The lost socio-technical architecture of qualitative research

I’ve long been fascinated by how rarely qualitative researchers talk about the equipment they use in their research. I love it when I see exceptions to these trend, such as Les Back’s chapter in this volume, because they highlight the tools of the trade in a way conducive to discussions about craft. However if we have accumulated methodological discourse over many decades, it’s hard to reverse prevailing trends through isolated acts of critical reflection. The socio-technical architecture of qualitative research gets lost, while concepts conditioned by it nonetheless circulate, floating free of the technological affordance and constraints which shaped their emergence.

For this reason I think technological innovations offer opportunities for broader projects of methodological reclamation. The risk is that we become preoccupied with shiny new technologies, leaving us so enamoured with new techniques that we circumscribe the ‘new’ from the ‘old’. But if we can get beyond this tendency, changes in this socio-technical architecture offer us opportunities for a renewed reflexivity about the purposes, techniques and tools of research.

What does this mean in practice? We need to reflect seriously on the fact there’s much more to digital qualitative research than digital qualitative research methods. The tendency of the former to be crowded out by the latter reflects what Rob Kitchin describes in the Data Revolution as “the pace of technical change and the roll-out of ad hoc and pragmatic approaches”. But conceptualisation, operationalisation and analysis should be treated as a unified whole alongside methods, using the opportunity of technological change to rethink qualitative research as a whole, rather than restricting this activity to new methods.

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