Remix as a Lens for Interpretive Qualitative Methods

Annette Markham

Feb 2, 2013

There’s a published version of this four part series now.  You can find it/ cite it as: Markham, A. (2013). Remix Cultures, Remix Methods: Reframing qualitative inquiry for social media contexts. In Denzin, N., & Giardina, M. (Eds.). Global dimensions of qualitative inquiry (pp. 63-81). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.  Contact me for a pdf copy, if you can’t find the edited volume.

In early 2011, I started getting all of my news of the world exclusively through my social media networks, specifically Twitter and Facebook. I wanted to immerse myself in the premise that “while people using media are simultaneously and instantaneously connected with large and multiple groups and networks, they are also increasingly ascribed with a deeply individualized and self-centered value system” (Deuze, Blank, & Speers, 2011, para 28).  ‘Homophily’, a concept describing the way people tend to flock toward similar others, is one way to describe how our understandings of the world are idiosyncratic, narrowly channeled through our social networks, and therefore polarized.

Not only did I experience homophily, but very soon, I found myself saturated in situations that I would not otherwise experience.  I saw certain tragedies very close up and personal, like the Queensland floods and the New Zealand earthquakes (two of my colleagues lived in Brisbane, one in Christchurch). I learned a lot about the music scene in Britain (I followed a musician who tweeted a lot and lived only one time zone away from me).  I watched a lot of Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart (as most of my friends in both Facebook and Twitter would forward these clips). I read scholarly articles that were posted when I was awake (and since I was in Denmark, this meant my stream was primarily European).

As Deuze, Banks, & Speers write, “the whole of the world and our lived experience in it can and perhaps should be seen as framed by, mitigated through, and made immediate by pervasive and ubiquitous media” (2011, para 3). This became clearer to me on January 25, as the Egyptian Revolution started to flood my Twitter streams. The speed at which tweets flowed on hashtags like #jan25 limited me to quick flashes of statements before they disappeared.  Clicking on links became a fairly random act, but led to some amazing pathways of meaning. On January 27, 2011, my mom watched this clip from MSNBC News on her TV, listening to the anchor talk about growing concerns about rioters getting ready for a “day of rage,” while a video clip over the anchor’s shoulder showed crowds of rioters shouting with fires visible in the distance.  She learned that rioters had injured 87 police, and one was killed. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, I cried as I watched a remix created by Tamar Shaaban that clipped footage from various news agencies as well as on-the-ground local video clips. Over a stirring soundtrack, I heard the passionate and committed voices of the Egyptian people, bloodied on the streets of Cairo.

In this century, we are witnessing a startling transformation in the way cultural knowledge is produced and how meaning is negotiated. The digital era does not mark the beginning of this sort of activity, by any means, yet it has facilitated a remarkable acceleration toward de-privileging expert knowledge, decentralizing culture production, and unhooking cultural units of information from their origins. One way to think about this is through the lens of remix. Although remix has been long associated with hip hop music forms, it is now a general term referring to the processes and products of taking bits of cultural material and, through the process of copy/paste and collage, producing new meaning to share with others. As I experience social reality that have been remixed by my interactions with my social media networks, I gain a particular understanding of the world, remix it again, and distribute this to others.

Inspired by my experiment of saturating myself in the way our understanding of the world is remixed by our engagement with social media (and somewhat inspired by the work of Lashua and Fox (2007) using remix as a method of action research), I have been thinking about the ways in which remix is a powerful tool for thinking about qualitative, interpretive research practice. The form and cultural practice of remix offers a lens through which we may be able to better grapple with the complexity of social contexts characterized by ubiquitous internet, always-connected mobile devices, dense global communication networks, fragments of information flow, and temporal and ad hoc community formations.

Rather than inventing new methods, a remix approach offers a different way of thinking about what we do when we engage with particular methods to make sense of phenomena. Taking a remix approach begins with the premises of a bricolage approach (Kincheloe, 2001, 2005) and then shifts to a level we might call ‘below method,’ where we engage in everyday practices of sensemaking. The concept of remix highlights activities that are not often discussed as a part of method and may not be noticed, such as using serendipity, playing with different perspectives, generating partial renderings, moving through multiple variations, borrowing from disparate and perhaps disjunctive concepts, and so forth. Although methods texts offer extensive descriptions of how one might design research questions, collect data, manage and sort data, and apply analytical tools to this data, much of the actual process from data to conclusion remains a black box. Most often, especially in disciplines where interpretive reflexive inquiry is not taken for granted, these processes are not included in anything the audience might read. Instead, we see the tidied-up version of a long, messy, creative process of sensemaking.

Adaptation and creative innovation is sorely needed to study the complexity of digital life. Internet research has been plagued by a constant reinvention of the wheel and a significant degree of trying to force fit methods that were invented for and function best in local face-to-face settings. I argue that by engaging in a greater level of attention to our everyday processes of sensemaking within research projects, we can identify and then submit these practices to greater scrutiny.  Remix is a metaphor that can help us get to this sort of reflexive attention to practice, product, and purpose, and also is a fruitful mindset for engaging in highly responsive, ethically grounded, and context sensitive cultural interpretations.

To delve deeper into this topic, it’s important to consider the complications associated with studying internet-mediated contexts.

It’s also useful to think more about a research-centered definition of “remix” might look like, which I sketch out in this post.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve used the metaphor of remix to help scholars consider how we might disrupt traditional frames for conducting qualitative research in digital contexts (it works very well as a teaching tool!).  In another post, I sketch out some specific terms that I think capture the essence of what we actually do while we’re doing social inquiry and help jar us loose from some of the baggage that typically gets associated with qualitative research practice.  Rather than thinking about the process of inquiry as a linear progression (oh, sure with some iterative loops thrown in in there) of data collection, data analysis, interpretation, and writeup, I think we get more out of thinking about action-oriented verbs like:  Generate, Play, Borrow, Move, and Interrogate.

As a brief caveat, Remix is a generative tool for thinking creatively about methods, not a new method, or even a framework. It resides alongside other metaphors that seek to challenge how we envision research, such as dance (Janesick, 1994/2010), jazz (Oldfather & West, 1994), crystallization (Richardson, 1994/2000/2005), bricolage (Kincheloe, 2001, 2005), or facets (Mason, 2011). These sorts of metaphors remind us that the process of research is, among other things, exploratory and creative, a mix of passion and curiosity.  And that the products of our inquiry, “whether an article, a graph, a poem, a story, a play, a dance, or a painting, is not something to be received, but something to be used; not a conclusion but a turn in a conversation; not a closed statement but an open question; not a way of declaring ‘this is how it is’ but a means of inviting others to consider what it (or they) could become” (Bochner & Ellis, 2003, p. 507).