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.

About a year and a half ago, I got obsessed with an idea for a mobile ethnography app (iResearch?) that I sketched out and explored the feasibility of getting developed. I eventually decided it was a bad idea which would cost £5000-£15000 to develop. This was probably for the best. I’m certain a thousand other people had the idea and the odds of me losing a load of money which I didn’t have were far too great.

I hadn’t thought about it for ages until I stumbled across this earlier. Upon closer inspection, it’s a little different from what I had in mind (intended for participants rather than ethnographers):

Screen shot 2014-04-04 at 18.51.04

Are there any dedicated ethnography apps? My simple idea was to develop something that used the native functionality of the iPhone (text notes, photos, videos, voice notes etc) and time/date stamped them, with the intention of maximising the speed with which items could be made and retrieved. Rob O’Toole (who I would link to but seems to have vanished from Twitter) suggested getting it built as a front end for Evernote. Perhaps I should have listened to him.

Friday, 30 November 2012 from 09:30 to 18:00 (PST)
Manchester Digital Laboratory, Manchester, United Kingdom

Suitable for complete beginners or those who need a refresher, this intensive one day course will cover all the core functionality of NVivo:

  • An overview of the software
  • Managing and importing your data
  • Coding strategies and techniques
  • Analysing visual and multimedia data
  • Using memos effectively
  • Using annotations and see also links
  • Relationships and models
  • Querying your data
  • Managing the complexity of your project

Eventbrite - Using NVivo: a one day crash course for qualitative researchers

All participants will receive an electronic resource pack which covers the material from the course and provides guidance on continuing to develop proficiency with the software. To take part you will need a laptop with NVivo installed. A 30 day free trial of NVivo 10 is available from the QSR website.

To keep costs down lunch is not included. But the venue is in the heart of Manchester’s famous Northern Quarter and is surrounded by excellent cafes and bars. There will also be LOTS of tea and coffee.

If you are a wheelchair user and are interested in this training event, please contact me and I’ll try to arrange a session which can accomodate you.

Mark Carrigan has taught NVivo extensively at the University of Warwick and acted as a NVivo trainer and consultant for the EU FP7 funded MYPLACE project. For more information see his website. Testimonials are available online here. Please feel free to get in touch via e-mail or twitter if you have any questions.

As Savage and Burrows (2007: 894) point out, the popularity of the in depth interview in British sociology stems from an intellectual reaction to the excesses of Parsonian functionalism: responding to talk of reference groups, norms and values with the valorization of intensely idiographic methods which are geared towards the elaboration of people’s own values in their own terms,  seen as particularly significant when dealing with marginal or oppressed groups liable to be squeezed out of the functionalist world view. While they are certainly correct to say that the value of such in-depth interviews needs justification once it is removed from this initial context of critical reaction, I’m less convinced of the arguments they cite for its diminishing relevance. They argue that,

Not only are the world-views of diverse populations now routinely presented to us in the popular and new media in such a manner that their summary characterization by sociologists is no longer as necessary (or as interesting) as once it was, but some of the social transactional research technologies discussed above are now also able to produce nuanced representations of the lifeworlds of quite specific populations groupings, for example (Savage and Burrows 2007: 894-895)

The ubiquity which which ‘everyday life’ is presented in a situated way within the popular and new media surely represents, if we step back from the urgency which understandably animated their argument, an opportunity for the rethinking (rather than the move away from) in-depth interviews and other methods animated by a similar impulse to capture the particularities and nuances of situated lives. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly optimistic (it happens) but the same state of affairs Savage and Burrows cite as indicative of the growing irrelevancy of in-depth interviewing instead indicates to me that the potential public interest in the results of such research has never been higher. Furthermore, in a complex and confusing world increasingly characterised by what seems likely to become endemic economic and political instability, I’d suggest this public interest might extend to work which traces out the linkages between private troubles and public issues… with the essential caveat that linking one to the other, presenting the findings of research in a way that interests and influences diverse and overlapping publics, necessitates a rethinking of the public role of the sociologist. Perhaps involving a generalisation of the orientation of the public intellectual, adapted for a digital age and thus freed from any grandiose pretensions and removed as far as possible from its inscription within the status hierarchies of the academy:

The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated “narrowcasting,” that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and — to a much lesser extent — radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.

The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission. (Poe 2012)