A Strategic Use of Methodology

My weekly post has been delayed because I really wanted to talk about the peer-review process and feared the dangers of posting too early. Alas, its been a few days so I’m considering safe to discuss it.

My peer-review was the examination of Facebook as a platform for political debate. One of the first things I did was follow the references the paper gave (majority linked to the field of CMC, computer-mediated communication) and sat down with a couple of books on the subject. It was, in sum, a gravely outdated theory from the 90s — the central claim was that all Internet communication are a series of rude childish insults. They begin to theorize about the importance of social cues in civility, and creating models about ranking the communication mediums by how much of the physical person they present: the Internet, lacking visual or audio persona, somehow psychologically triggers our inner animal, as it unleashes us from the perceived social pressure of civility.

The bulk of this academic field has grown with this (biased) perception. The particular research study that was up for review, however, approached this was a purely strategic method: take a unit of the Internet, and count how many posts are civil and uncivil. Lo and behold, the majority of them were completely civil! Its a rather simple procedure, but its power rests in quantitatively debunking the theoretical work of CMC. To put it in a different way, the study played by the academic rules and still able to beat the academy at their own game.

That last sentence wasn’t meant to turn out as negative as it did, but it brings me into an overarching point: researching with the academic discourse and researching against it. That is, I think to a point, what peer-review taps into: how well does it fit with the academic body of work happening? While you can adopt it or challenge it, there is an expectation that you are working with it.

How important is it to have this relationship with the academic body (again, I’m considering dissent as a type of response)? Class discussions suggested ‘breaking free’ and just research whatever you find interesting is much more liberating, but I’m just worried that this privatized research is just a disguise of your working methods: your own perceptions, biases and are not explicitly formalized. To extend, challenge or adapt the scholarly work (with references and citations) at least allows the the reader the luxury of accessing this history.

Although, this fault works the other way, as working with the the academy is to adopt all of its biases (the Facebook study, though it challenged the civility argument adopted many other biases without hesitation; it is as if you can only challenge one idea at a time). 

I feel myself loosing track of this post, but it’s been just an area of tension that I’ve been trying to grapple with; the academy with all its embedded faults and limitations, provides the strength of context.

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