Monthly Archives: October 2012

Participant Observation and Researcher Identity

Something that stood out for me when reading Robert Stebbins article about participant observation was his brief discussion of the impact of ethnographic research on the identity of the researcher, specifically as a participant observer. He discusses participant observation as a humbling experience in which the researcher must admit a degree of ignorance and give up their role as a scholar to essentially become the student again. He says that in order to be successful in this research method the researcher needs to step out of their role as a professional and adopt a new identity.

William Shaffir also says that ethnography requires some degree of role playing or acting, that an important aspect of conducting this research is learning how to present a particular image of yourself in order to better fit in and achieve greater acceptance and therefore better results. In relation to participant observation Luker also mentions the effects of immersion in a different culture in terms of being off-kilter and living in an altered state of consciousness. She talks about the researcher having a new awareness of themselves as an observer.

I find it interesting to consider the effects of conducting ethnographic research on the researchers themselves. When conducting participant observation the researcher is at once a member and a non-member of the group they are studying. This weeks readings also talked about the risks of being too involved with the community they are studying. For instance overlooking important dynamics and taking things for granted. It seems like the researcher has to always be very aware of themselves and constantly framing and reframing their identity. They have to balance belonging to the community with remaining external enough to maintain the required objectivity. It makes sense that if the identity of the researcher has an influence on the research process, which it inevitably will, that the research itself will also affect the sense of identity of the researcher. It is interesting to consider how complex and probably daunting it is for researchers to establish themselves in the field.


Thoughts Concerning Calories and Peer Review

Since this week’s lecture I have been thinking a lot about the calorie study done that compared Starbucks stores in New York with Boston and Philadelphia. I found it interesting how by posting the calories in the products the companies revenues increased but it did not change what a person ordered for drinks. I think this study is interesting based on its relevancy to natural experiments because it shows the before and it will be tide into the the impact of future studies that focus on health concerns in the U.S. like obesity. Health conscious people will most likely change their eating habits based on the calories that are posted but not everyone is able to understand the calories in the way the medical professionals or nutritionists do.

In regards to peer review I think that it is an important part of the scholarly world that helps to make for a better and high quality works. I feel that anonymous peer reviewing is a more efficient way of conducting it as it allows for greater autonomy, which enables the reviewer to be critical in analysing the paper without being greatly biased by knowing the person’s identity. I have done peer review in my fourth year of undergrad but it was not anonymous as everyone in my fourth year history seminar class had to review everyone’s papers and discuss them in class. We all had to be critical in our analysis by stating what could be improved and what was good. I found this process to be intimidating because it was the first time I had to do this and after discussing peer review in this class I think my experience would have been better if it was anonymous.

Research and Legitimacy

I was thinking in class on Wednesday about something Knight mentioned near the beginning of Small-Scale Research, about the novelist and the researcher being more similar than we might think.

When I was an undergrad, I read a novel for a twentieth century britlit class called Regeneration, for which the author had obviously done a lot of research, and which took real people, in a real place, and imagined their interactions. One of the characters, a psychiatrist named William Rivers, used psychiatric jargon, worked at a hospital that treated people in ways historically employed during the First World War, and made reference to ethnographic studies that he, William Rivers, had actually carried out. Seigfreed Sassoon also popped up with drafts of his poems, which, as the author, Pat Barker, mentions in the acknowledgements, are taken unedited from Sassoon’s manuscripts.

The thing is, the author’s research methods are opaque. We can imagine that she looked at historic documents, read biographical materials, consulted experts (Pat Barker’s husband was a neurologist who was, according to wikipedia, familiar with William Rivers) and historians, and structured the novel from that research. From the thank yous in the acknowledgement section, that’s probably exactly what she did. But as a novel it’s also imagined and improvised. We’d treat a reading of Regeneration differently from an academic journal article on Sassoon or on Rivers. It doesn’t have the legitimizing strategies that scholarly articles employ: methods aren’t explained, there’s no esoteric jargon, no citations, no double-blind peer review. Possible biases or sources of error aren’t announced.

Reading Regeneration, I have no doubt the material events didn’t happen as the novel describes them. But reading most journal articles, I have the same impression. It’s not that the researchers’ subjectivity contaminates the results; that’s not what I’m getting at. Academic journal articles seem more “true” than fiction. They seem more “objective”, to give more pertinent, real information, than fiction might. And it has nothing to do with the validity of the information itself (Professor Cherry talked a little bit about the crazy stuff that does get published in academic journals), but the legitimizing conventions journals employ. They’re taken as more “true” because of the way they are structured and reviewed, the listing of methods, previous studies, circumvention or acknowledgement of sources of error or uncertainty etc, more so than the actual research.

What I think is making me cranky about journals is that I’m reading The Four-Gated City and in the back of my head, a voice is saying, “If you ever wanted to do research about about the surveillance of communist sympathizers, or about the unification and dissolution of communist-sympathizer groups, or something like that, you could never talk about The Four-Gated City, because it’s not ‘true’ in the sense a journal article about those things would be.” I mean, a person can only take so much empiricism.

Food for Thought (only 253 calories)

I enjoyed the discussion in class about the effects of calorie-counting labels on consumers, so I decided to go off on a bit of a tangent.

Someone compared this to the warnings on cigarette labels and questioned their effectiveness. I remembered hearing something about this, so I tracked that research down. Geoff Fong, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo (my alma matar. Wot!), is head of a research group called ITC (International Tobacco Control Policy Evaluation Project). I got to go to a lecture by him once, and it really is fascinating stuff. ITC’s research compares anti-smoking campaigns on a worldwide level. Hit the link to learn more, but a headline is that pictorial warnings on cigarette labels seem to be more effective than text-only warnings (ITC Project. (March 2012). Health Warnings on Tobacco Packages: ITC Cross-Country Comparison Report. University of Waterloo, ON, Can).

This is interesting as it suggests labels with pictorial warnings may be more effective than a calorie-count or warning on junk food packages. There was an article in The Globe and Mail about that this morning, actually: see here. Apparently, the Ontario Medical Association is recommending pictures on food labels.

Would a picture of fatty deposits be more effective in preventing people from buying junk food?



Group 5 Blog Word Cloud

The brief discussion of word clouds in class today made me want to see what one would look like for our blog, so I made one on Wordle.

(Wordle wouldn’t let me save this as an image file, so I did a screen capture then cropped it in Photoshop. It turned out a bit more blurry than I would have liked, but still, mad skills!)

What do you think? Does anything on there surprise you? Are there any other texts/websites out there that could stand to be Wordled?

The Substitute Problem

The article by Thomas at the beginning discusses studying culture and society by artifact versus behavior. As a history student I found this discussion of the substitution problem interesting and I couldn’t help but think about the differences between history and other social science fields. Both fields study culture but they have to do so through different means. I study ancient history and all we have are artifacts, there is no way to study behavior which Thomas explains is often seen as superior to artifacts which are simply products of the culture and the behaviors which comprise it. Since I am accustomed to using artifacts as a basis for analysis I found it interesting to read about the criticisms of this method for studying culture. I have to say my first reaction was to get a bit offended and defensive. I had to remind myself that it is a different field with different opportunities available. The fact is that for history, especially ancient history, artifacts are all that is available but they are held in extremely high regard and their analyses are of the utmost importance. I definitely agree with Thomas that artifacts have more value than simply being poor substitutes. I found it interesting what Thomas discussed about how no method is actually that immediate or accurate. She says that even through asking an individual a direct question, the response is still simply a text or artifact that is subject to inference and interpretation and that all available methods are still only approximations of the processes we want to uncover.  

I also found the two readings about reviewing to be very useful. Throughout my university career I have read and been exposed to many articles of different types but I have never really thought a great deal about the process that goes in to getting them published and the evaluations they have to go through. I appreciated the examples provided by Lee illustrating each of his points as it was useful to see how a reviewer might actually analyze a paper and how they vocalize their findings. I found it interesting and kind of nice that he kept mentioning how important it is to be nice and supportive. This also comes across in Meyers article about developmental or activist reviewing and coaching rather than criticizing. These articles helped me begin to form a framework for understanding and approaching the peer review practice that we will be applying in the next assignment. My concern is that I do not have the experience or research methods knowledge to provide a valid and insightful review. I’m hoping the discussion in class will provide some more insight.

Post-empirical Party!

The Knight section on Post-empirical research has finally shed some light on something that I have been wondering about since our first class!  Coming from a literature background most of the research that I have done has been text-based.  In the past I have worked with the general arrangement that I should form my argument based on the literature that already existed, and then determine the shortcomings of these conclusions as well as expand on the main points that I found believable.  While I understand that this approach to research is not always effective, I do still believe that this sort of evaluation can be valuable.

In doing readings for my SSHRC application it became very clear that much has already been discussed on my subject (which is based around collection digitization and has been a hot topic for about a decade).  I did not think that it was adequate to simply examine the existing literature and draw conclusions about what is and isn’t working in the field of digitization, so I developed a methodology that would involve interviews and surveys.  While interviews with information professionals would certainly be beneficial to my research – after reading Knight’s thoughts on the matter I think that I will revise the survey section of my methods to include an area that looks more like a post-empirical study.  The amount of literature on the topic of digitization is vast, but like in Knight’s example of undergraduate learning (110), it has never been connected in a cohesive manner, and that would be an important contribution to academia.

I found that Allen S. Lee’s paper on “Reviewing a manuscript for publication” really interesting, and think that this might be especially helpful while writing our peer reviews.  The section on being explicit about your own area of expertise is obviously relevant as our own frame of reference skews our opinions, but it is not something that I generally would have considered including in an evaluation of an article.  I have kind of been rambling a little bit, but overall I found the readings from this week really helpful. I know that some of us in this group have been struggling with text-based research, and I’m glad that maybe now we can all have a bit of a post-empirical party and stop being so intimidated by all the more “scientific” methods!