The Contextual Scope of an Artifact's Meaning

I have to admit, I feel way more at home with this week's readings; although I found the quantitative and ethnographic research methods interesting, I was struggling to apply them to my own current research area. Thomas' Artifactual Study in the Analysis of Culture, in particular, struck an interest in me. 

One of the first problems Thomas' discusses is that of the substitution problem; can the study of artifacts be equivalent with the study of human behaviour? She points out two shaky assumptions this problem is built on: that of 'a direct method' (as if all of human behaviour is can be captured in one ultimate method) and that of attempted equivalency (as if artifacts are trying to be a pale reproduction of human behaviour). 

The substitution paradox, I think, rests on the hierarchical dichotomy of effable and ineffable. Rudolf Arnheim, a psychologists most noted for his work on visual arts, argues that this word-over-image bias rests in a linguistic-deterministic framework: the visual world is so chaotic and meaningless that the only way to liberate is to impose the structure of the language, a mold in which order and meaning is created. The implication of this, thus, is that the visual is innately chaotic and represents no meaning or order in and of itself. 

This seems to be where Thomas' problem with artifactural study rests: can artifacts, a physical realm, be innately meaningful or does it require linguistic, a rationale realm, to give meaning? While she argues no, and to which I agree, I wonder the scope of innate meaning lies (i.e. is this meaning culture bound?). 

The dehumanizing effect of critical discourse analysis

In the closing paragraph of his article, van Dijk writes: "this paper has sketched a rather simplified picture of power, dominance and their relations to discourse" (1993). Unfortunately, that is exactly why critical discourse analysis should not be used, in my view, for social research.

Dualistic frameworks about power and oppression, dominance and hegemony can be applied in the formulation of a research question, for example during an ethnographic study. They might also be useful in examining social phenomena, such Paulo Freire's popular education movement. However, they ideally should only represent a portion of the researcher's work.

Van Dijk's statement that: "critical scholars should not worry about the interests of perspectives of those in power, who are best placed to take care of their own interests anyway" is frightening, because it implies that there are two classes of human beings: the powerful and the powerless. It also indicates that the former class is less worthy of study, and even of human compassion, than the latter one.

I would venture that, in reality, power dynamics are much more complicated than this, and that human beings, whether they hold more or less power, remain multi-dimensional and unclassifiable. Any researcher that splits a population into two groups, discards one group and promotes perceived interests of the other, is not only misguided, but can also create serious damage in any community.

Dilemma concerning ethnography

I plan to make use of ethnography and am presently in the process of understanding how to “cover my bases” and be as transparent as possible and today’s class seemed to help a lot in this respect. Previously, I had come across some articles which addressed issues concerning ethnography that stated that it is a method which is not regarded to have as high a standing as certain other methods. And it is not just ‘quant’ researchers who have such views but ‘qual’ people share similar ideas. It has to be always substantiated by statistical calculations or concrete qualitative analysis. One of the basic reasons for this is the bias that a researcher or group of researchers can develop while conducting the field work. That is because, the research is analysed from one person or group’s point of view and their perception does come into play often. One of the ways of protecting ourselves from such criticism would be by being “extra super vigilante” while situating oneself into a culture or system. Thus the “importance of distance” plays an exceptionally major role in making the research credible.

Yet another attack against this method of research is that it studies one culture, organization, or system and tries to ‘see the world in a grain of sand’. This is true in some sense when the local provides an image of the global, the micro that of the macro. But it is also true that in a world as varied as ours, such study and its relevance can be highly limited. If I study one department in an organization, it is unlikely that the same gleanings from that study could be applied to another very different department. So studying one aspect of a company might not reveal much about the entire organization. It is difficult to defend ethnography in such a case. However, keeping in mind that all methods do have their drawback/s I guess conversely, ethnography too has its own (confident) position... enough to gain ground amongst the other research methodologies.

A face-to-face interview

Many of us have experienced with interview method which we had used in the assignment of INF1300. This assignment involves conducting an interview on the public's view of the library. Last week I have conducted the interview and have found that this class has really assisted me in determining the method I would employ as a researcher. The goal in this particular research is to discover what a person knows about libraries, library services and facilities etc. but while taking the interview , I had discovered that there is a lack of knowledge about the library gives a researcher valid information which can lead to questions of why there is such a lack of knowledge on the resources offered by the library. I have used an open-ended questions, it became apparent that there needed to be more structure than I had originally thought. The questions that I thought would have long answers were very short and I had to compensate by asking questions in different ways or being more specific without telling them what they know about the library and its services.
In other words, a face-to-face interview is the method most widely used in the research of any topic and based on a direct meeting between interviewer and interviewee. By personal communication it is possible not only to obtain much more information, but also to use visual materials (cards, pictures, logos, etc.) to encourage response.


"In the midst..."

The view from the “vantage point” is what ethnography aims to provide. According to Shaffir, “hanging around” has been and can be the best advice for conducting such field work. Similar other terms have been coined or associated over time with ethnography to reveal what it truly is. “Aculturisation” is one such term, which means that one becomes a part of the culture which is being investigated. It involves “direct engagement”, interaction and integration into a system or culture. “Going behind the scenes” to conduct research can prove to be consistently interesting as it also involves being “present” and “participating” in the natural and daily activities of that which is being studied. The participatory aspect of this form of research consists of becoming something close to a “member” or part of the whole or even non member “participant-as-observer” (Stebbins)and "learning" the community or people or system practices. Of extreme importance is “fitting in”, as that is what makes those being studied to openly provide insights into their inner-workings. And acquiring “first-hand information" is no doubt valuable and can possibly reveal many unknown or unthought-of issues.

Even though ethnography can be regarded as one of the most in-depth of research methods, it does have several drawbacks: there lies the risk of over-participation and subsequent abandonment of unprejudiced work leading to a biased outcome; it is time consuming – not simply in conducting field work but in analysis as well; potentially expensive and therefore limited to considerably small scale research; lacking in range or breadth and so on. Hopefully, in my small range proposal, it does find a place and provide me with "truths" that can prove to be beneficial enough to answer the deadly “So What?”

Offline and online research

This week's readings made me think about how useful ethnography can be in studying online activity, as we talk more and more about 'online communities' and 'social networks'. However, they have raised one question for me, and that is, how do you set the limits to an online community? Physical communities, such as the one described by Shaffir, have perhaps more delineated borders. Often, in fact, researchers travel to a community and physically imbed themselves within it.

Online communities are a little different. I was recently studying the Etsy social e-commerce site; examining how buyers and sellers interacted with the companies and what kind of social dynamics were present on the site, if one dug a little. I soon realized, however, that the network had tentacles, which extended into many other social media, and through them, into face-to-face meetings. In this sense, an ethnography of the network might include observing how its members interacted on and offline. This tendency is made even more visible by websites such as Meetup, which allows users to network online before meeting in person.

Perhaps what is so daunting about studying online communities is that often, each member of that community is part of one or several physical communities, distributed around the world. A solution might be to examine how distributed communities are studied, such as international communities of practice. I may simply be pointing out the obvious - that in our current highly networked societies, framing the subject for an ethnography is a challenging endeavour.

Respect the Gap

This weeks readings, particularly the one by Shaffir, talked about the importance of distance in the participant observation methodology to maintain valid results. While I don’t personally plan on using PO in my current research, the discussion brought to my mind larger questions about the nature of scientific knowledge. 

In his book Pandora’s Hope (a reading I have been doing for a different class), Latour discusses the concept of validity of scientific knowledge through circulating reference. While the original context was that of physical sciences, I am going to (attempt to) present this concept through a more ethnographic lens, as applicable to the participation observation methodology. I’m not sure what I’m hoping to achieve with this, but I’m finding these philosophies of validity much more interesting than a step-by-step guide to execute method ‘x’.