Digital sociology and the coming crisis of qualitative research

This is a deliberately provocative title. But an interesting post by patter reminded me of a theme that has been on my mind for a couple of years. Pat’s post concerns the implications of the increased ‘findability’ of qualitative researchers for their practice:

Once you know where someone works, a lot more detail comes within reach. Because of this ‘findability’ it’s almost impossible these days for someone who is a practitioner researcher or auto-ethnographer to completely disguise their location and their participants because they themselves are locatable. Teacher-researchers for instance all work at a school which can be found simply via tracking them. Schools generally have websites which often have the names of all staff as well as pictures of students doing things. They put their newsletters on line. It’s not too hard then for someone who is so-minded to pick up a teacher-practitioner thesis, get to the name of the school, identify some of the people involved in the research and possibly even find pictures and names of the staff and students who feature in the thesis as anonymised persona.

I was recently in a viva where one of the examiners did just this online detective work, as a way of raising with the practitioner–researcher the dilemma of whether it was actually possible to promise anonymity. It had taken less than five minutes for this examiner to track down the exact location of the research site and find out the identities of some of the people involved in the research. Now the examiner wasn’t doing this to be nasty or invasive, but to raise the question of how, in the kind of data-dense world in which we now live, it is actually feasible to guarantee anonymity in the way we once did.

The question of identification of course goes beyond practitioner research. We are wrestling with anonymity in one of my current research projects. Because of the specificity of what particular sites offer it won’t be too difficult to work out who some of them are.

These are issues that have really troubled me in the past six months or so, as I finally handed in my PhD which involved a two year longitudinal study. I’ve deliberately decided not to blog about this and I’m not going to start now. But I sometimes wonder if the full significance of this transformation of the field of research is understood by qualitative researchers. I completely agree with patter’s claim that “these tricky issues are not going away” and that “they will become more and more tricky the more we amass digital footprints and interlocking and enormous data bases”.

From a more positive standpoint, my experience with conducting asexuality research (as well as being involved as an ally in asexual visibility activism) has left me with a sense of the actually rather positive implications of the same process for public sociology. It’s much easier to sustain relationships with communities you research* and, more so, it’s possible to do so in a way which is helpful to those communities, as well as to yourself as a researcher.

But it does necessitate a very different form of engagement. I’ve written more about this here. The field of research is changing and qualitative researchers need to expand the repertoire of strategies through which they sustain relationships with their participants. If we can do so then there’s a real possibility for a more publicly orientated qualitative research, grounded in ongoing relationships and shared commitments, embodying a more equal relationship between researchers and those they research. But I think real problems will emerge if we can’t do this. In fact, as Patter points out, they’re already emerging.

*Note I’m not saying this didn’t happen prior to the emergence of social media. Clearly it did and on a large scale. I’m saying that the environment will increasingly demand it, as opposed to it being solely a function of the personal commitments of researchers.

2 responses to “Digital sociology and the coming crisis of qualitative research”

  1. Hi Mark, Shamser Sinha and I have been wrestling with the idea of the new informational environment for qualitative research in relation to our Migrant City book. We have just published a piece that will be in the book. Also, we have a podcast about it here:

    The article is called: Making methods sociable: dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research – it in the journal called Qualitative Research and is available on-line at the moment. Not sure when it’ll make it in to paper.

    Best wishes, Les

  2. cheers les, some of the things I’ve read / heard you and Shamser talk about were on my mind when writing that post. I guess what I’m trying to argue is that the digital environment challenges us to be more sociable. we have to be otherwise all sorts of problems will begin to mount up. look forward to engaging more comprehensively with what you’ve written if/when i write something a bit more formal on this myself. i can’t decide if the ‘coming crisis of qualitative sociology’ is a bit hackneyed as a paper title but it seems obvious to me that it will be a challenge unless we respond creatively to it.

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