Small Scale Research – Knight, Ch. 2

Like “munusami”, my research interests are in online communities. Not necessarily gamers, but I wouldn’t rule them out–I love her research questions/ideas. Conducting research within online communities, especially mainly ethnographic research, is surprisingly still a new field, fraught with difficulties and landmines. When I was doing my undergraduate research, I learned that it was very difficult to get approval to do online ethnographic research because of all the human ethics committee requirements and questions about disclosure, identity, ownership, intellectual property, etc. Note that I never actually did any such research, it was just something I was interested in and looked into how it could be conducted. If I could wave my magical research wand, I would be doing some kind of online community ethnographic research, perhaps looking at how information is disseminated and discussed in such a community (the online “community weblog” MetaFilter immediately comes to mind, as they post “the best of the web”–videos, articles, news items and discuss and debate them, answer people’s various types of questions on their AskMe subsite, and discuss meta-issues on their MetaTalk subsite).

The main issue that I grapple with, particularly when it comes to using ethnographic methods, and an issue that Knight points out is the “So what? Who cares? What does it mean?” problem (2002: 19). There has to be a balance between qualitative and quantitative research, because anecdotes can’t really be applied to a huge group of people, nor can statistics apply to an individual. So, using my MetaFilter example above, I would need to find out a) why anybody would care about an ethnographic study on the MetaFilter community and b) how do I use an ethnographic-based research method in a meaningful way? What would my resulting study say and what would it matter? Could it be applied to anything useful, or would it be (at best) a collection of amusing anecdotes? How can it apply to the greater whole?

Knight has it right when he points out that the most important part of research, particularly small-scale research, isn’t merely the conducting of the field work and tallying of the data, it’s the thinking about the research, before, during, and after the field work–particularly before you even begin, I would imagine.

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Luker, Chapters 1-3

Before I respond to the reading, a small metacomment if I may: I really enjoy reading this book (Salsa Dancing Into the Social Sciences). Perhaps because it’s a throwback to my undergraduate anthropology studies, maybe it’s because of the tone in that it reads like a friend or mentor is telling me her honest opinions about her research experience, or it could be that this class so far feels more like what I expected grad school to be like (you know, discussing research and methodologies). It almost makes me wish that I had done the thesis option. Almost.

Alright, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, then. I appreciate Luker’s discussions regarding the merits of both qualitative and quantitative research methods. As an anthropology undergrad, I learned a little about both types of research (just enough to invoke terror into any research ethics committees, I’m sure). I often waffled back and forth on which type of research was more “real” or “true”–starting with ethnography being the best thing since sliced bread, to thinking that it was not a real method of enquiry and preferring more “scientific” methods like the measurements and statistical means in forensic/physical anthropology, and back to being awed and amazed with ethnographic research (in part because I dreamed of going off to some exotic field site, or doing some kind of ground-breaking online community research). My (basic) introduction to qualitative studies in my undergrad (basically, ethnographic methods), generally was not framed as problem-based research but more about going into the field to study a community as a whole and seeing what themes/issues emerge and then focussing on those issues. This seems to fall in line with classical qualitative research such as that done by Strauss, as discussed by Luker. It was the romantic notion of anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski who ended up trapped on some exotic South Pacific island and studied its inhabitants that drew me to the ethnographic method initially. However, the logical portion of my mind was simultaneously turned off from this method because of that element of “tell[ing] a good story” that Luker’s colleague Loïc Wacquant complained off (p. 32). In other words, that the whole point was simply to tell a good story and the actual results of the research were more or less irrelevant.

I agree with Luker that the best methodology is most likely a combination of both qualitative and quantitative methods, and I look forward to reading more and discussing her “salsa dancing” methodology.

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