Complications of social (research) contexts in the 21st Century

Annette Markham

Feb 2, 2013


Mostly, this sketch is intended to help build the case for a remix approach to qualitative inquiry, as I’ve discussed in this earlier post.  Despite its quick and dirty feel, perhaps it is useful.

The past three decades mark tremendous growth in digital social interaction, from early experiments in virtual reality, text-based communities, and role playing games to today’s saturation in social media, where we are always on, tethered to mobile devices, enacting what Nielson in 2012 labeled “Generation C” (for connected).

At the turn of the century, technologies for communication became much more pervasive through mobility and convergence.  The collaborative and distributive features of the web were more fully realized at this time with the rise of blogging.  The capacity to easily connect–via commenting, tagging, and sharing—facilitated a huge growth in complex networks among people both locally and globally, across any media form imaginable.  In both the blogosphere and commercial spheres, a system developed whereby value was linked to reputation and connectivity in these networks. This reputation and sharing economy has shifted our traditional understandings of authorship, blurred the boundaries between producer and consumer.

Throughout this time, frameworks for understanding and defining identity and social constructs have continued to shift away from the individual and more toward networks and information flows. The performance of everyday life is seen as increasingly inseparable from the technologically-mediated and mediatized confluences in which our information flows, with or without our attention or intention. Materiality in this mobile epoch is better understood as connection, process, and relationship.

In the 1991 book Saturated Self, Ken Gergen discusses this as an inevitable but slow-in-coming recognition of the relational self. In her book Alone Together, Turkle describes it more in terms of fragmentation, or a cycling through of various virtual personae, each with sets of attributes to suit particular situations.  Scholars like Bruno Latour (2005, 2012) go further to emphasize that in contemporary culture, we need to move beyond the notion and privileging of the individual, to better understand the multiple agencies influencing any social situation. Characteristic of actor network theorists, the actor is not just embedded in networks but is “defined by its network…entirely defined by the open-ended lists in the databases” (Latour, Jensen, Venturini, Grauwin, and Boullier, p. 3).  From this perspective, anything we might call an individual is simply a temporary constitution of attributes.

For social researchers, this means that many taken for granted techniques for identifying discrete situational boundaries, individuals, or other objects or for analysis are far less useful than they may have once seemed. As I have noted elsewhere, at least four complications emerge when we consider the entanglements of the social contexts involving humans, web 2.0 technologies, and smart, mobile devices.

1. Boundaries between self and other are often unclear, particularly when information develops a social life of its own, beyond one’s immediate circumstances.

2. Boundaries of situations and identification of contexts are often unclear as dramas play out in settings and times far removed from the origin of interaction.

3. Agency is not the sole property of individual entities, but a temporal performative element that emerges in the dynamic interplay of people and their technologies for communication.

4. Performativity can be linked not only to individuals but actions of the devices, interfaces, and networks of information through which dramas occur and meaning is negotiated.

To deal with the challenges of conducting qualitative research in mobile, global, and fragmented mediatized and mediated environments, do we cling to tradition, hoping for steady grounding? Or do we continually experiment?  These questions are complicated by other axiological questions. Part of the difficulty of being innovative links closely to the persistence of positivist models and procedures.  Whether discussed within the larger backlash against interpretivism or postmodernism, or within the economy-driven shifts toward evidence-based research models, it still feels like academia is battening down the hatches. This occurs in the midst of a cultural explosion, outside the walls of the academy, of collaborative, open source, reputation knowledge production.

This becomes an ethical concern on many levels, not the least of which relates to how and whether we are interrogating our methods adequately to protect people (our participants, their communities, and ourselves) from harm.  With the automated scraping of data occurring on massive levels across all media platforms and by various agencies, individuals, and privatized interests, how can we ensure data privacy? How can we be sure our techniques for anonymizing sources will work? The simple answer to this question is we can’t, unless we adjust our methods of representation. Or take the issue of privacy and informed consent. There are no easy answers, as we emphasize in the latest ethics guidelines of the Association of Internet Researchers. People engage in activities that would traditionally be considered highly sensitive, even understanding that their actions are public and the potential audience is vast. It’s not just that we have blurred the boundaries of what constitutes public and private spheres; it’s that the concept itself is changing (see, e.g., boyd & Marwick, 2012; Markham, 2012; Nissenbaum, 2011).

To add to this dilemma, technological advances teach us that we cannot predict how our information will be used in the future. Now more than ever, we have the obligation to try to proactively protect participants, or to consider ways of doing inquiry that minimize the risk of future harms. My effort to invoke innovative metaphors for thinking about inquiry is embedded, then, in a larger argument that interpretive studies of digital experience would be not only stronger but probably more ethically grounded if we more radically disrupted–or revisited previous disruptions of– still taken-for-granted parameters for qualitative inquiry.

…continue reading the next post, where I sketch out a research-oriented notion of remix