Dark Days

Last night my partner and I watched the Marc Singer documentary "Dark Days". The name of this film had been stuck in my head since Prof. Grimes had mentioned it in a class long, long ago, in October sometime. I know that this weeks readings focus on online research, which has absolutely nothing to do with this film, but they also discuss ethnography, boundaries and the fact that field sites do not exist in a vacuum.

This film is not a pure ethnographic study and Singer is not an ethnographer, neither claim to be so. But Singer fully immerses himself into a marginalized culture and is able to record his experience. He filmed bits of the lives and thoughts of a group of people that lived in a section of the New York city underground railway system. They built their own homes out of what they could find and had free electricity, but lived mostly in the dark.

These underground dwellings were Singer's main field site, he didn't stray from there much except to occasionally follow his subjects while they looked for food or tried to make money above ground. This culture was so small and unique, and Singer's access so complete and rare that I don't think he had any issues with defining where this project started and stopped. I suppose he could have expanded it to tackle issues like New York's crack problem, or effects of living underground, but he didn't.

Singer was specific in recording only these people (and later on some authorities). He chose to focus on their relationships, their back stories and sometimes their aspirations. He also took a personal interest in their well-being. Singer played a large role in finding a lot of the people actual housing. I suppose this could potentially be seen as similar to action research. Singer wanted to make a change for these people and by researching them and making outsiders aware of their plight, he was able to make a real difference.

Again, I repeat that Marc Singer is not an ethnographer nor claims to be one. But, this documentary really did show his immersion into a completely alien culture, a very bounded and precise culture. He was so immersed that he was able to entirely change the culture forever.

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.

Peer Review

I guess I am too full of assignments right now. I was doing a peer review of the paper using ethnography and since ethnography makes use of pictures as well, I was inspired to use some images myself in this posting to depict what peer review is, instead of writing yet again. Hoping the pictures would serve more than a million words...

Bias in Research Methodology Design

This week's peer review made me realize just how complex research methodology can be, especially in terms of the design. Those in charge of the study have to make sure that their methodology tests everything they intend it to and that these tests are reliable. The problem is, every researcher approaches the study with a bias, and this can affect the results. It's one of those things that can't really be avoided, but it can sometimes be argued that a bias can be good for the study, as it might bring a new and unique perspective. However, sometimes the bias can completely distort a study because the researcher had something particular in mind and, subconsciously or not, designed the study towards that bias.
Biases are something that every researcher has to deal with, but it just becomes a question of how aware you are of your bias and whether the bias affects the research design in a negative way.

Public relations, funding and case studies

As I started reading Beaulieu et al's (2007) article, I was struck by their mention of the cultural and institutional context of case study use in science and technology studies and how this might link the research to multiple audiences. This made me think about the fact that case studies can provide an extremely powerful illustration of a more complex issue for a public outside of the research field.

While research popularization can contribute to general understanding of an issue, if the research is publicized adequately, it can also lead to increased funding, as grant-making institutions want to fund relevant research. I haven't examined this enough to be in the position to make a link between case studies and the funding that they receive, but my experience with the mock SSHRC proposal tells me that the clearer the link between research and a current social issue, the better the chances are that it will be funded. My work in public relations also has taught me that the more concrete and emotionally engaging a story, the more likely it is that it will be picked up by the media, and thus reach the public through traditional channels. Therefore, an engaging case study that can be covered by the media and insert the researcher into a societal debate will also receive financial support to do so. What's more, the funding agency might benefit from a little publicity as well.

Since I have diagrams on the brain (and I'm sure I'm not the only one in this situation), I thought that I would illustrate my point with a little drawing. I think that this applies whether the research is in the social sciences, humanities or hard sciences. The 'generalization' ring is what links the case study to societal debate.
I then thought about how the diagram above might translate into a press release, and because I have a lot of time on my hands, I made a model of a press release that might get media attention by making the case study relevant to the public.

I'm not sure to what extent this reflects reality for researchers who have been funded, but I think that examining the politics of research methods and funding is a very interesting way to position the researcher within a broader societal context. Taking this into consideration is, in my opinion, a good way to make sure that our research can both happen and have an impact.