LIS DREaM Workshop 1 – Report

25th October, 2011 – Edinburgh Napier University

Following my attendance at the LIS DREaM (Developing Research Excellence and Methods) project launch conference in London earlier this year, I was keen to attend the three workshops which focus on introducing different research approaches to new LIS professionals and PhD students, and more importantly, developing a ‘cadre’ or research network. I was therefore very pleased to be accepted as one of the 30 or so workshop participants and to receive one of the six AHRC-funded travel bursaries.

Each workshop is designed to introduce a number of possibly unfamiliar research methods, both qualitative and quantitative, and to raise important issues relevant to research in library and information science. At this first session the agenda included:

  • Ethnography
  • Social Network Analysis
  • Discourse Analysis
  • Ethics

In addition, an unconference half hour allowed time for brief presentations from several workshop participants about aspects of their research practice.

Having only recently started my PhD at the University of Sheffield Information School research methodology is very much front of mind as I try to fine-tune my proposed thesis and make decisions about what is most relevant, but also practical, feasible and achievable. I have made a tentative commitment to ethnography, so was very interested in hearing what Dr Paul Lynch had to say in the first session of the workshop. As a means of understanding culture and specific sub-cultures (groups of people with shared characteristics, behaviour, beliefs, language, etc…) ethnography seems to offer a richness and depth that is hard to find in other research approaches, and appears well-suited to my interest in narratives arising from engagement with cultural heritage.

One of the most difficult elements seems to be defining the sub-cultural group to be studied and then gaining access to that group. From the examples given it became evident that this can be a highly subjective judgement that may have broad or narrow definitions, based around shared activity, interests or even specific events like the LIS DREaM workshops – I wonder if Dr Lynch will be observing us throughout the project, especially given the amount of footage being captured on video and online! Research methods for ethnography also offer considerable scope for personal judgement and will vary according to the cultural group being studied. As well as observation-based methods, documents, interviews and personal possessions can also provide valuable data. The latter is of particular interest to me, and I was very pleased to discover that the stories connected to cultural artefacts are a possible source of data. In my own research this may incorporate both public and privately-owned artefacts and their intersections, specifically in the contexts of meaning-making, identity formation and/or learning.

It therefore seems highly appropriate that the ethnographic researcher’s own reflective writing, notes, memos and photographs of the research in action are also classed as data; as we make sense of our research, so we contribute to the research findings. I had some practice at reflexivity whilst studying for my PG Cert in teaching and became very aware that my personal values, prior experience and motivations can have a significant impact on my professional practice, interpretation and evaluation of interactions in specific contexts. Here then are also some of the major issues that ethnographers must contend with – being accepted by groups that may have very different views to your own, re trying not to affect the group’s beliefs, unbiased interpretation… more than one potential ‘can of worms’, as observed by a Twitter follower. For me though, these human differences are what make ethnography so appealing – “there’s nowt so queer as folk”, as my granddad used to say.

Onto a more scientific method, Dr Louise Cooke gave an overview of social network analysis, a technique for visualising connections and relationships between people and/or organisations that is derived from mathematics, but has many applications in the social sciences. Like many others, I had expected before the event that this might have to do with analysing the use of social media like Twitter and Facebook, but this is only one niche application. SNA can be applied in many different contexts and is often allied with theories such as the infamous Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment that gave rise to the popular concept of ‘six degrees of separation’, Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovations and Mark Granovetter’s strength of weak ties. I was already pretty familiar with all of these theories, having previously taught them as a grounding for viral marketing, so it was great to finally fill in a gap in my knowledge with an empirical technique.

A practical experiment plotting existing knowledge and social connections between workshop participants brought the concepts of SNA to life; for the record, we’re somewhat well connected at the moment, with Hazel Hall and Charles Oppenheim as primary nodes, and it will be interesting to see how this changes over the course of the year. It was also interesting to find out that SNA can be applied in areas relevant to LIS researchers such as citation analysis and knowledge management. It occurred to me later that there might be other uses, for instance, within ethnographic studies to understand group structure, in analysing the spread of oral histories, and reviewing the impact of advocacy work.

After lunch, Prof Andy McKinlay gave a fascinating talk on discourse analysis, as well as some useful reminders on the nature of research and the importance of clear research questions. Discourse can be found in spoken, written and signed language, from media and documentary sources, as well as from your own data collected via interviews, focus groups or naturally occurring conversation. It therefore seems to be a key tool for ethnographic studies, but also any other type of research that is concerned with the meanings within human communication. Several examples were given that showed the complexity of interpreting the nuances of text and talk in different contexts, and it was interesting to find that both Lynch and McKinlay agree that software such as NVivo may not do justice to the richness of qualitative data, in comparison with detailed and iterative personal analysis.

Discourse analysis when done properly seems to be as rigorous a treatment of data as any statistical survey, but appears to be much more difficult to do for the novice researcher, given that identification and interpretation of the minutiae and subtleties of language vary from one situation to another. I also suspect that it may be difficult to know when to stop, and when you have over-analysed a piece of text. For me this session has highlighted a definite gap in my knowledge and abilities, and a desire / need to address that as soon as possible. However, I feel that this is one method where there is really no substitute for learning by doing, and for that I need some data – perhaps revisiting my MA dissertation for starters.

The final session of the day was a practical exercise led by Prof Charles Oppenheim highlighting issues of research ethics. We discussed one of five different ethical dilemmas in small groups and fed back to the rest of the workshop. Issues arising here on interpretation of the scenarios neatly tied in with the previous session on discourse analysis. Charles also gamely admitted to being only human in most instances, and made the point that whatever the most professional ethical response, we will often weigh up other issues before taking possibly somewhat compromised action to resolve the matter.

Notes on ethics and research issues were also provided as background reading and for future reference, and as with all of the workshop sessions, are documented along with slides and videos of the presentations via the LIS DREaM web page for each workshop. In a similar vein, the project is supported by comprehensive information and contact details for participants via a community site, Twitter list and Lanyrd event registration. These networks and the unconference slots (videoed for posterity!) at each workshop give excellent opportunities for participants to engage fully with each other and the project. With trepidation I gave a c.3 minute talk about my PhD proposal and was delighted when a number of people came to chat about it at lunch time and provided me with useful information on related research. I also learned more about the other unconference speakers and gained fresh perspectives on how research and practice can be successfully combined. All in all, a very productive and enjoyable day, and I’m really looking forward to the next workshop in January 2012.

2 Responses to “LIS DREaM Workshop 1 – Report”
  1. Thanks for the mention! I really like your Storify… thorough and thoughtful analysis.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] organisers’ review or the participants’ reviews. I found those by David Jarman and Paula Goodale particularly […]

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