Sep 19 2014

Fieldwork in a digital age: Questions of privacy and copyright

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Maximising research impact and promoting knowledge sharing require researchers to pay greater attention to the ways in which data are collected, processed and stored for systematic access at a later date. This also means that questions of privacy and copyright would emerge naturally. In this post, Jenny Ostini explains how she has dealt with the issues of licensing, privacy and communication with research participants while she was building up a database of digital literacy narratives based on her research project to study people’s everyday digital literacies.


As a communication historian working in a digital research institute, I often find myself asking tricky research and ethical questions. This is not necessarily because I set out to do so, but because they are inherent to the nature of new media and technology and may not immediately have obvious answers. This is especially the case when there is a greater focus on the technical aspects of innovation than on the social. Many studies of technology have a greater focus on the “gee whiz” factor of innovation (what Kathleen Tynan refers to as the “rah-rah promotion of technology”) for its own sake rather than critical examination of short and long-term implications of technology. These ethical questions may get swept under the rug.

What some might call the administrative and technical issues of research can have serious implications both for the research outcomes and for researcher’s use of fieldwork data. In my current research project, questions of how data are collected and shared have become such significant issues that the project has broken into two streams: the fieldwork itself and the management of the data.

Fieldwork locations: Toowoomba and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Fieldwork locations: Toowoomba and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Recording digital literacy narratives in the field using the Twisted Wave app on an iPad with an Rode IXY mic attachment. (Photograph taken by Jenny Ostini) CC-BY

Recording digital literacy narratives in the field using the Twisted Wave app on an iPad with an Rode IXY mic attachment. (Photograph taken by Jenny Ostini) CC-BY

My research project is a study of people’s everyday digital literacies, that is, the practices in which we engage on a daily basis as we interact with technology. I’m collecting people’s stories of their first encounter with a computer and their most recent uses of computers and digital devices. I’m digging into their memories of learning to read and write and learning to use computers. I’m also exploring the rules around using computers at home, at school and personally. And I’m trying to find out how comfortable people feel with technology and what they do when things go wrong.  I’m interviewing a wide range of people about their experiences: from 14 and 15 year old schoolgirls in Brisbane to new university students and postgraduate students to academics involved in a digital research network at a regional university. I’m trying to build up a picture of the trajectories of individual digital literacy within each person’s social context. It has also become a work-in-progress testing some of the ethical and copyright issues around digital research.

Social science research is often focused on the big questions, requiring large samples and de-identified data. Ethnographies and social history are the stories of the particular and the individual.  Understanding why something is said or done is about knowing how that individual is situated in their social, economic and political contexts. As an individual researcher this is not an issue. It simply requires careful planning and use of information. But what happens when you want to go beyond the individual researcher to build shared resources that you might not be able to control access to, and use of? Or if your goal is to build a shared research resource? Continue reading

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Sep 4 2014

Competing loyalties: Dilemmas arising from violent outbreak in a planned research site, South Sudan

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Researchers choose field sites for a wide range of theoretical, ideological, interpersonal or pragmatic reasons, usually combined. Some of these rationales are acknowledged, while others remain unacknowledged and hidden from either external or the researcher’s own reflection. However, where these sites focus on conflict or post-conflict settings, the disruptive influence of violence brings with it the expectation of volatility. In this post I examine the reasons underlying my choice of South Sudan as the field site for my PhD research, which were exposed when, as a result of tragically renewed conflict in South Sudan in December 2013, I had to review my approach. Situated within the dilemma of whether to maintain continuity in the research population or the research questions in view of an externally necessitated change to a research project, I relate competing ‘expert views’ that I was presented with as I evaluated the options available, and my own reflection on the emotional content of field site choices, writes Rachel Ayrton.


“No action can occur in a society without emotional involvement” (Barbalet 2002:2, cited in Connor 2007:1)

The reasons and the secrets behind field site choices

Perhaps you have sometimes wondered, as I have, why people choose the field sites they choose for research. This is a particularly engaging question in the case of cross-national studies, where seemingly-unlikely companions are juxtaposed, and I find myself wondering: Whose idea was that?  What rationale do they argue for their choices?  Are there other reasons that they are not telling us? (read the previous posts on comparative research by Charles Stafford and Jennifer Robinson)

Some reasons for choosing field sites are acknowledged, while others remain unspoken and secret, at times even from our own reflection. Our choices in this regard matter, as the contexts within which we co-construct empirical data shape what we find, how we theorise, and (we hope) what is done about the social issues we investigate in the future. Whether these decisions are made by individual researchers, research groups, institutions or funders, they are not disinterested.

Reason and emotion in research decisions

I intended to conduct my PhD fieldwork in South Sudan, and if I am honest I would probably have been content with an adequate rational explanation of my choice to satisfy my supervisors, examiners and potential readers of my work. However, after violent conflict erupted in December 2013, I was presented with unwelcome and unanticipated decisions regarding the direction of my study, whilst managing my own grief about the unfolding tragedy. I became starkly aware of the competing emotional and rational factors that were present in these choices, and in order to reach a conclusion that I could feel both justified in and at peace with, I needed to trace back the reasons why I chose to research South Sudan in the first place. Continue reading

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Jul 21 2014

Art in the field: harvesting visual narratives in the dispersed city

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This post presents a project that engaged designers and citizens in the creation of representations – visual narratives, or films – documenting and interpreting urban conditions in the city of Winnipeg, Canada. The intention of the project was that these stories would articulate problems in the city (both physical and social); that the involvement of different groups would contribute to a dialogue about these problems; and that the existence of the films would help develop a shared, if contested, imagination of the city’s potential future, including its urban design. A range of works were created; each fits on a spectrum between urban documentary and storytelling. All share something with urban activist approaches like “photovoice”: contributing to the social understanding of the city, and to our imagination of it. This post takes a critical look at the methods and results of the project, writes Lawrence Bird.


Winnipeg, Canada

Winnipeg, Canada

In 2009 I began Beyond the Desert of the Real, a two-year project documenting a North American city in short films produced in the community and with graduate students. The project focused on shortcomings of the urban environment as perceived by residents and recent immigrants. The project was funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as a postdoctoral fellowship in research/creation. It was carried out in two departments of the University of Manitoba’s Faulty of Architecture: City Planning and Architecture. This financial support and coexistence in two departments leant some validity to the project, but also created other challenges. What is research? Architects and city planners would probably answer this question differently, as would those adopting different approaches within each of those fields. Such differences are built into a project like this. I’m an architect by training, a social scientist and activist by (I suppose) vocation, and a filmmaker and visual artist by inclination. This project brought those interests together, taking the position that the creative synthesis of approaches and methods is a valuable strategy in understanding the city and giving it form. Continue reading

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Jul 11 2014

Encountering, interrogating and realising the self: Managing emotional upheavals and break-downs during development fieldwork

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In February 2013, I embarked on a field study with my colleagues at a NGO to understand and examine unjust and unlawful land acquisitions by private mining companies in the tribal belt of Raigarh in Chattisgarh during the last one decade. The experience was an emotionally shattering one for me and I decided to quit my research job at the NGO which involved working with highly vulnerable groups, and move full time into the academia where I would spend more time teaching. It was a journey of self-realisation which showed me that I needed more time and strength to face despair day after day and to prepare myself better for dealing with an unjust world where harsh realities stare you in the face when you enter the field, writes Kanchan Gandhi.


Much has been written on the subject of addressing emotions in the process of fieldwork. Moser (2008) argued that emotionally intelligent people (with high EQ)  are able to engage much better with their research subjects and get much more in-depth insights into their lives and experiences than people with lesser emotional intelligence (EQ). Dickson-Swift et al. (2009) illustrate how emotions are a central part of social research by giving examples of researchers who openly exhibit their emotions in contrast to others who hold back their emotions while working with people who were experiencing emotions. They explain how some researchers felt that it was alright to cry if they felt emotionally overwhelmed while others felt that it was irrational or inappropriate to do so. They explain that the emotional aspects of doing fieldwork are seldom written about since university cultures have so far not been very supportive of the same and most often researchers rely on informal support systems such as friends, family and peer-group to discuss the emotional aspects of their research.

More recently Davies and Spencer (2010) argue that denying emotion altogether does not necessarily lead to better research and that emotion is not antithetical to thought or reason, but is instead an untapped source of insight that can complement more traditional methods of anthropological research. Intense emotional experiences are likely to happen while working with marginalised and disadvantaged groups of people. For example Arditti et al. (2010) describe the experiences of conducting research in a prison setting where researchers may feel intense emotions such as anger and sadness that may have a disturbing impact on them.  In their research the injustice in the harsh behaviour of the jail authorities towards the prisoners caused anger among the researchers. The social stigma attached with certain groups such as the prisoners, the homeless and the destitute further stimulates the sensitivity of the researchers as they transform from objective observers to subjective participants in the research process. Often researchers try to place themselves into the research subject’s position and try to imagine what life would be like to be in that place.

In this brief I am going to talk about my own emotional upheavals and break-downs during development fieldwork that I did as a part of my research work with an NGO.  Fieldwork for me became a process of not only understanding the “deprived other” but my own self, as I was not able to handle misery beyond a point which led me to change my career path from working in an NGO for two years to becoming a full time academic.

Raigarh, Chattisgarh, India

Raigarh, Chattisgarh, India

After completing my PhD from the National University of Singapore in May 2011, I decided to work in an NGO which had always been my dream and passion. The NGO that I joined did advocacy and direct implementation work for the poor including the homeless, the destitute and the street children. I joined the research team at the NGO as the  coordinator of the research activities. The research focussed on  conceptualising the lives of the vulnerable groups in the Indian context and documenting their experiences of marginalisation. Having worked with the 2004 Tsunami-affected people during my PhD fieldwork I felt well-equipped with skills to work with socially marginalised and deprived communities only to realise two years later that this work was way more daunting. In my two years at the NGO (from May- 2011 to May 2013) I interacted with several vulnerable groups including people in slums, in homeless shelters and the rat-eaters in the villages of Bihar. In February 2013, I undertook fieldwork along with my colleagues on the issue of land displacement in the context of mining by private companies in the state of Chattisgarh in India. It was this fieldwork that made me realise that doing development fieldwork over a long period of time takes a toll on the sensibilities of the researcher. I personally felt that  I was emotionally not prepared to do it for a very long time and that I needed to take a break from it for some time to strengthen myself to face the field full of injustice and oppression once again. Continue reading

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Jun 19 2014

Gaining access into gated communities: Reflections from a fieldwork in Istanbul, Turkey

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In this piece, Basak Tanulku shares her experiences of conducting fieldwork in gated communities in Istanbul, Turkey for her PhD research. She explains how she decided to work on gated communities, and discusses the problems arising due to difficulties in gaining access. However, access is not a linear process: rather, there are various steps and step-backs during the same study, which can have an effect on the research. Based on this perspective, Tanulku emphasises the importance of keeping a balanced relationship with the participants and of knowing how to ask the right questions.


Selecting the Topic: Gated Communities in Istanbul

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Istanbul, Turkey

I did not live in a gated community nor knew anyone who was living in one. However, I decided to work on gated communities while I was working in a university in Istanbul and collecting news published on various forms of immigration. A piece, published in Tempo Magazine titled as “The Whitest Turks Live in the North of Istanbul” (Tayman, 2004), raised interest in me about gated communities, which were described as reflections of class and cultural segregation and residents living in these developments, as symbols of “cultural whiteness”. “White Turks” has been a popular term used since the 2000s, describing people with an elite lifestyle who complain about Istanbul’s problems such as traffic, crowds and density, air pollution and lack of green spaces leading them to escape from the city centres. I reserved this news and titled it as “reverse migration” which was reminiscent of the conventional “white flight” of upper classes from city centres into suburbs, a trend seen especially in the USA and the UK. This news article brought two personal interests of mine together: a geographical/spatial concept “the north of Istanbul” and a socio-cultural one “White Turks”. Concomitantly, “gated community” is a term formed of a spatial (gated) and a social (community) concept. Continue reading

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