Week 13: The role of theory

So how did I get to be such a theory-junkie while hating theory as I do? I needed can openers. Here I was with great data, and I needed to know how the smart people in my field thought about how the world was organized, and whether that map could do me any good in understanding my own data. I only like theory when I can connect it to real-world problems that interest me.

– Luker (page 143; emphasis mine)

This observation of Luker’s really stood out to me, particularly in light of ongoing debates about the balance of theory and practice in our programs. Luker admits that she doesn’t find theory particularly interesting in and of itself, even as a career academic, but rather that its value for her is that it can be used as a tool. She uses the metaphor of a can opener, suggesting that theory can help researchers understand real-world problems. I wonder if the broader metaphor of the toolbox might be even more appropriate – if theory cannot only help us understand problems, but solve them as well. (I also wonder whether it might be possible to take this metaphor a little bit further – perhaps knowing theory but not how to apply it is like knowing how to wave tools around, but not how to use them.)

– Andrea


Week 12: Informed consent?

Heath et al.’s article on informed consent and children got me thinking. My grade seven teacher wasn’t actually a teacher, but a sociologist. She was conducting some sort of study on us, and had hand-picked the students she wanted in her class (she was familiar with us because she had a daughter in another grade). My mother knew the woman from the PTA and was aware of what was going on (although not what, exactly, she was studying), but she doesn’t think all the parents were ever brought together and told that their children were the subjects of a research study. I definitely know that we weren’t informed or given the opportunity to consent (yes, it was 20 years ago, but that’s something I would remember). Presumably, either our principal or someone on the school board consented on our behalf. Looking back, it all seems fairly sketchy, and I have to wonder what kind of ethics approval process was involved. (Fortunately, she was an awesome teacher.)

– Andrea

Week 11: Mini Online Research Assignment

The first example that came to mind of an ICT “tailored towards emotional communication, resources, and identities” is xoJane (www.xojane.com). This site is an online magazine / group blog / online community headed by Jane Pratt, best known as the founder of Sassy magazine in the late 1980s, that aims to be “inclusive and uplifting, while remaining nothing but honest at all times.” Targeted primarily at women, the bulk of the content is written by a core group of staff writers and editors “with strong voices, identities and opinions, many in direct opposition to each other, who are living what they are writing about,” but the site also accepts and actively solicits submissions from readers, particularly confessional essays for the “It Happened to Me” column. Readers are also encouraged to share their experiences and support each other in the lengthy comment threads that follow the articles. The site would be an interesting case study in the creation of a community – and one that many commenters claim to be very important to them, and even one of the few places they feel comfortable being honest about themselves – around what appears at first glance to be a collection of articles. The moderation policy would be a particularly interesting area of study – it must be rigorous, but moderation appears to take place primarily behind the scenes. Another interesting area of inquiry would present quite a challenge. One potential drawback to the site’s emphasis on honesty is that quite offensive statements by some of the site’s writers are sometimes defended as personal opinion while criticism is seen as personal attack. It would be interesting, but difficult, to explore those potential readers who are well within the target audience of progressive, feminist women but who are put off by this aspect of the site.

– Andrea

Week 11: Research and the internet

In their articles, Star and Hines defend the internet as a topic of study and offer strategies for researchers to deal with its vastness and complexity. These articles got me thinking about whether another approach to online research is yet possible. Given the fact that the boundaries between our online and offline lives have become in many ways nonexistent, have we gotten to the point where we can discuss people’s behaviour online or artifacts appearing online without making “the internet” a part of our discussion? As Star argues, it is of course important to continue studying infrastructures far beyond the point that they become invisible to us. However, it is also important to engage with the details of a medium that has become a hugely significant part of our lives, rather than simply the fact of that medium.

– Andrea

Week 10: Science and social science

Yin begins his article “The Case Study Crisis: Some Answers” by referencing another article that “leaves the reader with a sense that qualitative analysis – and its implicit companion, the case study – cannot yet be regarded a rational, much less scientific venture” (page 58). This observation reminded me of the conclusion of Kracauer’s article “The Challenge of Qualitative Content Analysis”:

Finally, one may legitimately ask whether communications research, as such, should really try to match exact science. …  Most communications are not so much fixed entities as ambivalent challenges. They challenge the reader or the analyst to absorb them and react to them. Only in approaching these wholes with his own whole being will the analyst be able both to discover and determine their meaning – or one of their meanings – and thus help them to fulfill themselves. Far from being an obstacle, subjectivity is in effect indispensable for the analysis of materials which vanish before our eyes when subjected to a treatment confounding them with dead matter. (pages 641-642)

As someone with next to no social science background, one of the things I’ve observed as we’ve considered various research methods in this course is just how much social science seems to allow itself to be defined, and to define itself, using another discipline’s terms. Over and over I’ve wondered why it seems to be obsessed with being “scientific” – why not simply refuse to participate in the debate about whether or not that’s even possible, and define itself on its own terms? (Of course I’m speaking abstractly here – I do understand that “social science” isn’t actually a monolith!)

– Andrea

Week 9: Qualitative content analysis

I found the article “The Challenge of Qualitative Content Analysis” very interesting (particularly once I noticed that it was published 60 years ago – although I’m not sure whether the fact that debates that were taking place when my parents were in primary school are still relevant is more fascinating or depressing). In it, Kracauer emphasizes something we’ve discussed throughout this course – the importance of self-awareness when conducting research. As he points out, quantitative content analysis can be extremely subjective when it comes to questions of how particular elements within a text are coded. The difference between quantitative and qualitative content analysis is that the subjectivity inherent in quantitative analysis may be subsumed and the resulting numerical data presented as objective truth (with qualitative content analysis, that subjectivity generally remains in the foreground). In order for results to be properly situated, it is important for researchers conducting quantitative content analysis to be aware of and honest about the subjective choices that have gone into the creation of their data.

– Andrea

Week 8: Peer review

Yesterday’s workshop made me think about the similarities between peer reviewing (which is new to me) and editing (which is how I’ve made my living for most of the last decade). Perhaps foremost is the importance of remembering that another human being will be reading your comments, and resisting the temptation to be overly critical or unkind. For example, author queries should always be phrased in the most diplomatic way possible – “I’m finding this part a bit confusing,” rather than “This makes no sense.” Another similarity that I found between peer review and editing is the fact that it’s not about you. It’s the author’s name that will appear on the finished product, and your work serves no one if you are trying to turn the manuscript into one you would have written, rather than helping to make it the best possible version of the manuscript that the author has written. To that end, it’s important to phrase recommendations as just that – recommendations – not imperatives. For example, authors generally respond much better to “Perhaps you might consider…” rather than “You should…” Ultimately, the decision of whether to make any changes is the author’s alone (that decision may have implications for whether the work will be published, but that question is separate from your work).

– Andrea