Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology, London, 7 December

(Write-up about this event by the organisers here).

DMMM was a conference aimed at sociologists and anthropologists and the like, so, having never studied these disciplines in any way, I was worried I'd have no idea what was going on.

Fortunately everyone was friendly, and everyone's research was really interesting, relevant and mostly made sense to me.  You can read all of the notes I took here.

Humanities researchers are using and gathering digital data in lots of interesting and unique ways.  Using social media and other digital methods to engage with study participants (Jo Belcher, Lorenza Antonucci, Eve Stirling); sentiment analysis (Mike Thelwell); examining archives; image use in online interviews (Emma Hutchinson); e-focus groups (Ibrar Bhatt); digital records (reflections) of a creative arts process (Carole Kirk); crowd-sourcing of commercial ideas (Temitayo Abinusawa); avatars and virtual interaction spaces like SecondLife (Evelyn McElhinney); brilliant playful use of hacking to disrupt discussions about online learning (Jeremy Knox on MOOCs).

I talked about digital media on the Semantic Web, with as much of a sociology swing as I could give it given my limited expertise in that domain.  My slides, beautifully illustrated by Chloe Dungate (available for hire!  Academic slides starting at £2 a drawing!  Loves topics she doesn't understand so she can be as outrageously creative as possible!), are here.  You can see my talk notes there, too.

danah boyd, whose work I've followed more or less since my undergraduate, teleconferenced in to give a really interesting keynote called "Making Sense of Teen Life: Strategies for Capturing Ethnographic Data in a Networked Era."  She discussed working with young people for the last few years to examine their use of social networks (mostly MySpace), and all of the challenges and considerations that came up along the way.  She was surprised a lot.

The open discussion at the end raised a lot of discussion about ethics.  It was implied at one point that the content of tweets or YouTube comments are ripe for the picking with no strings attached because they're already in the public space.  It's definitely not that simple.

There's also a danger of humanities researchers being out of touch with modern techniques and best practices.  Commercial research is sometimes way ahead, but there's no communication between each end of the spectrum, so methods get developed and optimised unnecessarily.

A lot of people had experiences indicating that digital methods in humanities are often not taken seriously.  Supervisors, ethics committees, funding bodies, who have only worked with traditional methods can struggle to see the legitimacy of results gathered by digital means.  On the other hand, certain levels of ignorance can sometimes work to the researcher's advantage in terms of being allowed to get stuff done with minimal red tape (because authorities don't know what questions to ask).

Personally I was interested by this general feeling of novelty about digital methods.  Having been in computing for almost my whole academic career (not to mention a child of the Web), a lot of things were being critically and confusedly discussed that I just take for granted.  Things like the validity of friendships that exist entirely online, and feelings expressed through short-lived text alone.  I think arts and humanities researchers who really want to get to grips with digital methods as legitimate research tools should consider orchestrating placements alongside technical researchers and immersing themselves in a world where the main options are all digital by default.