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Why methods textbooks fail to adequately address “the digital”

Why can’t I find a qualitative methods textbook that adequately represents the challenge of doing research in/with/of what we might call the digital, technological, internet, online, or networked? Here’s my short answer.

Why methods textbooks fail to adequately address “the digital”

Annette Markham


Why can’t I find a qualitative methods textbook that adequately represents the challenge of doing research in/with/of what we might call the digital, technological, internet, online, or networked? Here’s my short answer:

It would require rethinking the entire textbook.

Like ethics, “the internet” is often thus relegated to a single chapter, as if this could possibly cover everything. The longer answer is actually a fairly interesting example of how habits become structures that are so normalized they can discipline even the most creative scholars.  This is an interesting dilemma for qualitative research that seeks to remain explorative, emergent, and responsive to contextual shifts.  The challenge is to identify that there’s a problem in the first place, in the way we represent research processes, practices, and tools.

Let’s take for example “the internet.” How would we create a list of chapters within a larger handbook to effectively cover this topic? We could–and I suggest this would be a typical approach, add chapters that align with stages of inquiry and cover key tools or techniques, such as:

  • Approaching and engaging in a digital field: online ethnography, virtual ethnography, netnography
  • Collecting information via interviews: digital options and challenges
  • Observing social interactions: “Scraping” as a technique of archiving in various social media platforms.
  • Dealing with large data sets: managing and protecting data, sorting and categorising through computer aided tools
  • Analyzing: the challenges of fragmented conversations, asynchronicity, virtuality, visual vs textual materials, interactions versus posts, and so on.
  • Analyzing: Using critical discourse analysis, discourse analysis, converastional analysis, coding, etc.
  • Thinking about ethics, legal constraints, terms of service limitations, and other concerns that continue to grow in importance

This approach is best described as the ‘add-on’ approach.  It retains the typical characteristics of qualitative inquiry and promotes the idea that we simply adapt traditional tools into digital or networked contexts.  Then, it adds issues to the basic qualitative research processes. This can seem fruitful and useful, especially for novice researchers.

That’s the problem. It’s too simple. It not only collapses many nuanced distinctions between the terms ‘digital’, ‘internet’, ‘technology’, ‘mobility’, ‘networked’, and ‘virtual’, it also relegates these concepts to minor positions as if they are no different than the setting or venue for inquiry or tool one might use to record an interview or store data.

It’s worth considering the difficulties for any textbook editor (which might explain why I’ve never written a textbook on qualitative methods).

First, it’s difficult to narrow any discussion of “the Internet” down to even a few chapters since there are so many contingencies. Just mentioning two structural considerations off the top of my head, every different platform facilitates a particular form and content of interaction. Within and across platforms, different communities of practice have explicit rules for interaction or well-understood norms for behavior. This only scratches the surface. So any textbook seeking to add tools/techniques would face an endless job of justifying what is included and excluded. (this is of course typical of any qualitative research text, so  this doesn’t reveal any new challenge. Still, there’s something about “the internet” or “online” that beguiles novice researchers to somehow expect that it’s an easily encapsulated thing, when it’s not)

Related and second, talking about the internet as if it’s a particular social context (place) or a particular tool or communication medium limits the way that we frame and define qualitative inquiry with, in, or of it (whatever ‘it’ is, and that’s certainly not just a glib side note).  One of the most significant shifts in the past few years is that the technologies we’re using now are ubiquitous and mobile. We carry the internet with us in our pockets. We use multiple devices, we have wearable technologies. Digital and analog continue to overlay and blur in physical settings with ‘smart’ technologies like google glass, GPS responsive advertising, self tracking, and so on.

Third, a typical add-on or adaptive approach risks ignoring or sidelining some key emerging concerns in qualitative research of digitally saturated contexts.  Here are just three:

1. Big data:  Even if this buzzword disappeared, those qualitative researchers studying anything related to the internet have always faced the problem of “too large” data sets.  This is a significant (and in my opinion, growing) problem because nobody, it seems, is heeding David Silverman‘s astute advice that I repeat to my students endlessly: If you think a project is too small, make it smaller.  The strength of qualitative inquiry has always been close, local, emergent exploration.  Easy archiving, scraping technologies, and computer-aided tools for analysis create huge data sets. The powerful rhetoric surrounding “big data” only exacerbates this problem.  It is easy to be captivated by the beauty of big data visualisations and graphic explanations of global events.

2. Individual objects versus flow:  As technologies, devices, platforms, and physical/digital grow more entangled, identification of “the context” or the object of inquiry grows more difficult. Traditional tools of qualitative research were built for and function best in physically co-located environments. E.g., traditional tools used to collect information in fieldwork, such as interviewing, participant observation, and collection/archiving of artifacts, focus on individuals (bodies, persons, movements, utterance, responses) or things (objects with obdurate qualities). We may know that “social” and “interaction” and “culture” are not so simply encapsulated, but the methods we’ve always relied on are highly visually biased and focused on understanding people as individual units.  By contrast, perhaps (and here, perhaps you’re seeing my epistemological bias), networked, digital, ubiquitous-internet social contexts are better represented by terms such as ‘temporary assemblage’ or ‘flow’ or ‘entanglement.’

3. What counts as data?  or put differently, “What’s missing and impossible to ‘harvest’?:”  Nancy Baym and I participated in a special ‘data’ issue of First Monday last year. In different ways, we’re making a similar argument: that what happens in digitally saturated social contexts is often invisible.  Impossible to capture.  For Nancy, this includes the conversations, thoughts, and meanings that are not digitised and therefore not capable of leaving traces or being harvested.  I agree and and focus on a different layer of complication— the way information travels beyond its origin and can develop a social life of its own, the function of algorithms in the social interactions, and the difficulty of activating or archiving the meaningful bits of digital life.  This is a data identification and collection problem, certainly. But more, it is a more fundamental problem of assuming a particular traditional characteristic to the practice of everyday life.  When we make assumptions that we’re doing the same thing but only online instead of face to face, we’re potentially missing important leaps to a significantly different way of being that is emerging through and because of digital technologies.

These issues cut across all stages of inquiry, so the discussion of qualitative research and technology is not something that can be easily divided into techniques, venues/platforms, or community types.  …of course, it’s a tough nut to crack.  Would I have a list of proposed chapters that could address these issues adequately? No. But perhaps it’s more in the attitude of the chapter authors than the content. Or maybe it’s best addressed by raising questions than identifying answers.

This problem is not likely to go away, and it’s high time we seriously address it (and by “we,” I really mean “someone else.” Not me. Some really really smart and good editor, please!).  Technologies continue to infuse into everyday life. While qualitative researchers will always have close, local, personal, face to face settings to study, these are more and more interwoven with the digital.  So the influence of ’the digital’ will become increasingly important to grapple with, even as it becomes more invisible. It’s different from other media for communication like the telephone or fax machine or radio, because it is, among other things, interactive, co-produced, social, and constant. There’s more to say on all this, but I’ve run out of steam. <end rant>

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