Search results for "academia "

The Internet as a public arena for research: how do we balance the pursuit of knowledge with care for those we want to know?

Author: joe

Wednesday, 12 January, 2011 - 14:13

Today I presented a brief paper to Bournemouth University's Postgraduate Research Conference. Not trusting myself to say off-the-cuff what I wanted to say inside the 12 minute allocation, I read this pre-written piece. I have obfuscated the sources I critique, for reasons which will become clear.

My presentation is about the ethics of Internet research, especially with regard to vulnerable people, and the problems that arise from the models we use to conceptualise the environment in which we carry out our work.

It seems easy to grant that aside from some edge considerations, there is a sort of equivalence between face-to-face and online interactions, between physical and virtual spaces - particularly in academia, where our textual outputs are intended to be sufficient for the advancement of our work. The trade-offs seem to be marginal: some loss of informal face-to-face contact is off-set by the advantages of efficiency, speed, cost-saving, and maybe even innovation.

Indeed, the fact that we successfully import metaphors from the real world into the online world is what enables many different walks of life to achieve in digital environments what they would also normally manage in the real world. These are metaphors that aren't necessary properties of the web, but that we use to make it manageable: models from the material world such as pages and buttons, activities like surfing and networking, and concepts like sites and spaces. We call it cyberspace, and it can feel very like the other spaces we inhabit with our bodies.

I want to suggest that the easy equivalence we make between online and offline, and physical and virtual space, is much more problematic. This issue has arisen for me through considering some of the ethical problems that arise from using the ever-expanding wealth of raw material on the web as evidence in research.

I'm interested in how people use the online world when they are bereaved. As time goes by, more of us are exposed to death on the web - what to do with the Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, online commemorative websites, and so on. How do people who are mourning loved ones use online spaces to express their grief, or seek out support from others? Photo-sharing sites have groups dedicated to expressing grief through images; fashion sites find themselves hosting users who repurpose the site tools to discuss their loss; and forums dedicated to supporting bereavement through both informal support and professionalised services proliferate.

These phenomena raise questions about how seeking out online support might be helpful, perhaps through the chance to memorialise loved ones, or perhaps because sometimes the ambiguity of anonymous strangers on the web makes disclosure easier. Mourning is often a difficult subject to deal with in day-to-day life - we expect the grief-stricken to absent themselves from the office or social occasions until they are competent to cope with them. Unwelcome expressions of grief can be embarrassing or even seen as pathological. Do these questions of etiquette and emotion prevail online much as they do offline? Do online spaces provide therapeutic opportunities which might be more scarce in the fleshy world? Does the availability and peculiar permanence of online talk make mourning problematic - perhaps by extending the grieving period, or by exposing people to the trolls?

My research therefore is partly an investigation into the differences and similarities between virtual and real spaces. There are many comparable studies which ask this question through the lens of some specific issue, and there are guidelines as to how to deal with the ethics of this kind of research. After some reflection on some of those other studies, I have taken a somewhat hardline approach, and placed rather more burdensome ethical constraints on my research project than I might otherwise have done.

To explain these constraints, I'm going to mention a study from 2009 of an online space which is dedicated to the subject of gynecomastia - or the 'moob-job'. Men who are considering the procedure, undergoing it, or who are post-operative, regularly contribute to the site, which was studied by a group of psychologists in 2007, using interpretive phenomenological analysis to understand the experiences of these men. I wish to show that the ethical approaches and arguments they used, quite legitimately, are flawed in ways that force me to rethink the priorities at work in this sort of academic exercise. Perhaps even more than the bereaved, men with concerns about body image are a group who should not lightly be objectified by an academic project.

The authors cite the guidelines drawn up by the British Psychological Society for conducting research online. One might summarise them by saying that participants in Internet Mediated Research (IMR)

"can be identifiable or anonymous; they can explicitly consent to participate, or they can be invisibly observed without their knowledge."

The guidelines go on to state that strong justifications should be provided for covert non-participant observation - what we might in this context call "lurking" - and that consent should be sought unless the environment is such that "people would 'reasonably expect to be observed by strangers'."

Exactly what criteria qualify public spaces as those in which people would reasonably expect to be observed is not specified in the BPS guidelines, but left to be established in the body of work which grows around the discipline.

The authors of the gynecomastia support group study note that it is the contributors' expectation of their messages being visible to other anonymous users of the web which brings their content into the public domain. Content accessible without registration or password barriers effectively passes into public ownership. They also cite an earlier paper reporting about a website supporting anorexia nervosa which argued that study of content in the public domain is akin to "naturalistic observation in a public space" and that the openness of the web therefore "does not raise concerns of invading privacy."

The gynecomastia study also notes the possible disruption that disclosing the investigators' presence might cause to the integrity of the environment that they are studying. It is evident that they are trying to ensure that their work is ethically sound and demonstrates a care towards their subjects, and I don't wish to imply otherwise. But I do want to suggest that this implementation of research guidelines is flawed because it wants to accept certain equivalences between the open internet and public space (such as a supposed ability to undertake naturalistic observation without disturbing the phenomenon being observed), but ignore non-equivalences (such as the fact that covert observation of such intimate communications is ordinarily impossible in public spaces, not least because open discussion of sensitive topics is very rare).

The study in question makes further trouble for itself where it creditably seeks to anonymise sources. Obfuscating quotes is generally thought to be a sound tactic in protecting the individuals who may have made their own efforts to conceal their 'real-world' identity in their online profiles, but may have done so inexpertly. They may, for example, have chosen an obscure 'handle' or login-name, but have nevertheless signed off posts with their actual forenames. To avoid these individuals being found via search engines, the authors state that they performed identifiability testing by searching for direct quotes from individual posts were in Google, which did not retrieve the site in question or the messages that had been appropriated.

This test sadly demonstrates a poor understanding of the operation of Google's index: that it does not find sources at any given moment does not preclude the index being updated to include them at a subsequent date. Indeed when I searched Google for the quotations presented in the article, direct links to the original sources were listed. Again, this error does not show unethical behaviour: merely that an ethical guideline has been followed in letter but not necessarily understood in practice.

These critiques of the ethical approach take just some of the more obvious problems with abstract guidelines as they are implemented; and doesn't even start to address other problems with lurking and appropriation, such as the hit counts, visible to site-admins, that researchers contribute to sites; or the eye-balls they bring which may in some cases contribute to advertising revenue; or the general tacit deceptions they must engage in simply to carry out observation.

I want to suggest that importing the metaphor of "public space" into an intimate online discussion is problematic because it buys the researcher the ethical justification they require, but largely ignores the epistemological and ethical non-equivalences. I'd argue that people simply don't go online and talk to each other as though their words are being recorded and broadcast, and the permanent visibility of online discourse is a side-effect, rather than a primary concern, when it comes to a user's motivation to participate in online discussions or contribute their creative work to a community. I'd prefer to argue that the actual space that the user occupies when contributing to an online forum plays a much more crucial role in determining the level of disclosure they are willing to engage in, not to mention the level of trust and intimacy that the visible community creates. This may often actually be the workplace, or bedroom, rather than a public space.

Even where forum users are in public spaces, there may be a huge mismatch between what they will willingly write in the context of a post from a mobile phone, and what they will say to the person sitting next to them. To discard these sorts of considerations is, I would argue, to make epistemological errors, as well as ethical mistakes, and ultimately is a consequence of prioritising the academic generation of knowledge over the well-being of subjects.

The consequence of these concerns for me is to adopt an alternative approach, which does not solve the problems raised, but swaps one set of challenges which I find ethically unjustifiable for another set which I am more willing to defend. So I will be making full disclosure in any online spaces I enter before I undertake any observation; I will not be using material without the full informed consent of the original contributor; and in the event that any community feels my presence as a researcher to be intrusive enough to ask me to leave, I will promise to do so. This strategy at least offers the hope that the research process will be a consensual collaboration with participants, rather than a deceptive objectification of them: when dealing with communities of people we might class as vulnerable, this must surely be the preferable option.

So the project is now such that it makes no claim to be objective in a positivist sense, but rather is a fully-blown form of participative and ethnographic phenomenology. This brings another set of epistemological challenges and ethical quandaries, but I'd also suggest that Internet research which does choose to use covert observation may need to find alternative justifications.


Categories: research, paper, grief, bereavement, academia, knowledge, epistemology, ethics, online, internet,
Comments: 0

That thing about academia

Author: joe

Tuesday, 02 February, 2010 - 20:38

So I've been trying to work out how to develop the theme I started a week or two ago about how academia seems always to avoid, escape and devalue "practice" even as it strives to be the only institution that might legitimise that "practice". It was a long-winded post about complicated academic language, written with complicated academic language.

I enjoyed the response I got to a subsequent post - a thought experiment inspired by real events - in which I tried to write some powerful ideas down in a more direct, earthy way. One such response was - "Joe, are you in love?". And I thought - that's how we should write!

Sod the technical jargon: when we write, we should try to be understood as lovers, as wells of passion for what we do - our action in the world should be the force that drives the green fuse through the veil of symbols with which we obscure the world when we write in academic language. If I write about my work, why would I not want my reader to wonder - "is he in love?"

Categories: language, writing, academia, practice, love,
Comments: 0

Academia vs Practice

Author: joe

Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 22:28

A thought experiment around practice-led research in academia.

A practice-led PhD is normally assessed on a body of evidence which consists of an artefact - the product of the 'practice' in question - accompanied by an extended piece of writing in which the questions, world-views, investigative approaches and methods, disciplinary concerns and interim self-diagnoses are made explicit. So for example we might see paired materials such as: a piece of sculpture, accompanied by an articulation of the traditions within and against which the process of making the object has worked; a film, along with an essay exploring the disciplinary innovations and concessions that were revealed in its making; a networked set of documents, and some accompanying long-form text drawing attention to the conventions of mediation and aesthetics which are either challenged and rejected or accepted and extended in the pursuit of innovation in the production of such works.

So I wonder aloud what would such a submission look like if my practice were poetry? I write some words (in the form of poetry) and I write another set of words (in the form of academic explication). On the surface, it might seem that an assessment of the value of either of these sets of words is dependent upon the other. So, it is not enough to write poetry: in order to be judged expert enough for doctoral status you must translate the importance of your poetic output into academic language - the purpose of which is of course to ensure that you can articulate in a suitably neutral language what your non-neutral, poetic language has achieved. But note that the reverse is not the case: one may be recognised as doctorally qualified, wholly on the basis of an academically articulated thesis. Thus the primacy of academic language is established.

This primacy is predicated upon a number of assumptions:

I hope that the logical sequence as I have described it here demonstrates well enough the shortcomings in such assumptions. Certainly, if, like me, you are persuaded by the Latourian and/or Deleuzian notion that translation is transformation and production, then you will quickly concede that neutral articulations which permit mediation between two discrete fields of practice without distortion, problematisation and transmogrification are impossible and illusory. If you are not persuaded, then at least consider the possibility that academic language, rather like the poetic language produced by practice, has no claim to being anything other than a genre of writing, any more than other accepted genres such as journalism, prose fiction or drama. Academic writing is a non-neutral genre of language, constituted by a set of arbitrary conventions, no less than drama is convened through dialogue and performance, prose fiction is enacted through narratorially organised text, and journalism is constructed through the signs of format, voice and a reference to some convenient form of accepted reality.

All of which is to say that the requirements of the practice-led researcher are currently that they must make explicit in academic language what is implicit in their practice; and yet those who are not educated or indoctrinated into the conventions of academia are no more able to comprehend what is supposed to have been made explicit in that academic account, any more than competent academics with no expertise or experience in poetry might be expected to uncover the implicit value in poetic discourse. Another way of stating this is to say that if it is necessary to translate the implicit innovation and disciplinary excellence in poetry into academic language in order for it to be made explicit to a wider community of interest, there is no less need for the excellence implicit in academic language to be made explicit in yet another (meta-generic?) language for the benefit of a wider community of lay people. Indeed the irony here is perhaps that a wide community of lay audiences might be equally competent to grasp and appreciate the practical outputs and artefacts of practice-led research (if not more adequately equipped by virtue of the disinterested yet loving enthusiasm of the amateur) as is the proponent of academic discourse. This becomes especially true when one considers that the academic's livelihood increasingly depends upon a specialisation which moves ever further away from easy access by a lay audience, and further into obscurity and jargon.

At the risk of repetition I'll restate this once again: the notion that innovation and discovery in practice must be re-articulated in academic language, as though that academic language is an adequate meta-language for the communication of such innovations and discoveries, is no more or less true than the notion that academic language must be re-articulated in a third language, accessible to lay (or other) audiences who are not academics. The constant striving to establish the academic norms of language and writing over other forms is simply the will to power of the academic institution as a necessity in the social order. Excellence and sensitivity in the domains of practices can be achieved without recourse to academia.

Academic experience is not a necessity for excellence in the practices I pursue. There. I said it. It is a watershed for me, personally. I rather wish I had discovered this (in hindsight, rather obvious) truism a good deal earlier.

Categories: academia, practice, research, language, genre, translation, learning,
Comments: 3

The Paradoxical Academic

Author: joe

Monday, 02 November, 2009 - 21:28

The most impressive management skill is to be able to hold and argue in favour of two contrary, exclusive and irreconcilable positions at the same time.

For instance in a university an academic should be passionate about research and strive to minimise teaching time in order to concentrate on research; at the same time, one should not concern oneself with the conflicting pressures on time and energy that the seemingly different requirements of research and teaching exert, since really research and teaching are essentially both just instances of the same thing: your passion for your subject.

Or: of course an academic does not necessarily have to have a doctorate in order to execute their job; but equally obviously, anyone serious about being an academic should of course do a doctorate - why would they not, if they are passionate about their subject?

Or: no academic should seriously be considering the amount of time they devote to different activities such as research and teaching, because they should all be part of the same process which is geared towards output. Meanwhile, the outputs which those academics are measured upon are produced as part of a working timetable which most human beings experience as occurring in, occupying and taking up time.

Or: one should be selfish with one's time, such that others do not divert your attention from your own research passions; meanwhile, one should be collegiate and work supportively with colleagues and students.

I am deeply impressed by the notion that I can contribute to excellent teaching through research by doing less teaching, be an unacademic academic, unselfishly deny students the time they ask of me, unselfishly refuse to provide cover for sick colleagues, unselfishly take no part in projects colleagues invite me to take part in, so that I can selfishly protect my time. (sorry, not "time", "output"). It is possible that the time I have taken to write this Trot nonsense is an example of inefficiency on my behalf.

Categories: academia, management,
Comments: 0

Draft review notes #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 02 September, 2009 - 21:45

[Some contextual notes for my PhD, regarding the status of participatory media in academia and industry]

So much for the pressure to conserve industry interests: capital ensures 'quality' and disseminates self-perpetuating ideological discourses, while the vernacular and the demotic voices are marginalised and reminded of their powerlessness. It isn't novel to diagnose the manipulative and ideological nature of the propaganda mechanisms which capital-oriented discourses mobilise, nor to articulate the ugly underlying fact that the economic capital base underlies and mutually reinforces the ideological superstructure of the persuasive agenda. Much of the substance of those liberal-arts-based media studies degrees which are chastised by the industry for being frivolous and out of touch (because they aren't authentically in touch with industry 'practice'), or misleading and duplicitous (because they hypocritically sell themselves as routes into industry), are often built around reworkings of these Chomskian or Marxist critiques of society, industry, and government.

Even so, Lenin's tantalising question 'what is to be done' is seldom asked in any kind of forceful way since the money follows political neutrality and technocracy. Discourses of academic detachment and objectivity are put in the service of the advancement of natural sciences or technological innovation, which not only have the convenient habit of disclaiming political interest or historical contingency, but of knowing full well that committing to an overtly apolitical or compliant agenda will both attract and perpetuate future funding.

It has always seemed to me that the grand tasks of 'fighting the superstructure' or 'fighting the base' are far too nebulous and mountainous tasks for the individual to countenance - I absolutely identify with Ulrich Beck's description of modern life as tragic in the sense that the world seems to be too big for any one of us to change it. How might one become a revolutionary? What could that possibly mean at a time when I barely have time to charge my laptop let alone charge my political consciousness? It is one thing to make the argument when the opportunity arises: it is another to be a revolutionary.

That question that so dogs Marxists: why does the common man and woman not rise up and take back what has been confiscated from them? Perhaps the thought that they must, later on today, go home and cook dinner; or that the freedom one has to buy contentment in the form of a iPhone or a hairdo might not be wholly delusional after all; perhaps the simple graspable facts of living are more immediate and more real than the abstract ideals to which revolutionaries must sacrifice their lives. What are these poor addled consumers to do?

Categories: Chomsky, Marx, media, politics, propaganda, ideology, academia, revolution, what-is-to-be-done,
Comments: 2

Draft review notes #1

Author: joe

Saturday, 29 August, 2009 - 10:09

[Some contextual notes for my PhD, regarding the status of participatory media in academia and industry]

In the early 2000s, following the dot-com crash, the press, the broadcasting, music and publishing industries reassured themselves that 'online' would never seriously encroach onto their activities. I was working in a vocationally oriented university department, among people who repeated and reinforced those attitudes circulated in the received wisdom of industry promotional departments and analysts. The line 'this isn't a media studies degree, it's a vocational degree' was often used when I suggested that we didn't encourage students enough to understand conceptually what they were doing when engaged in 'mediation'. Just as the media industry now disparages degree courses specialising in media, so then, lecturers in vocational subjects tended to be people who had spent some time working in industry and were keen to 'give something back' by teaching part-time, and thereby rescuing industry training from 'out-of-touch' academics.

The attitudes which were thus perpetuated are still familiar: serious journalists should write for print, since online could only ever offer dumbed-down copy and readers never devote time to reading long articles on screen; filmmakers should concentrate on the photographic medium because digital video is inauthentic and poorer quality; digital audio is too compressed to offer the superior listening experience of analogue, and serious musicians will always have a safer career when signed up for a deal in the industry rather than going it alone; online video can't compete with the appeal of broadcast TV - the list of supposedly self-evident truths go on. These truths were enacted in a practical way in the university simply by encouraging the 'left-over' students to take the online modules, allowing the options in broadcasting and journalism to be set aside for the ablest and most ambitious students.

Supporting 'meme-plexes' manifest themselves, sometimes periphally as the common-sense background, sometimes as a moral panic or a manichean harangue, always helping to substantiate the dominant assumptions: piracy is not only theft, but it supports organised crime - as though sharing your files will perpetuate the drug industry or terrorism; or, online sources are unreliable and must be double-checked against 'proper' offline sources such as books; or, online spaces are dangerous - paedophiles stalk your children, hackers are stealing your identity, gamers are getting disturbed into copycat murder-sprees, and even you - yes you, the average, middle-of-the-road, normal, everyday surfer - even you are losing just a little more of your social skills, and maybe even just a little but more of your humanity, every moment you sit in front of your computer screen.

Categories: phd, media, participatory media, academia, propaganda,
Comments: 0

Evil Bidet of Elitism

Author: joe

Thursday, 30 June, 2005 - 12:11

Where does the idea that some things are not worthy of 'academic' study come from?

Today on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, Jenny Murray ran a feature on an upcoming 4 day conference at the University of Huddersfield on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Her beginning thrust was 'Why does Buffy justify 4 days of academic discussion''

A few months ago at the Guardian, Leo Benedictus wrote a piece about a conference dedicated to Morrisey and The Smiths. The reporter scavenged wildly for someone, anyone, who was prepared to slag it off as unworthy of academic reflection, but failed to do so, even when speaking to sources he expected to provide such an analysis, such as the Oxbridge dons of musical study.

Over the last 30 years there has been an overt movement in academia and, specifically, the study of learning and teaching, which has acknowledged that the biggest barrier to making learning accessible is the disengagement of those with knowledge, their withdrawal to the ivory tower, and frankly, the use of jargon. Such actions lead to a kind of 'us-and-them' relationship between teachers and students.

This has of course run parallel to the 'postmodernisation' of cultural language, where cultural thinkers have cloaked their so-called 'thoughts' in language so obscure that they alone can decipher the true meaninglessness of their writings.

Richard Dawkins brilliantly exposed these quacks in an article, 'Postmodernism Disrobed', reproduced in 'A Devil's Chaplain'. Basically, if someone seems to be talking bollocks, they almost certainly are.

Real communication requires the use of real language - the language that people understand, the language that is accessible to everybody, and that doesn't exclude people simply because they have not been 'indoctrinated' into the jargon, because teaching is about demystification, not initiation, and learning is about creation, not about reproduction.

It may be entirely acceptable to discuss things that are obscure, in order to bring an understanding of them to a wider audience. But surely it is equally acceptable to discuss things that are accessible and easy for everybody to relate to, like Buffy or The Smiths, without our servants in the media telling us to be surprised.

Categories: elitism, media, academia, postmodernism,
Comments: 0