Remix Methods: Searching for Resonance (Part I)

Annette Markham

May 22, 2011


As part of an ongoing project, this is my own remix, which means it will morph over time into something that has a different sort of coherence than you see here.

I’ve been musing over three recent events that compelled me to start writing about ‘fabrication’ as a valuable and ethical tool within qualitative research. This essay is more about the conditions within which we are constrained as qualitative researchers, so while it’s on the way to making the case for bringing ‘fabrication’ to the scientific table, I don’t talk about it directly here.

  1. I caused a small firestorm when I mentioned in a conference presentation on ethics that I fabricated a dialogue in some early research on internet users. Simultaneous responses included, “How could you do such an unethical thing?” and “Thank you for finally giving us a method to protect our participants!”
  2. I learned that a paper written by two of my Swedish colleagues was rejected because they wanted to use amalgam accounts to protect the privacy of youth bloggers talking about cutting. They were told it was not a true or accurate use of the data.
  3. I started getting my news (and therefore version of reality) exclusively through twitter and Facebook feeds.

These events have sent me on a quest to find a way to resist the empirical imperialism i see creeping back into qualitative inquiry (I know it all sounds a bit dramatic, but this image seems fitting as I have been away from home for some months, exploring new intellectual and geographic territories, and coming to some new adventurous places in my thinking about method, ethics, and qualitative inquiry in internet-mediated contexts).

I find myself searching backward in time to recall some of the major shifts away from positivism that problematized truth and grand theories and deconstructed the tight binds of trust, truth, and objective science.  I find myself searching outside of academia to find cultural practices that blend creativity with an inductive, grounded, and situated notion of authority to construct decentered works that resonate with various truths of experience.

There’s much to learn from models whereby trust is based on credibility more than verifiability.

At the same time, it’s important to separate this from a stance that might claim that because science is a situated and political act of persuasion (a’la Thomas Kuhn), global warming is nothing more than a social construction.  In this post-postmodern context that distrusts both truth and relativity, I find this is a delicate balancing act.  Scientific method offers us much.  So too do stories.  Narrative, considered in the broadest of senses, from fables to documentary films, tell us a lot about the world in which we live.  The best storytellers are those who can step into a constantly moving river of experience, capture a moment, render it in a way that provides meaning for a particular audience, and provoke us to see something more closely, or think otherwise.  This is also a quality of strong social research.

Methods associated with good storytelling get short shrift in social science research. The modes of inquiry that yield good stories involve many of the tools of ethnography: Intense engagement with cultural members, observation of rituals and behaviors, finding meaning through processes of close analysis and defamiliarization, and translating meaning from one cultural domain to another in a compelling presentational form.  The strengths of this type of inquiry have been explored largely within the general domain of interpretive sociology.

Outside this domain, interpretive qualitative research that exhibits strong storytelling tendencies is often critiqued for presenting ‘mere’ ‘fiction’ under the guise of research.  Whatever the cause of this general backlash, we are now situated in research environments whereby any mode of inquiry that wanders too close to those used in storytelling is undermined and discredited, as much by those within qualitative research as those without. In an effort to bolster the credibility of an already marginalized way of knowing, qualitative inquiry has crippled itself by pushing aside the very methods that traditionally comprised its very strength.

This is worrisome on several levels.  Researchers seeking to use innovative methods for collecting, analyzing, and presenting findings are restricted within normative models of scientific inquiry that do not resonate well with the cultural contexts they seek to investigate. This persists despite larger cultural trends toward understanding knowledge production as collaborative.

Meanwhile, outside the walls of academia, critical thinking through various forms of cultural production and inventiveness are encouraged. With new technologies to play with, new technologies to distribute playful creations to others, and an open source attitude, we’re witnessing different modes of knowledge production, based on experimentation, necessary (or inherent to the technologies) collaboration, creative ingenuity, and remix.  We see analyses that merge cultural critique and creative expression. We learn from an amalgam of stories that cut across social demographics, which in their very creation and viral dissemination problematize the privilege of the professions of science, journalism, or art.

The model of credibility within this new(ish) public intellectual sphere is reputation based, where the product or the producer is judged by a crowd. In most cases the crowd is not unruly, but a smart mob, expert en masse in the particular knowledge arena, defined by their willingness and ability to correct each other in a collective assessment of the community’s product(s).

This collaborative correction mechanism is combined with a collaborative model for what counts as worthwhile: What is salient, meaningful, or true is not necessarily determined by unknown expert sources but derived from a groundswell of attention and again, crowd sourced judgment.  Of course this can be good or bad, depending on how you want to see the world.  From my perspective, this process yields on the one hand Jon Stewart as one of the most credible political commentators in the US (a good thing) and on the other hand, a groundswell effort to deny that global warming exists (a bad thing).

The everyday social environments in which we (Western Industrialized countries) live are mediatized, or saturated through and through with ‘stuff’ from what we might oversimplify here as ‘the media.’ The places where we make meaning are more and more blurred and converging. The devices we use to connect and interconnect are mobile and always on.  It can be more or less visible to us, but even in those cultural rituals that are supposed to be separate from media, we see the impact.  Want to take a road trip across the US?  Better have the right soundtrack.  Thinking about getting married in the US? Better choose a theme, follow the scripts, and hire a photographer to capture the perfect moment. Does the nostalgia for camping come from one’s own experience or an advertisement?

This is nothing new.  In the last century, Baudrillard made excellent use of mediatization to talk about hyperreality. He wasn’t the only one, but his work demonstrated the extent to which we come to value the hyperreal over the real, and also the extent to which we would be hard pressed in any epoch to come up with a universal agreement on what was actually not hyperreal.

If our lived experiences in online social environments like Second Life, MMORPGs, or less dramatically, Facebook, Twitter, and email has taught us anything, it is that terms like ‘real’ or ‘virtual’ are not significant separators of experience. Experience is more real if it is meaningful.  Authenticity is measured in the same way. Salience is an ad hoc, temporal sort of truth, borne out by experiments in quantum physics demonstrating that a particle exists only when we turn our attention toward it.  This isn’t such a bad thing, it just destabilizes a sense of truth and reality as something prior to our acknowledgment and assessment of it as such.

The more difficult it becomes to cling to an all-or-nothing or capital T notion of “Truth” in this epoch, the more value we find in the concept of ‘truthiness.’ This concept shifts focus away from truth value (T/F) to move toward meaning for stakeholders or meaning in practice (community value, temporal value, temporary value, meaningfulness, salience, applicability, outcomes for the individual, the relationship, the community, the culture).

When you can’t know the truth of something, because there’s no validating authority and no simple or universally accepted way to measure it, one can either try to find a partial truth (+/- 5%, or in many qualitative studies, a weak generalization) or one can change the question, like Geertz and many before him did, to ask about the phenomenon: ‘What does it mean in this context, for these people?’ or ‘How is this expererienced?’ or ‘How might it function?” Answering these questions while calling oneself a scientist involves many things, not the least of which is trusting one’s interpretive strengths and engaging in an act of interpretive authority. After all, as Bud Goodall reminds us, this is what we were trained to do.

Doing research of quality is a somewhat separate consideration, one that hopefully involves ethical and interpretive reflexivity as well as systematic or otherwise-defined rigor.

Being considered credible is yet another consideration, a measure granted from the outside based on any number of known and unknown criteria. it may be worth noting that credibility for any audience is gained in multiple ways, including the preexisting credibility one brings to the table (age, expertise, previous research); the credibility one builds in the presentation (making claims that are well supported through evidence or reasoning; citing other sources to bolster one’s own claims); and the credibility one gains by being charismatic or likeable (e.g., if the manner of writing resonates with the expectations of the audience; if one demonstrates respect for the norms and expectations of the audience or for the object/culture being studied; if one’s rendering is particularly compelling across many audiences; or if one is generally a likeable sort of person and this comes through in the writing).

Returning to the central problem of this essay: Even as interpretive, postmodern, and feminist ontologies have cleared the way for recognizing that science is a situated act of writing culture, invention and creativity in qualitative research is, ironically, less tolerated in social science research than it was a decade ago.

Why? maybe postmodernism backlash. maybe the varying degrees of quality was too much to grapple with so there was a whole-scale rejection of works outside the norms of traditional academic publishing. Maybe there was a vanilla movement following the excess of cyberspace and virtual reality, causing not only the now ubiquitous interface of plainness but a suspicion of anything that smacks of those wacky design experiments of the 1990s.

Regardless of reason, in Internet research we now find ourselves situated (or, some would say, still situated) in a time when there is a fairly significant mismatch between methods of inquiry and representation and the types of social contexts we live in.

We live in a remix culture, people are doing creative remix all around us, and we researchers seem to be stuck with some degree of methodological hypochondria, where we are afraid of taking too many risks.  It seems not just odd but unwise that we would feel restricted in the ways we contribute to knowledge in a knowledge economy, when everyone outside the walls of the Academy has none of these restrictions.

In using the metaphor of remix, I intend to highlight the practices of sampling and mixing to create partial products that grow in quality and cohesion over time through continued practice of one’s art slash craft plus the participation of others.  Remix provides a lens whereby we can see truly networked knowledge; continual growth through feedback loops and collaboration. Remix is a way of thinking about the big picture not alone through one’s individual study but through interpretation of pieces created by various parties, over time. Remix is a mode that resists superficiality, glossing, overgeneralizations, and oversimplifications.

A remix approach is, like bricolage, both process and product. It embraces fragmentation and chaos in sensemaking. It understands that research products are arguments, created in particular times, by situated indivduals, for particular audiences. As such, the quality of the work is not in the data itself, but in what we learn from the story being told. Inquiry is less about explanation and more about learning, advocacy, and social justice. While this is well understood and practiced in many disciplines, it is particularly well suited to inquiry of media saturated experience. In In some follow-up posts, I lay out this idea more specifically.

Related references I’ve been recently rereading or thinking about:

Goodall, H. L. (2003). What is Interpretive Ethnography? An Eclectic’s Tale.  In Clair, R. P. (Ed.). Expressions of Ethnography (pp. 55-64).  Albany, NY: Suny Press.

Kincheloe, J. (2001). Describing the Bricolage: Conceptualizing a New Rigor in Qualitative Research.  Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 679-692
(available online through university libraries by database search: DOI: 10.1177/107780040100700601)

Kincheloe, J. (2005). On to the Next Level: Continuing the Conceptualization of the Bricolage. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(3), 323-350.
(available online through university libraries by database search: DOI: 10.1177/1077800405275056)

Lashua, B. D., & Fox, K. (2007). Defining the Groove: From Remix to Research in The Beat of Boyle StreetLeisure Sciences, 29(2), 143-158.
(available online through university database search: DOI: 10.1080/01490400601160796)