Looking under methods: An experiment in play

Annette Markham

Feb 27, 2013

Understanding the strength of interpretive qualitative inquiry requires going back to the basic question:

What do we actually DO when we engage in qualitative inquiry?

I’ve been writing about this in other blog posts.  In the first of this 4-part series, I talk about why I got interested in the metaphor of remix; in the second post, I give a (glossed) perspective on some key complications of social (research) contexts in the 21st Century.  In the third post, I sketch out a definition of remix as it might be applied to research methods. Here, I finish up by talking about what I consider the key processes in remix methods:  Play, Borrow, Interrogate, Generate, and Move.

For the past three years, I’ve been giving interdisciplinary workshops (mostly PhD students, and mostly in the EU or Nordic regions) to help participants explore how they might be more innovative and creative in their methods, without losing disciplinary integrity.  To get workshop participants to think less about labels and more about practice, I started using the concept of remix.  Then, I started using less heavy (in terms of baggage) terms to get under the surface of methods like ‘data collection,’ ‘data analysis,’ ‘findings,’ and so forth.

We Play.

We Borrow.

We Generate.

We Move.

We Interrogate.

These terms have proven very successful in cross-disciplinary workshops exploring innovative or creative approaches, as they help disconnect the practice of inquiry from methodological or epistemological baggage.  A significant percentage of scholars who study digital culture, internet-mediated contexts, or social media are new to qualitative inquiry. This is an important consideration when it comes to imagining the common models informing the definitional parameters for how qualitative inquiry gets done. Even when defined as a non-positivist process, procedures still retain linear and compartmentalized foundations. One begins with a phenomenon that informs one’s research questions, which in turn inform particular strategies for data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Various stages are described as separate moments, and findings are written up at the end.  Although the process can be displayed as iterative, the fundamental working metaphors are not nearly as innovative as those of us with extensive background or experience with innovative qualitative inquiry might imagine.

Play, borrow, move, interrogate, and generate. These terms describe the practices of remix. They also describe the practice of social research.  Of course, each of these terms will be conceptualized and operationalized in different ways for any researcher, depending on his or her perspective, discipline, project, and so forth.  Likewise, the terms will take on different meaning at different stages of the project.  Thus, the following brief descriptions of each term serve as only a starting point, illustrating how I might situate these terms in my own world of research.

Generate: 

When I think of this term, I immediately visualize the physical stacks of material that would collect on my desk over the course of a study.  It was easier to understand what the term meant when the ‘stuff’ of our research was more physically noticeable.  The changing dimensions–in width and height– of the stack over time would indicate a state of progress.  The more I investigated, the more stuff was generated: draft documents, field notes, concept maps, sketchbooks full of doodles, photos, and drawings, notes on literature I was reading, printed copies of theory and concept articles, untouched transcripts from interviews, the same transcripts coded the first time, the same transcripts coded a second time or in a different way, and on and on.  I considered this teetering pile a treasure trove, full of data. Picking up random objects might trigger certain connections among ideas. Flipping open a research journal might spark a memory and open a floodgate of new information to consider. This wonderful chaos of inquiry is less visible when we work digitally. Much of this generative quality of inquiry is forgotten, never experienced, or lost.

We might think about the process of generating as one whereby we transform data according to different thematic classification schemes. Every iteration of this presents a new (in that it is different) data set, which represents the phenomenon in a new way. The act of transformation is one of interpretation and remix.  Likewise, we generate a ‘new’ participant every time we transform their raw activities into a different form, such as a written text, an edited version of their talk, a grammatically corrected version of their discourse, or a summary of themes emerging from their activities and interactions. Reflecting on these and other practices, we can see that inquiry is not only about simplifying and narrowing, but generating layers upon layers of informational units that influence our interpretations. Focusing only on the first layer of data (the original stuff we collected) doesn’t allow us to fully appreciate what is actually at play when we engage in the long, involved, inductive, and explorative art and science of ‘writing culture.’

When this inherent generative process is understood, it can enable fuller analysis of multiple layers of meaning. Simply put, more ‘stuff’ is laid out on the table to be considered as ‘data.’

Play: 

Play is sometimes a guided or rule driven activity, as when we play games.  At other times, play is an open-ended leisure activity, as when we play with or play around.  It’s easy to see remix as a product of both types of play.  As a process of inquiry, remix relies on experimenting with various combinations of elements, to produce something meaningful. Successful remixes are inventive and often yield outcomes that seem quite new, despite the fact that the elements that are being combined are borrowed from other sources.  So remix is a highly open ended process.  And like most artistic endeavors, passion and innovation work in tandem with the skillful, if not expert performance of one’s art/craft.  At the same time, most remix occurs in a larger community of remix, where certain goals and guidelines apply.

In academic contexts, we have been far less willing to characterize research as play, or playful. Particularly if one’s practices are closely directed or controlled by outside forces such as supervisors or funders, play may seem a disrespectful, lazy, or non-rigorous form of activity. In qualitative inquiry, this is a mistake, since what we do in the best moments of the interpretive process is just that.  As any athlete or musician will say, getting in the zone of play or engaging in improvisation requires at least some element of skillful application of certain techniques and also functions as an important tool for honing one’s skills. Curiosity and exploration mark a significant type of play. Experimentation without any particular purpose allows the researcher to move beyond what is already known to a point of learning, making new connections.  Imaginative play allows one to let go of what ought to be done or thought and work in the realm of possibilities. As Marantz Henig (2008) notes, “[f]or all its variety … there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered.” Bekoff describes play as “training for the unexpected. . . .  Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment” (in Marantz Henig, 2008).

In terms of exploring complex social media contexts, play can actually become a critical turning point for research design that resonates better with contexts of flow, analysis that moves with or into these flows rather than abstracting and isolating objects arbitrarily and artificially, finding forms of representation that have contextual integrity, and finding, rather than simply applying, conceptual models that help make sense of these phenomena.

Borrow: 

In the context of copyright, Lessig (2008) reminds us that a basic foundation of writing is quoting from other works. Referring to the writing of a particular individual, he says, “were it music, we’d call it sampling. Were it painting, it would be called collage. Were it digital, we’d call it remix” (p. 51). In academic research, borrowing is essential, in this and other ways.  To make sense of any phenomenon, we borrow all the time, whether or not we recognize it. We borrow ideas about sampling strategies, genres of writing, tools for analyzing data, and so forth.

As I take short-term engagements at various universities, I often end up sitting for days, weeks, or months in other scholars’ offices.  While I think or write, I wander around the offices of computer scientists, feminist technoscientists, linguists, post-phenomenological theorists, or actor network theorists, gazing at the titles on their bookshelves. Flipping through books, gazing at art on walls, and reading articles left sitting on desktops, it’s no surprise I find a lot of useful concepts, theories, and phrases that I would never otherwise encounter. Through serendipity, I make new connections and find alternate perspectives.  All of this broadens my perspectives, no matter the topic.

Of course, it’s messy when I leave the comfort of my home discipline to struggle with new concepts.  But it makes good sense when I consider the target of my inquiry. Most aspects of internet-related phenomena occur across multiple platforms, media, devices.  Interactions that seem cohesive or complete are just partial traces of interactions, abstracted from lived experience, displaced in time and space. When we consider the way in which people use and relate to technologies for communication, the variation is endless.  Borrowing approaches, perspectives, and techniques from not only outside one’s discipline but from outside the academy seems not only natural but essential to figuring out creative ways to grapple with these contexts.

Move: 

Everything discussed previously, whether applied to the activities of remix or the activities of qualitative inquiry, is about moving, or as my colleague Jenny Sunden reminded me, of “being moved.” Inquiry is always situated, but never motionless. This is an important thing to remember particularly in globally entangled networks of cultural flow that comprise ever-shifting terrains of meaning.  George Marcus (1998) uses the term ‘follow’ to describe creative ways to engage in multi-sited ethnography: follow the story, follow the people, follow the metaphors. We can add to this many other ways of thinking about following: shifting one’s perspective, changing the questions, moving in and out of the flows of information, following the silences, gaps, and absences.

In many ways, what’s most important is not how one moves but that one acknowledges that movement is inevitable, natural, and productive.  It is also not necessarily forward, in that many movements will take us back to the beginning, or will force us to see the entire project in different ways, forcing us to mark our current point as a new beginning to move from.

Interrogate:  Successful remix interrogates pieces of culture, torquing and integrating them into something unique so the audience can see each piece or the whole in a different way.  This has happened throughout time, in literature, painting, architecture, design, film, music, and so forth. Now, we see it in fan fiction, mashup videos, street art, internet memes…everywhere we see the production of culture, we know we are witnessing the outcome of a process of reflexive interrogation.

Perhaps ‘interrogate’ seems too forceful to describe the act of reflexively questioning everything we’re doing, seeing, feeling, or everything about the project and the phenomenon itself.  I use this term to highlight that any close reading, detailed analysis, or inductive interpretation requires a stead stream of questioning.  Sometimes we direct this interrogation at the object, to see how it is situated, to focus on what surrounds, embraces, encompasses, or encloses it, to wonder how it might look or be ‘otherwise,’ to think about its existence in time and space. At other times, we direct this interrogation inward, to consider why we’re interested in this and not another phenomenon, to ask how we are situated in relation to this ‘stuff’ of our curiosity, to consider how we might think otherwise, by focusing critically on what surrounds, embraces, encompasses, or encloses us.  This constant questioning may not be directly acknowledged as part of one’s method, but it comprises a powerful everyday practice of all inquiry.  Noticing it allows us to get better at doing it well, with purpose, and to incorporate the processes and products of our interrogations more clearly, or rigorously.

 

Searching for resonance

These five elements of remix–generate, play, borrow, move, and interrogate, usefully resist disciplining and can prompt more freedom to innovate when exploring contexts that defy easy encapsulation. As with bricolage or layered accounts (Rambo Ronai, 1995), remix presumes that the resulting pastiche will never constitute a complete or whole picture. Rather, each outcome is an iterative rendering. Each is a work in progress. All are possibilities. Each builds on the others, informs the others, and influences the overall perspective one ends up with at the end. This is an unending process, one that invites conversation, collaboration, and further remixing. Remixes might show connections among elements or present a beautifully cohesive piece, as we see in Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs.  Or, remixes can illustrate juxtaposition, disjuncture, or discontinuity. Rather than trying to resolve complexity in the research project, a remix might illustrate very clearly the irresolvable complexity of the phenomenon.

Of course, questions of quality and credibility arise. There are many ways to think about criteria for quality (see, e.g., various writers in Denzin & Lincoln’s Handbook of Qualitative Research (all editions, published by Sage). Questions of criteria for quality are considered paramount and comprise a consistent theme throughout these volumes.), but here, I just mention one: The most successful remixes are those that have longevity and can be seen by many to hold a mark of quality. Whether this quality is closely analyzed by experts or simply felt by cultural members, and whether this quality is in the way something is made or in the story it tells, it likely has something to do with how much the product resonates.  Successful remix reaches beyond the merely sufficient to the monumental. Ethical, context sensitive, creative research does the same, if in the end, it captures the attention of the reader, moves the reader to think differently, or causes the reader to want to engage, contribute further to the conversation, and continue the playful process of remix.

Works Cited:

Lessig, L. (2008).  Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy.  New York: Penguin Press. Available in various forms at: http://archive.org/details/LawrenceLessigRemix

Marantz Henig, R. (2008). Taking play seriously. New York Times Magazine, February 17. Accessed 01 December, 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/magazine/17play.html?pagewanted=all

Marcus, G. (1998). Ethnography through thick and thin.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rambo Ronai, C. (1995). Multiple reflections of child sex abuse: An argument for a layered account. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 23(4), 395-426.