A geographical inspiration

Jonathan KershawMy name is Jonathan Kershaw and I’m a PhD research student based at Coventry University, looking at the way we ‘consume’ the car – as status symbol, icon, socio-cultural artefact and experience – and how our relationship with the car might impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles as part of a holistic low carbon automobility. You can read more of my blogs at autohabitus.wordpress.com and connect with me on twitter via @jeckythump

 

 

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet byBangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Academic Bloggers as Public Intellectuals

Nic SubtireluNic is a Ph.D student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL and a doctoral fellow in New and Emerging Media at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA). He is interested in popular discourses and ideologies about language and how these impact the educational opportunities and political rights of speakers, whose languages and language varieties are marginalized. You can follow him on Twitter @linguisticpulse or on his blog, linguistic pulse

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently leveled a number of weighty criticisms at academia, specifically the professorate. In general, Kristof asserts that there are fewer public intellectuals today than there were a generation ago.

Regardless of whether Kristof is correct about this decrease, the call for academia to be more engaged with the public is one that seems to resonate with many. I personally feel strongly that a major aspect of my work as a social scientist and intellectual is to educate others about issues that are important to me. It was with this conviction in mind that, a year ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to try to engage a non-academic audience with my writing both in internet venues and in a blog I started. I’d observed that the public seemed interested in issues that were engaging to me as a sociolinguist. Specifically, there are no shortage of stories about language and how it varies. In fact, the most popular article on the New York Times website this year was a quiz about which English dialect you speak.

Kristof’s article and the uproar it has caused have provided an occasion for me to reflect on this endeavor. While I don’t reject the overall thrust of Kristof’s call to arms, I believe he offers little in the way of insight as to how scholars might actually engage the public. It is these insights that I hope to be able to provide particularly from the point of view a Ph.D student using the internet as a way to engage the public.

Before I launch into this issue more thoroughly, I do think that it’s worth noting that while Kristof focuses primarily on the traditional activities of the academy: speaking and writing about research, I believe that there are other means by which one might effectively be a public intellectual. Lending your expertise as a volunteer, for example, to relevant non-profit organizations is an important and effective way of being a public intellectual. I don’t, therefore, think that we should reserve the label of public intellectual only for those who write opinion pieces for major newspapers. Rather, our colleagues dedicating their time to serving their communities in schools, clinics, after school centers, and other venues are, in my book at least, public intellectuals.

However, one very obvious way by which one can earn the moniker of public intellectual would be to engage the public through the dissemination of expertise in an accessible manner. This might take the form of writing editorials for newspapers or speaking at popular events like TED. However, in the age of the internet, an efficient and free method by which this type of dissemination can take place is the use of blogs. All of these methods, however, I believe are subject to an important dilemma that we have to contend with as academics attempting to engage a popular audience.

In particular, this dilemma is characterized by the competing demands of the message we wish to disseminate as intellectuals and the forms that are most likely to engage a popular audience. As a social scientist, I have a perspective on social issues that are often contradictory to the beliefs that those outside of my field hold. Specifically, as a sociolinguist I am strongly committed to the idea that people’s language is legitimate in its own right regardless of whether it conforms to elitists’ arbitrary prescriptions about what it should be. Historically, sociolinguists have taken incredibly unpopular stances, such as affirming the idea that African-American English (or Ebonics if you prefer) is the legitimate primary language of many in the United States and that recognition of this fact is critical to their social advancement and educational achievement. Hence, one of the basic purposes of my intellectual life, public or academic, is to advance this agenda.

However, this agenda and the ideas that inform it are the exact opposite of public opinion on the matter. In fact, while the public is interested in reading about language, they are more likely to be engaged by stories that build on their pre-existing beliefs about language, for example, a story about Samuel L. Jackson criticizing President Obama’s use of ‘nonstandard’ language. Stories such as these do not require the introduction of novel perspective on language. Most readers come to the article ready to participate in the shaming of ‘nonstandard’ language. Imparting the perspective of linguists takes time, as anyone who has taught an introductory linguistics course can attest.

Before I go on, I should counter any suggestion that I am attempting to portray the public as some form of unthinking herd. I do not believe that what I am describing is an issue of lack of intellectual ability. Indeed, if you take a look at the type of complex analytical processes that are displayed when people discuss one of the most popular pastimes, sports, I believe it’s quite clear that no lack of cognitive reasoning skills prevents people from engaging with social scientists’ perspectives.

Rather, the issue is a matter of incentives. To draw on the example I mentioned above, coming to understand Samuel L. Jackson’s shaming of President Obama as an act of racism and classism, as many sociolinguists would conclude, requires a great deal of background knowledge in the perspective of sociolinguistics, a relatively obscure and politically left-leaning field. Thus, the intellectual and political will to engage with sociolinguists and other social scientists and their perspective is what is lacking.

Of course, I don’t write this in an effort to let academics off the hook. Rather, I think it’s important that we understand what we’re up against. If engaging the public is what we intend to do (and I think it’s precisely what we should be doing), then we need to acknowledge the political struggle that we are engaged in whether we would like to think of our work as being overtly political or objectively scientific. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that situating your writing within broader struggles and narratives is what makes social scientific work interesting to a popular audience. Writing that attempts to shy away from this is likely to be ignored. With this in mind, I wanted to offer some advice gleaned from my own brief experience attempting to play the role of public intellectual as a Ph.D student.

First, I believe it’s important to think of your field as its own unique culture with its own rules for, above all else, determining what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Engaging the public, however, means attempting to make an argument in a world governed by an entirely different set of rules. These rules may compel people to pay attention not to the validity of your methodology but instead to the apparent level of your personal conviction, your credentials, your ability to keep calm in the face of criticism, or some other academically irrelevant aspect of the situation. Whether these criteria are legitimate or not is really not the issue, as you will quickly find, you don’t get to make the rules. You could, of course, make it your mission as a public intellectual to change the public’s reliance on such criteria. However, expecting your work to be judged by a general audience according to the same criteria other members of your field apply is naïve. I’ve found that my training as a scholar has not necessarily prepared me for some of these situations. However, my advice to any Ph.D student thinking of trying to engage with the public: expect to lose sometimes and not according to the rules you think the game should be played.

Second, I encourage any intellectual who is trying to engage the public to start by thinking locally. I mean both in terms of geography as well as in terms of your pre-existing network of social contacts. I believe that you’re more likely to advance the agenda of your field in local settings. There are two advantages to this. First, I mentioned above that people lack the will to listen to social scientific research, but they probably don’t lack the will to listen to the thoughts of someone they care about. Some of the most engaging blog posts I have done have begun with a personal narrative that situated me as a living, breathing human being that many of my readers know and care about within the broader context that I was talking about. For example, in this one, I used medical bills I had personally received and my own recovery from an illness to frame a larger issue that I wanted to discuss: literacy and its impact on personal rights. While things like this don’t necessarily appeal to those who don’t know me, they are quite appealing to those who do know me. I believe that sometimes engaging the public as an intellectual means engaging the people in your immediate vicinity.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, you need to find a balance between seeking out readers and delivering the message you want to deliver. In doing so, you should be selective about the advice you accept from professional bloggers and journalists. Much of this advice derives from a context dominated by what I’ll call “click count ideology”. Click count ideology is a way of looking at the act of writing as motivated by a need to attract attention that can be quantified through the number of clicks a particular text receives. Obviously, click count ideology has close ties to internet advertising. Obviously, generating clicks is an important goal of any one producing content to be shared on the internet. If people don’t click on your blog, they can’t read your thoughts and your mission of engaging the public has failed.

However, it’s important to realize that generating web traffic is not an end in itself. Rather, as I mentioned above, academic arguments require reader investment, and what we are hoping for is invested readers. I have been told many times by my will-meaning, social-media savvy friends that my blog posts are too long according to their standards (usually 500 words) or that they don’t address timely enough issues. I believe in both cases this advice is counter-productive for anyone hoping to be an academic blogger. While I have found that the timeliness of a post can lead to it being highly trafficked, it is no guarantee of this. Also, by far my most successful post (by all criteria) breaks all of these rules. It addresses a non-timely issue and is nearly 4000 words long. Nonetheless, looking over my analytics, it’s clear that visitors to my blog are routinely engaged with it often for fifteen minutes or more. Conventional wisdom about blogging suggests the need for timely, short pieces that appeal to broad audiences that can be circulated by social media. However, this post’s success stems from its ability to garner traffic in ways that are neglected by conventional wisdom such as search engines and even by colleagues’ assigning the posts as reading in their courses.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t carefully consider the suggestions of people who are experienced in popular forms of blogging. However, it’s important to keep in mind the click count ideology from which these suggestions often stem and not to fall into the trap of viewing traffic as an end in itself.

Nicholas Kristof’s call may have been lacking in any practical applications, but I believe as members of the next generation of scholars (whether as professors or in other lines of work), we can and should engage the public with our work in many ways, perhaps one of the most obvious ways is through the use of a research-oriented blog or similar internet-based writing. However, to be effective we’ll need to view our work less as the presenting of research findings and more as a form of advocacy in favor of a particular world view with all of the ups and downs that this comes with.

“…we cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything” (Punch, 2005:187)

Beth SinglerBeth Singler is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge specializing in the social anthropological study of New Religious Movements online. Combining traditional fieldwork with digital ethnography, Beth explores the new definitions of self that multiply on the Internet.  Her PhD is on the Indigo Children, an idea in the New Age Movement, but she has also written about Wiccans, Jedi, Scientologists, pop-culture religions and various online subcultures.  She has her own blog at http://bvlsingler.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter via @BVLSingler.

“…we cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything” (Punch, 2005:187)

I think I remember breathing out an actual sigh of relief when I first read these words in Punch’s Introduction to Social Research (2nd Ed.). Finally, there in black and white on the page, the permission not to do EVERYTHING, be EVERYWHERE, or to capture it ALL! With my PhD this has been a lesson I have had to learn, and learn quickly.

My thesis looks at an idea from what is still broadly known as the New Age Movement by academics (but not so much anymore by insiders, but there you go).  The Indigo Children are thought to be a generation of special, spiritually evolved individuals here to change the world according to New Age narratives. Even though I study New Religious Movements, the Indigo Children do not form a church, they don’t have recognisable and repeated rituals.  They don’t wear particular clerical outfits.  They aren’t formed into associations with established hierarchies or logos.  What they do do is call themselves Indigo Children (or Crystal, or Rainbow, or Blue Ray – there are many versions but I’ll stick to Indigo for now for clarity) and talk about being Indigo online… a lot.

A Google search done just five minutes ago reveals 809,000 results for the words “Indigo Children”.  The first year of my PhD was about just getting to grips with the multitude of sources of information on this subject.  There are web pages by groups and individuals, there are forum boards, there are blogs, there are Facebook groups and pages, there are Twitter hashtags, there are Instagram pictures, Youtube videos, online archives from magazines and newspapers, online tests to see if YOU are Indigo, Meetup groups, tumblrs, memes, petitions, questions, answers, seekers and experts…

My first year was also spent writing a very, very speculative document called a ‘registration exercise’: a sample chapter, an outline, a bibliography, but most importantly, a methodology.  This is to show to internal examiners that I know what I am doing and that I have a plan for the next two years of my research and a methodology that really stands up to scrutiny.  Almost a year of fieldwork later and I think I could throw most of that methodology out of the window.

For a start, I would now say that I was back then trying to work from within a positivistic, scientific framework that I adopted out of an unconscious desire for legitimacy.  ‘Let’s gets some numbers, some facts, some real HARD data’ says the internal wannabe scientist while the social-anthropologist mumbles about acculturation and socialization through participant observation.  So I ended up with a methodology where I said I would look at X forum everyday and take Y number of screengrabs and repeat until I had REAL data.  Well, the multiplication of X by Y gave far too much data…. and that was just one source.

All in all there was just too much.  So I rethought my approach.  Would I capture everything? Probably not… no, definitely not.  It was just not possible.  But I could approach the subject much like the individual seeker does.  In my interviews with Indigos I asked them about how they had come upon the idea of the Indigo Children and where they had looked for more information.  They described stumbling upon it, or being told about it by someone who thought they might be one.  And then they wandered through the wilds of the internet reading some sources, missing others, meeting some Indigos and chatting to them, missing others.  They had a seeker’s methodology that didn’t necessarily tell them everything but told them enough.  So I picked up this approach and followed what was interesting rather than what was comprehensive.  My supervisor talks about fieldwork as a form of apprenticeship and had I listened more closely I might have got to the same conclusion earlier…  Through my fieldwork I feel like I have been through an apprenticeship in being Indigo (am I one? I remain neutral but open-minded).  But more than that, I have been through an apprenticeship in doing academic research, which is really the aim of the PhD after all.  And I really feel that in doing this apprenticeship I am closer to stopping apologising for not being a ‘real’ scientist.

Celebrity blogshop models – performing cyber-femininity

img_1632Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Celebrity blogshop models

Within the commercial blog industry in Singapore, blogshops are undoubtedly raking in the highest profits. The network has launched the careers of dozens of industry models who started out as blogshop models. Many formerly amateurish blogshop owners have honed their art and emerged as local designers over the years. Some blogshops, like mds for example, have even grown into full-fletched retail stores with chains island-wide.

Amidst the hundreds of blogshops in operation today — and thousands more that are now defunct — one would often find models and owners of high profile blogshops growing into online celebrities in their own right. Many of these women go on to become ambassadors and spokespersons of beauty and fashion lines in the mainstream commercial industry. I attempt to trace one of the routes in which such micro-celebrities are produced — modeling.

Via their personal blogs — many of which are commercial blogs — some blogshop owners are recognisable as the ‘face’ of the shop despite having engaged models for their wares. For this reason, I refer to these high profile owners and their hired models as blogshop models collectively.

In order to stimulate desire and motivate customers to purchase from their new collections, blogshop models engage in a cycle of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing. These modes of modeling are sequential steps, though not isolated nor discreet steps, in stimulating desire.

Modeling, role modeling, role playing

Modeling is the first step, both in presentation of the model herself and in any given instance of product presentation. Modeling establishes the presence of both the model and products within the space of the blogshop website. Modeling is the most straightforward step in stimulating desire. Blogshop models pose for and post photographs of themselves modeling apparel for sale.

After modeling is achieved, it continues simultaneously with role-modeling, through which blogshop models aim to set standards and impart to their readers skills of “gender competence” (Connell, 2002:81). Finally, in tandem with and building upon modeling and role-modeling, blogshop models engage in role-playing, in which they enact their femininities (Butler, 2005), further kindling desire among readers and customers. It is particularly through role-playing that blogshop models produce commercial intimacies in relationship to their customers, a point we return to below, after first elaborating the modes of modeling, role-modeling and role-playing through which blogshop models perform their cyber-femininities.

1. Modeling 

In modeling, blogshop models pose for photographs of themselves, modeling the apparel for sale, and post these photographs to the blogshop website. The photographs are accompanied by simple descriptions of the apparel including the fabric used, color, measurements and a price tag. We can observe several “bodily practices” (Turner, 1984) in modeling, all of which become “spectacles” (Richards, 1990) through the hyper-visual nature of blogshops seeking to entice and hook readers. Blogshop models carve out niche appearances to differentiate themselves from competitors. These distinctive elements vary from hairstyles and make-up varieties to highlighting distinctive bodily characteristics to poses and facial expressions.

‘Gemma’, for example, is known for the styling her hair up in a ‘bump’ and for her defined collarbones;
‘Heather’ is known for her polished smile and ‘crisscross’ leg poses;
‘Elaine’ is known for her fair complexion and pouty lips.

Repeated emphasis of these body parts helps models to distinguish their appearance in the market. In addition to their niche appearance, models deck themselves in luxury brand shoes, bags or accessories to complement the blogshop apparel, which is the only item actually up for sale. Blending of high-end branded goods with cheap(er) mass-produced clothing flatters and lends some prestige to the latter, persuading buyers to look beyond its often cheap(er) substandard quality.

Mass media celebrity

Blogshops also trade on mass media celebrity to stimulate desire in readers. Here, it is Hollywood or other mass media celebrities who are role-models, while blogshop models act as a conduit of cultural taste between international celebrities and customers. Blogshops pick out trends and styles from well-known celebrities and produce similar mock-ups for sale, creating a middle ground between seemingly unobtainable celebrity “high-life” and mass culture. This practice results in a wide array of “inspired products” — the blogosphere’s euphemism for imitation goods. Blogshops afford customers the opportunity to own a garment “as seen on” a particular celebrity.

Whereas practices of modeling in the mainstream catalog and runway industry are largely passive, with the body of the model acting as the site of display or conduit of desire, models in the blogshop community take on more active practices in role-modeling and role-playing. In practices of role-modeling, blogshop models aim to set bodily, beauty and behavioral standards for their readers. Across all blogshops performing different cyber-femininities, models are predom- inantly tall (above 1.65 m), slender (under 50 kg and UK size 6 to 8), fair-skinned (either of Chinese, Eurasian or European descent) and have long hair (beyond shoulder length).

2. Role-modeling

Blogshop models subtly shift from modeling to role-modeling by setting the core benchmarks of body image across cyber-femininities. Alternative body sizes such as shorter, plumper, dark-skinned, shorthaired models are seldom seen, and even when evident, are not as popular among readers judging by their visibility and lifespan in the scene. It is a norm for blogshops to include their “model stats” (short for model body statistics) in their blogposts, with these figures closely conforming to a largely unspoken industry standard. Most blogshop apparel, though tagged “free size”, is actually tailored to fit body proportions of blogshop models.

“[name], 1.67 m tall, uk size 6–8”
“[name] stands 165 cm, uk 6–8”
“Model [name] is a UK6–8, 166 cm”

The “halo effect”

Blogshop models are objectified when their attributes come to be detached and perceived as “objects of exchange” (Radin, 1996:156). Certain models utilize this strategy most often by overtly showing off their curves in the skin-tight apparel, implying that customers who purchase and don these outfits can likewise channel the same sexy vibe. Blogshop models also play role-models by offering beauty tips and fashion advice to readers. Through the “halo effect” (Dittmar, 2008; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), readers perceive the model’s choices and guidance as coming from women “in the know,” having successfully achieved the unusual mergence of “beauty and brains” as evidenced by their economic success in blogshops and feminine attractiveness (cf. Fletcher & Greenhill, 2009; Perrin, 1921; Prather, 1971).

Performing heterosexuality

In addition to setting body-standards and fashion trends, blogshop models role-model the performance of their (hetero)sexuality by giving readers relationship advice. Advice meted out is usually framed in terms of the models’ own personal experience and supposedly private relationships. They give detailed descriptions of dates with their boyfriends before branching out into discussions on how girlfriends and boyfriends ought to be treated.

3. Role-playing

Role-modeling is accompanied by role-playing, in which blogshop models perform their femininities in a variety of ways to kindle desire among readers. One aspect of role-play and performance are instances in which blogshop models engage in playing dress-up to draw out social scripts of femininity (Laws & Schwartz, 1977; Wiederman, 2005). They suggest appropriate occasions for different types of attire and adjectives connoting particular features of the models’ projected cyber-femininities are found in text accompanying photographs of feminine performance.

For example, “power blazers” are intended for the workplace and channel the look of “strong” and “independent” women; tight-fitting “bodycon” dresses are meant for clubbing and portray “sexy chic”; and maxi dresses are great for relaxing days at the beach and intended to conceal tummy bulges on “fat days.” When blogshop apparel is personified and marketed as the dominant modes of adornment socially accepted by other women, the message is that readers’ bodies too should conform to performances of emphasized femininities.

Online and offline personas

Role-play by blogshop models blurs the distinction between their online persona and real life identities. At times, models’ activities offline are directed to manufacturing blogposts for readers online. In other words, models appear to be “on stage” all the time (Goffman, 1969) in order to produce something to blog about. As role-models, the lifestyles of blogshop models are objectified for readers’ consumption when the models market apparel in theme with their private lives. Life offline, at least as it is reflected on the blogshop websites, becomes a stage for performing (role-playing) the model’s persona such that online/offline distinction blurs or seemingly disappears.

Online reality is not a simulation of offline reality (cf. Baudrillard, 1994). Rather a model’s role-play offline, motivated by online representations of her persona, produce a reality in which the online–offline persona of the model appears fused, one-in-the same, and therefore authentic. For instance, planned face-to-face meet-ups and random en- counters between blogshop models and readers are often fed back into the social medium through photographs and blog posts.

Accessible celebrities

Apart from their captivating looks and quality posts, much of the success of blogshop models hinges on their interpersonal relationships with readers. Interactions between models and readers are framed as egalitarian friendships as opposed to hierarchal and distant celebrity–fan relationships in the ways they attempt to address each other. Blogshop models’ portrayal of their online persona is crafted through the narrative accounts of their everyday life, in contrast to celebrity models’ staged performances on the runway or at media appearances. Authenticity, in turn, is an important element that dilutes and masks the commerciality of each transaction, sustaining the success of celebrity blogshop models.

Project learning points from a new researcher: users’ views of social media research

Hannah Hannah is a researcher at NatCen Social Research, a non-political charity that specializes in social policy research. Before joining NatCen as a graduate research trainee in September 2012, she worked as an Employment Adviser to the long-term unemployed. Hannah is now based in NatCen’s Income and Work team and is involved in survey maintenance and smaller scale qualitative projects. Her research interests lie in poverty and disadvantage, and also now in social media use! You can follow Hannah on Twitter by searching @h_silvester.

Last year I was one of eleven lucky graduates taken on by UK based NatCen Social Research. To get hands on experience –and to make mistakes in a controlled environment! -we were given a year to develop and run a study with only minimal guidance from senior staff. Now nearing the end (we’re writing our report), we’d like to share some learning points.

As well as specializing in independent social policy research, NatCen has always prided itself on methodological innovation. For example it has recently set-up with partners the ‘New Social Media, New Social Science’ network to look at what opportunities social media research can provide. The network and NatCen are particularly interested in the use of social media websites and ethical practice when researching online.

Taking these two interests one step further, our graduate project looked at what users of social media think about the ethics of research when it uses their posts and other information. So now let’s take a frank look at the key things we learnt while working on this qualitative, exploratory study.

Definition, definition, definition!

While it’s normal for potentially interesting side issues to crop up, or for other areas to be discounted, you should develop the focus of your research as early as possible and stick to it. Having a clear research focus will make creating the topic guide (interview schedule) easier and will influence your analysis and report planning.

  • Define key terms: again, choose as early as possible. Terms should preferably be ‘current’ elsewhere. We argued considerably over ‘social media websites’ vs. ‘social networking sites’ and our report editor is still exasperated we’re referring just to ‘sites’! We also had to decide between participants, respondents, people and ‘social media users’ (the latter won) –the more precise the better!

‘I work better the night before a deadline’

Allow yourself realistic time to complete a task if it’s your first time doing it, but don’t then fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ve got aaages yet! –no one truly works better the night before a deadline!

Order, order!

Have someone (preferably the project lead) draw up an agenda (and more importantly, stick to it!) for each meeting and limit the meeting time. This will help make sure any discussion is concise and to the point.

Don’t be too democratic

While it might seem fair that everyone in the project team is given a chance to  comment on written outputs, the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ is definitely true! Instead, we found that an initial set up meeting, for parts of the project like drafting the topic guide, is helpful to generate ideas that are then consolidated and written up by one member. The chosen project manager will then ultimately have the final say and editing duties.

Recruitment

We were able to recruit from an established sample (used previously for NatCen’s renowned British Social Attitudes survey). Because the survey had already asked participants about their internet use, we had good information on key sample criteria and could target our invitation letters. Unfortunately we found that the sample was too shallow once we’d set our primary/ quota criteria (we wanted a third of the sample to be ‘low’ internet users, a third ‘medium’ users and the rest ‘high’ users). While sometimes quotas may need to be revised we decided to fall back on our contingency plan: to use a recruitment agency. It was a little scary letting go of control and we had to emphasise our criteria a number of times, but in the end we got the right people to take part at the right time!

So, those are the learning points I want to leave you with and I hope they’ve been helpful. If you’re considering using social media websites in your work, our findings will hopefully help people think about how they carry out this kind of research. If you’re keen to find out how, and you really can’t wait until December (I don’t blame you), do read this blog for our interim findings and feel free to email me with any questions!

Almost the Same: Five Ways Remote PhD Students Can Mimic the Residential PhD Experience

Maha BaliMaha Bali is a part-time, self-funded (well, by my parents, thank you), remote location PhD student at the University of Sheffield, studying Education. Her PhD thesis (recently submitted and awaiting viva in October) is entitled “Critical Thinking at University: A Study of Critical Thinking Development at an American Liberal Arts University in the Middle East”. She started her PhD in 2006 while working full-time as a faculty developer at the American University in Cairo, and finally submitted it while on a two-year maternity leave from work in 2013. Maha has written several articles on www.al-fanar.org and www.moocnewsandreviews.com. You can follow her on Twitter via @Bali_Maha

If doing a PhD is a lonely pursuit, wait utill you have tried doing it remotely! Remote location, part-time PhD study can be beneficial and even empowering! But there are a few aspects of the residential PhD experience that I missed out on, and this posting shares my experience dealing with them to try to approximate the residential PhD experience. I have no idea how common my struggles are, or how useful these tips will be, but I imagine and hope that, at least for international, remote location, part-time PhD students, these tips will be beneficial.

#1: Network with other researchers. I start with this one, because I find it the most important. I assume that residential PhD students have some kind of interaction with academics and peers in their department at their institution. Remote location students only have official access to their supervisor(s), and have only fleeting interaction with peers and academics at their institution. During my remote location study, I visited my supervisor about once a year. During that visit, I tried to attend at least one seminar or workshop each time I visited, and tried to stay in contact with some of the people I met (professors were much friendlier than students, I found!). However, these are still people I met only about once a year, so I focused my attention on building networks in my local context, which in my case, varied throughout my PhD (my husband and I moved several times). When I had no university affiliation, I attended public lectures and free workshops at nearby universities. When I did have university affiliation, I volunteered in research projects and attended conferences as often as possible – sometimes these weren’t directly related to my field, but networking with researchers in similar fields was useful just the same. All of these forms of networking provided an avenue for intellectual conversations to keep me stimulated; helped me develop my “academic language”, and provided insight into “how research is done” by people other than myself! Where possible, access to other research students can provide moral support and advice, and sometimes even direct help reading drafts, for example. Networking with more senior colleagues can help with advice related to publication, and other advice regarding the PhD and viva. Some older colleagues will also be willing to read drafts of your chapters, and provide invaluable feedback on them.

#2: Access to important references. As a remote student, I only had access to online library resources. While these were substantial, there still remained many important journal articles (e.g. old ones not digitized) and books that I could not access. If you are lucky like me, you’ll have access to a local academic library and even free document delivery service for articles and book chapters (I think remote students should get free document delivery from the institution granting them the PhD, but that’s another conversation!). For entire books, however, I drew upon further resources. First, peers and senior colleagues were often willing to lend me their books (see point 1!). Second, you will be surprised how well-stocked some public libraries can be with academic books (in the UK and US at least). Local universities you are not affiliated with might also be willing to grant you temporary on-site access as a researcher (the American University in Cairo does this, for example). One further resource I discovered is Kindle books. There are some academic books that you can borrow for a modest fee. Most books also offer free samples, which often cover the first chapter (sometimes, that is all you need; other times, it helps you decide whether the book is worth buying). One other strategy I did when I could not access a book I needed (and this happened to me a few times during Egypt’s political upheaval when the American University in Cairo’s library was closed) was to look for articles by the author of the book/chapter I needed. Often, someone who has written a book/chapter on a certain subject has also written an article or two about the same subject, covering the key concepts. Sometimes, that is all you need! If all else fails, try asking your supervisor if s/he has the book and is willing to lend it to you temporarily!

#3: Disseminate. As a remote student, I did not have access to the opportunities for PhD students to present their research in a relatively safe environment. So I just tried as often as possible to do so at conferences. To reduce costs, I often chose a conference that was at the same time I was visiting my supervisor in Sheffield, and one that was located in Sheffield or a nearby city. It took me a while to work up the confidence to disseminate my work, but once I started doing it, my confidence built further until I felt confident enough to submit my thesis.

#4: Teach. Whenever the opportunity becomes available, and if you can manage your time, teach in or around your subject. I was not directly teaching what I was studying, but the teaching experience helped me reflect much more deeply about my research, and I found synergies there I would not have anticipated. It is possible that someone who is studying social work, for example, would benefit more from actually doing social work rather than teaching it (but I assume most of them do so already?). But I still expect teaching to be beneficial across fields, because it helps one think of one’s subject on a meta-level and reflect on it from a different angle than the one usually used for research.

#5: Use technology well. For a remote location student, all kinds of technology will make your life easier. I believe remote location students should always be assigned a tech-savvy supervisor! Using Skype with your supervisor might mean you can get to talk to him/her more often than if you called internationally. Using shared wikis or blogs with your supervisor (if they are willing) or track changes/comments on MS Word can help you have an asynchronous conversation with your supervisor. Returning to point #1, you can find online support communities to help you through your research. There is so much on Twitter to support PhD students (SocPhD and PhdForum being two!!!). There are useful podcasts (e.g. VivaSurvivors). These online communities gave me support that helped me sprint through the final stages of writing.

If you have different experiences or tips worth sharing, please post them in the comments.

Cyber-femininities

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Crystal  is undertaking a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Western Australia, Perth. She is passionate about gender equality, feminism, percussive music, and penguins. Read more of her blogs  and follow her via @wishcrys

Cyber-femininities

cyber femininitiesImagine a world where we traded on intellect, circulated ideas, and communicated textually to convey our ‘inner selves’, where others evaluated us based on our ideal self-perceived identities… In this world, visible bodily markers that used to distinguish race, gender, and age would no longer penetrate our exchanges as fervently… Would this ideal world be a place free of racism, sexism, and ageism? Perhaps, an age of non-embodiment?

Apart from being a biological interface that maneuvers technology behind the screen, the physical body is not a necessary entity on the inter-webs. After all, one may craft avatars, pseudonymous personas, and entire standalone life course profiles to interact with other users without any reference to their actual physical appearance.

As appealing as this seeded thought is, users are more often than not bringing their physical bodies into the forefront of cyber-worlds, often intensifying particular bodily features and aspects of personality that they imagine to be their truest selves. We’re talking about self-trained artists in digital manipulation who erase fat, enlarge eyes, insert pecs, alter skin tones. We’re talking about the use of language, emoticons, and social media interfaces to convey an entire digital profile of a finely crafted individual. A re-embodiment on a digital interface. Perhaps even a hyper-embodimentin a bodiless world.

In my study of commercial bloggers in South East Asia, bloghop models tended to follow a handful of gendered scripts to convey their ideal mode of femininity. As gendered performances that are practised on and intensified via the Internet, I term these scripts cyber-femininities.

These modes of cyber-femininities were sieved out through textual themes, repetitions or recurring regularities in blogshop launches and the blogposts of owners and models.

As with other, recent work on femininity and masculinity, this analysis of blogshops moves away from a simple dichotomy between hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity on the one hand and subordinate masculinity and femininity on the other (Connell, 1987, 2002; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) toward a more nuanced view of diverse and complexly hierarchical femininities (Schippers, 2007).

At least six different sorts of femininity became evident in analyzing the online content of blogshops.

The ‘family girl’ portrays herself as a loving daughter and stresses the importance of her tight-knit family.

The ‘material girl’ emphasizes branded goods and other possessions in her online presentation of self.

The ‘globetrotter’ blogs about her travels and adventures.

The ‘fashionista’ updates readers on the latest and upcoming trends in apparel and accessories as well as beauty tips.

The ‘party girl’ showcases her sensational nightlife and provocative (hetero)sexuality.

The ‘rebel’ claims to reject social norms, including female body image, and expresses herself through verbal rants and expletives.

These femininities – or modes of feminine expression – are not mutually exclusive, though certain blogshop models are known for highlighting one or more through their online persona.

One blogger, for example, exudes the qualities of a ‘family girl’ with frequent references to her mother’s sacrificial love and supreme culinary skills, her tight-knit and doting family, and a consistent reverence towards God as the provider of all.

Another blogger paints herself as a ‘globetrotter’ with a plethora of past and future holiday destinations pictorially catalogued and communicated in pixels. Although she has a life partner, a close-knit family, and a day job in a corporate firm, the blogger focuses on her independence as a young sojourner in search of exotic adventures and exciting escapades.

Yet another blogger openly flaunts her ‘rebel’ image boasting a punk lifestyle taking on conventionally masculine sports like skateboarding and surfing, and a grunge fashion slant with multiple tattoos and piercings. She is also liberal in conveying her frustration and anger through harsh words and tones, though often being passive-aggressive in addressing everyone yet no one in particular.

While these and other blogshop models perform diverse cyber-femininities, in contrast, for instance, to a singular hegemonic femininity or masculinity (cf. Connell, 1987; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005), their position within the commercial sphere produces powerful and disciplining effects for both blogshop consumers and the models themselves.

More on this another time!

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