’ as opposed to expressing our animality; the culture tries to develop in us that ‘best self’ at the expenses of ‘our old untransformed self’” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 2 ).

This is in contrast to the kind of cultures that are talked about High vs Mass vs Popular vs Social Culture debates that have taken place in Western society since the mid Twentieth century. The idea that culture is a restricted and elite enterprise has been well and truly challenged, with this challenge resonating through the popular and mass cultures associated with industrial and consumer production of media products, routines and audiences. We now have a specific view of culture that is defined through things like television, or magazines, or the internet, as opposed to the church, the state or even the Enlightened individual.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/cultureis

The contrast between mass media and the individual consumption of cultural products is marked out by things like the industrial process of production, something the structuralist thinkers of the Twentieth century where keen to explain, How “originality and intellectual stimulation were squeezed out by the economics of cultural production, which in turn exploited peripheral frills, novelties and stylistic variations to make cultural products appear new and different, in the process disguising the underlying standardisation” (Kenneth Dyson in Dyson & Homolka, 1996, p. 7).

As this was an introduction to some of these issues associated with cultural value and the meaningful social experience, a great deal of the nuanced discussion was avoided, but I thought it would be useful to note some of the tensions in this debate by using an example. So we looked at the seminal work by Richard Hoggart, ‘The Uses of Literacy’, and in particular the famous passage about ‘juke-box boys’, in which Hoggart says: “Perhaps even more symptomatic of the general trend is the reading of juke-box boys, of those who spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk-bars to the ‘nickelodeons.’”(Hoggart, 1957, p. 203).

Hoggart was drawing attention to a growing need to understand popular culture and to view it as something worth thinking about, particularly in the context that if society is to grow and develop then a clear understanding of the conceptual tools that meet the popular culture of each age is needed. The ‘literacies’ that each age call for have a shared and common set of principles, but they can’t be used timelessly and without a sense of struggle to understand them and contextualise them. The literacies that we need to understand our culture are contemporary, contingent, and have to fought over to make them relevant to the social world that we live in today, the technologies that we adopt and use today, and the expectations that we have about individual and social engagement with these forms of culture.

Recap:

  • Do we rely on certain people – men – to tell us what and how to think?
  • Is there an objective position we can take on what is ‘good’ in our culture?
  • How do we explain and understand popular, mass and now social culture?
  • What’s our role s individuals in this process – are we merely animals?
  • Where does our intellectual stimulation come from?

I thought it would be useful to mention how some thinkers are sceptical of the supposed role that new forms of cultural engagement are affording us. Andrew Keen is a widely recognised sceptic of the ‘cult of the amateur’ who argues that:

“Th[e] blurring of lines between the audience and the author, between fact and fiction, between invention and reality further obscures objectivity. The cult of the amateur has made it increasingly difficult to determine the difference between reader and writer, between artist and spin doctor, between art and advertisement, between amateur and expert. The result? The decline of the quality and reliability of the information we receive, thereby distorting, if not out rightly corrupting, our national civic conversation” (Keen, 2008, p. 27).

I also thought it would be useful to contextualise this debate by quoting Raymond Williams and pointing out that these concerns, about the purpose of our culture and the processes that are going on deep within it, have been discussed and considered for many years. As Williams argues:

“Art reflects its society and works a social character through to its reality in experience. But also, art creates, by new perceptions and responses, elements which the society, as such, is not able to realise. If we compare art with its society, we find a series of real relationships showing its deep and central connections with the rest of the general life. We find description, discussion, exposition through plot and experience of the social character. We find also, in certain characteristic forms and devices, evidence of the deadlocks and unsolved problems of the society: often admitted to consciousness for the first time in this way” (Williams, 1992, p. 69).

In many way, we can think about the products and the artefacts of our culture – the media that we produce –as things that are understood through the application of a set of symbolic tools. More recent thinking about literacies, and particularly digital literacies has emphasised this. So Jones and Hafner, one of the key books for the module, are able to point out that”

“All tools carry the history of their past use. After people have used a particular tool in certain ways to perform a particular practice for a period of time, the conventions or ‘social rules’ that have grown up around the tool and the practice become ‘solid’. We call the process by which social practices and conventions come to ‘solidify’ around various technologies the technologisation of practice” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).

And who go on to suggest that: “Media becomes ideological when they become resistant to hacking, that is, when the affordances and constraints they embody are presented as ‘just the way things are’ rather than as ‘workable’ and adaptable” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

And that:

“Transparent media encourage us to regard the kinds of actions that they make possible as ‘natural’ or desirable and the kinds of actions that they constrain as unnatural or undesirable. Technologies tend to become more transparent to us the more we use them” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

Indeed, to the extent that “Many marketeers of media technology extol the value of media transparency” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 101).

In order to illustrate this concept in introduced the concept of Skeuomorphism, the way that we use object so of the past to make sense of the virtual and symbolic tools we have of the present. For example:

“The Macintosh user interface has been called the first ‘intuitive’ interface, suggesting that a user can learn how to use it by instinct alone without the need for instruction manuals or training. The design of the interface is based on its use of what have become known as ‘real-world metaphors’” (Feldman, 1997, p. 16).

“Steve Jobs was—notoriously, to many members of the design community—a fan of skeuomorphism, a style that relies on real-world metaphors and textures in digital interfaces. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos” (Schybergson, 2012).

“Apps which look like old technologies such as a compass or notepad are “skeuomorphic” since there is no need to render them that way on a modern device” (Baraniuk, 2012).

What this means, therefore, is that the culture that we consume and participate in is defined by a set of ideas and regulating cultural systems. When we examine these systems we can work out the process by which they are expected to operate, with as an ideology or as a set of generic social interactions. As Jones and Hafner point out:

“Anytime a person uses a semiotic system like language to make meaning they always have an agenda. We produce texts in order to get things done – whether that means achieving some kind of material gain, fulfilling an obligation to someone, or making someone do something or believe something. We judge how successful our texts are by how well they help us to realise our agendas. The first question to ask whenever we encounter a text is what the agenda is of the person or people who produced this text is” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 103).

And the reason why it is important to find appropriate tools that can make sense of this, is because our world is increasingly fragmented and our social systems are much more haphazard and ad-hoc than they have been in the past. We no longer share a strong common-culture, tied with national, religious, social or personal identities. Instead, we have become an aggregation of individualised identities that primarily find satisfaction through consumption and the pulses in the electronic nervous system of the internet and electronic media.

As van Dijk points out “Several significant cultural aspects can be perceived in the trends of fragmentation, segmentation and individualisation of social reality currently appearing at all levels of Western society. The contention is that ‘mass society’ or ‘mass culture’ is eroding and a huge increase of cultural diversity is taking place” (Dijk, 1999, p. 166).

And as Zygmunt Bauman reflects: “A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets” (Bauman, 2007, p. 3).

Recap:

  1. What happens when cultural distinctions become blurred
  2. What are the new relationships that are afforded by new technologies?
  3. How do we pull back the veil and ‘see things as they are?’
  4. Metaphors are replete within our culture as a way of making sense of the world.

It’s about trying to make sense of a fragmented world.

Tools:

Ultimately, literacies and digital literacies discussions come down to one simple question: How Do We Know We Have The Right Tool Kit?

As Jones and Hafner state:

“The distribution of tools, both technological and symbolic, in any society is always unequal. What this means is that the kinds of actions that media makes possible are always only available to certain people. In other words, the use of meditational means is always tied up with economic and political systems that govern the way we access to them is distributed. As a result the ways media end up being used usually support or perpetuate these political and economic systems” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 100).

So, “Learning how to use technological tools, then, involves not just mastering the range of choices they present, but also being indoctrinated into the social practices that have come to be technologized around these tools. The range of actions these tools make available not only determine how people behave and communicate with each other, but they also end up promoting particular versions of reality and making some kinds of social relationships more possible and others less possible” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 108).

Therefore, as Don Tapscott points out:

“The ability to learn new things is more important than ever in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed. Students need to be able to think creatively, critically, and collaboratively; to master the ‘basics’ and excel in reading, maths, science, and information literacy, and respond to opportunities and challenges with speed, agility, and innovation. Students need to expand their knowledge beyond the doors of their local community to become responsible and contributing citizens in the increasingly complex world economy” (Tapscott, 2008, p. 127).

We then looked at some promotional web material for different media production courses from around the word, and what was interesting was the similarities in language, tone and intent within each of these courses. Few courses are distinctively different in ideological tone. They are mainly focussed on the need to develop ‘supposed’ industry skills, and they all seem to promise that the completion of a media production course will result in the ‘dreams’ of the students coming true.

Media Production Courses:

http://www.falmouth.ac.uk/digitalmedia

http://www.cie.hkbu.edu.hk/main/programmes_ad.php?d=COM&p=FTDMS

http://mediafilmproductionawards.staffs.ac.uk/

http://filmvideo.calarts.edu/

Recap:

  • What tools do we have to work with?
  • Who has the best tools and what do they do with them?
  • How do we learn to integrate the use of these tools into our day-to-day practices?
  • What opportunities do these new tools afford us?

So, what are the skills and mind-set that we need to thrive in the media world of the future? Should we be focussing on the literacies that people need in order to be able to make sense of the world, or do we need to think about building the capabilities that people have to engage with and change the world? This might not come from a traditional mindset, but instead is something that will come about because we listen to a different set of social and interpersonal impulses. Social media is redolent with examples of alternative literacies and capabilities. For example:

Playfulness is a more important consideration than play. The former is an attitude of mind; the latter is a passing outward manifestation of this attitude. When things are treated simply as vehicles of suggestion, what is suggested overrides the thing. Hence the playful attitude is one of freedom” (Dewey, 1910, p. 162).

I then suggested that other mind-sets might be important in the future, and illustrated some potentially distinctive ways of thinking that Howard Gardner suggests might be useful in the future.

The Disciplined Mind:

“The absence of disciplinary thinking matters. Shorn of these sophisticated ways of thinking, individuals remain essentially unschooled” (Gardner, 2008, p. 36).

“Scholarly disciplines allow you to participate knowledgeably in the world; professional disciplines allow you to thrive in the workplace” (Gardner, 2008, p. 37).

“The disciplined mind has mastered at least one way of thinking – a distinctive mode of cognition that characterises a specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Synthesising Mind:

The synthesising mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesiser and also to other persons” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Creating Mind:

The creating mind breaks new ground. It puts forth new ideas, poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Respectful Mind:

“The respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these ‘others,’ and seeks to work effectively with them” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

The Ethical Mind:

The Ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desired of the society in which one lives. This mind conceptualises how workers can serve purposes beyond self-interest and how citizens can work unselfishly to improve the lot of all” (Gardner, 2008, p. 3).

How these things come together in our media is fascinating to trace. This clip of Paul Morley describing his experiences in popular culture is a very fertile discussion of some of the themes, anxieties and preoccupations of our contemporary mediated culture.

Recap:

  • Which is more important, playfulness or disciplined thinking?
  • How can we learn to deploy and use different thinking skills?
  • To what extent are competing or are we showing solidarity and respectfulness?
  • What do we need to think about that goes beyond our own self-interest?

Conclusion:

To wrap-up this somewhat scatter-gun discussion I left learners with a quote from Zygmunt Bauman, in which he suggests that whatever we think we might desire, we have to employ an objective assessment of our realistic ability to achieve our aims. If we don’t have the facilities to achieve, then no end of wishful thinking will make it happen.

“It is therefore, one thing to have the ability to change or modify our skills and quite another to possess the capability to reach the goals we seek” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 18).

Critical Questions:

  • What skills and capabilities do we need to be:
    • Sociable?
    • Critical?
    • Producers?
    • Attentive?
  • How will we know we are reading others correctly?
  • Is literacy something imposed upon us, by others, or something that emerges from the things we do for ourselves?

References:

Baraniuk, C. (2012). How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess.   Retrieved 16th October 2013, 2013, from http://www.themachinestarts.com/read/2012-11-how-we-started-calling-visual-metaphors-skeuomorphs-why-apple-design-debate-mess

Dewey, J. (1910). How We Think. New York: D.C. Heath.

Dijk, J. v. (1999). The Network Society. London: Sage.

Dyson, K., & Homolka, W. (Eds.). (1996). Culture First – Promoting Standards in the New Media Age. London: Cassell.

Feldman, T. (1997). Introduction to Digital Media. London: Routledge.

Gardner, H. (2008). Five Minds for the Future. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.

Keen, A. (2008). The Cult of the Amateur. London: Nicholas Brearley Publishing.

Schybergson, O. (2012). Skeuomorphism is (finally) dead: So what is Apple’s next design move?   Retrieved 16th October 2013, 2013, from http://gigaom.com/2012/11/03/skeumorphism-is-finally-dead-so-what-is-apples-next-design-move/

Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown Up Digital – How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. London: McGraw-Hill Professional.

Tudor, A. (1999). Decoding Culture – Theory and Method in Cultural Studies. London: Sage.

Williams, R. (1992). The Long Revolution. London The Hogarth Press.

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Hoggart, R. (1957). The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto & Windus.

 

What’s the Matter with Sugar?

How can we harness social media for the public good? That’s the question I asked today when I introduced the module I’m teaching this year, TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production. Across Western society we are facing a whole series of pressing issues that don’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but which are important to people on a day-to day-basis.

As issues of social justice, there is growing concern that we take for granted some key aspects of our daily lives, and indeed what amounts to some of our most personal and intimate moments. There is, I believe, a growing awareness that we are no longer in control of ourselves, or able to make sense of the way that we think about some of the most basic issues that we have to deal with, especially as we try to cope with the demands that are placed on us by large corporations, marketing campaigns, governments, the medical profession, the health industry, and even pressure from our families, our friends and our fellow citizens.

I’m talking about sugar, and the mass delusion that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet. In the Western world we are part of a culture that views the mass production and processing of food as an essential way to obtain nutrition. To put it simply, mass produced and processed food is said to be good for us, but increasing evidence is telling us that it’s not.

In the Western world we are experiencing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is costing our health services billions of pounds to deal with. Why are people getting fat and fatter? Is it because they are greedy and lazy? Is it because they gorge themselves on cheap food and don’t do any work? Are fat people just moral shirkers who can’t exercise self control? The answer to each of these questions is no, it is not the fault of individuals that they can’t stop putting weight on or making bad choices about their diets.

Many of us, like myself, exercise intensively on a regular basis, but still don’t see any benefit on the bathroom scales, so something else must be going on. And after reading books by Michael Poolan, Gary Taubes, John Yudkin and others, I’ve come to see that food and the way that we package and process food is essentially exploitative.

The Western industrial food production model does a number of things. It exploits the animals that it turns into burgers. It exploits the land that the cattle and crops are grown on by decimating their nutritional value. It exploits the workers who are attempting to make a living and demonises their trade unions, making people work in harsh and insecure workplaces, while accepts little responsibility for the welfare of those employees. Lastly, this system exploits us, the consumer.

As consumers we are said to have almost limitless choice, but the truth is that we have few alternatives to the carbohydrate rich food model. We have to go with the flow and accept what the major food producers, drinks manufacturers and supermarkets want to foist on us. Try telling your friends that you are having a high fat diet and they will insist – mostly because they are concerned – that you are deluded and that you can’t possibly expect a diet without starchy food to be good for you. The peer pressure that we face is immense, the limited range of choices that we have are getting narrower, and the whole system of food production is designed around the carbohydrates that the food industry churn out, but which are doing so much damage.

So in my lecture today I asked learners to think about the way that their food is replete with carbohydrates and sugars, and to think about how they are sold to us as if they are automatically healthy, i.e., sunshine in a glass! How much sugar would we expect in our food, other than that which we add directly ourselves?

Over the next few months, we are going to look at this in some detail, and we are going to experiment and test out some ideas about how social media can be used to spread the message that the levels of sugar that we have in our diet are going to kill us. I’m going to keep a regular blog about this, hopefully a couple of times each week. I’ll post my lecture notes and any links to sites and stories I think are interesting. Let me know what you think about this on Twitter, it would be great to read about your experiences of giving up sugar and getting off the processed food treadmill.

What are the pressing issues of social justice in society?
What are the challenges of living in our modern society?
What do we need to think about and understand about ourselves in order to solve some of these social issues?

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