Methodology chapter: Participation
[From draft version of methodology chapter for my dissertation, slightly adapted for the web]
Although being a detached outsider is often considered to be the best position for a researcher, soon after starting my research I found myself at the opposite end, doing research through active participation (Mortensen, 2003). When I submitted my first paper on knowledge work and blogging (Efimova, 2004b which eventually became my background chapter) I realised that my insights came as much from analysing replies to the questionnaire as from my experiences of being part of the KM blogger community: writing my own weblog, interacting with other bloggers and reflecting on those experiences. I started to look for methodologies that would allow accounting for personal experiences of the researcher and soon found that ethnography addressed many of my concerns. (Yanow (2006) suggests that '"ethnography" refers both to a set of research tools and to a mode of writing'. I would position my research as "ethnographically informed" as I use some of conceptual distinctions and research instruments of ethnography, while only partially adopting ethnographic writing mode.)
Ethnography, originated as a method in sociology and anthropology, is increasingly used in research of technology-mediated practices. It includes studying particular culture by learning to live a life of its members (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1994). Next to informal interviewing, participant observation is a central way to generate ethnographic data:
Anthropologists are trained to use a research method known as 'participant observation', which is essentially means participating in the life and culture of the people one is studying, to gain a true insider's perspective on their customs and behaviour, while simultaneously observing them as a detached, objective scientist. Well, that's the theory. In practice it often feels rather like that children's game where you try to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. (Fox, 2005: 3)
Although weblogs, as many other online tools, provide an opportunity to observe unobtrusively by lurking and reading, passive observation was not a choice for me, since my beginning of my PhD coincided with my first blogging experiences. In my research I played two roles: a knowledge worker who blogs about her work and a researcher who studies knowledge worker blogs. The following quote, illustrates one of my first attempts to describe the effects of combining those two roles:
I sketch an outline - main things that I want to say - about personal experience of blogging as a starting point that shapes my research questions, about drive of find out why others do not believe my blogging stories (they couldn't be fake even if there is evidence that they are not true for an average weblog - I can't throw away my own experience!), about my learnings from stories others share in reaction to my blog posts, about writing as participation, data collection, feedback on emergent interpretations and final publication (all melted into one), about hard choices of being blogger and researcher at the same time, about all things that make my research so fun and so insecure when I think how to frame it to be a "proper scientist"...
Participating in the life and culture of my target group by blogging helped my research in a several ways as discussed below.
Learning about blogging culture
My personal blogging practices became an important source of learning about blogging, especially in respect to understanding the aspects of it that couldn’t be observed by reading weblogs. Those aspects include, for example, the effort that goes into fine-tuning a weblog tool to fit my needs, the surprises of receiving feedback on pieces that I never expected to be interesting to others, or the change of daily morning routines as a result of blogging. Next to substituting the state of the art literature study, personal blogging experiences helped me to follow weak signals of interesting issues that I might overlook otherwise.
Reading weblogs, as "another blogger" and not only with the coding purposes in mind, was an important part of my personal blogging experience. It helped me to get to know people behind weblogs: "absorbing details of others' lives from their weblogs, sense of connectedness and somewhat intimate knowledge about them" turned into "interviews that could touch themes and go to the depths not possible otherwise" [quoting this post].
I also learnt a lot by comparing my own blogging practices to those of others in my own community and outside it. I has been frequently surprised that even bloggers that I considered to be very close to me in blogging attitudes would make different choices from my own. From another side, trying to describe to sceptics some practices shared in my blogging community helped to shape my research questions and to position my own work in respect to other researchers.
Blogger identity, relations and access
Being a blogger gave me an identity between other bloggers and helped to develop trusted relations with others. In my own blogging community I didn't need introductions and could easily contact others for information or an advice, by email, instant messaging or phone. When I travelled, I stayed in the houses of some of my blogging friends and was able to peak into their private lives and have casual conversations about blogging on topics that would likely to escape more formal interviewing.
Having a weblog also served me when approaching study participants outside of my own network. Arranging for the study at Microsoft was mediated via my weblog. Also, when I emailed introductions for bloggers I didn't know and asked for interviewing opportunity, I would include link to my own weblog next to other credentials. It’s difficult to measure how much closed doors it have opened, but I also felt that it provided more equality as participants of my research could check my background as easily as I could check theirs (see Mortensen & Walker, 2002, for similar example; Beaulieu, 2004, for a methodological discussion of it).
Others as co-researchers
I blogged on the progress of my research and my participants could easily follow those posts, creating influences and feedback loops that researchers learn to avoid to escape "contaminating their data". I have learnt to embrace and use them in my research, taking an advice from Hammersley and Atkins:
Once we abandon the idea that the social character of research can be standardized out or avoided by becoming a ‘fly on the wall’ or a ‘full participant’, the role of the researcher as active participant in the research process becomes clear. He or she is the research instrument par excellence. The fact the behaviours and attitudes are often not stable across contexts and that the researcher may influence the context becomes central to the analysis. (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1994: 19)
I tried to vary the degree of closeness to my informants between and within studies. For example, as I was aware of the feedback loops in my study of KM bloggers, I had an extended email discussion with Jonathan Grudin, my supervisor at Microsoft, on possible choices in respect to blogging about the study progress while being in the company. When making choices for interviewees I made an effort to talk to people more distant from myself (for example, based on knowledge that they don't read my weblog).
Many of bloggers who participated in my studies could be described as lead users, those who shape emerging technology to address their needs (von Hippel, 1986). Often their own professional interests aligned well with my research quest to discover how weblogs could support knowledge work. Blogging about progress of my research helped to involve them as co-researchers. I had multiple occasions of feedback from fellow bloggers on shaping study methods, data collection instruments, emergent interpretations or drafts of my papers.
As my blogging served me in both roles, a researcher and a blogger, it was not always easy to separate them and to make choices in case of role conflicts. This is an example of one of this cases as documented in my weblog (it refers to the weblog conversation study done in my own blogging community):
[Extended quote from Hard choices: researcher vs. blogger?]
However, role conflicts appeared also where I did not expect them. Studying blogging practices of people outside of my own circle brought me to making choices between insider participation and outsider distance as well:
[Extended quote from Studying weblogs at Microsoft: connecting the dots]
In addition to the role conflicts, being a blogger made it difficult to draw a line between fieldwork and homework, participant observation and writing up, creating a risk of turning my research into an on-going endeavour (Beaulieu, 2004). In addressing this problem, publication deadlines served me well: as a deadline would approach I would not have much time to read other weblogs and to blog myself, thus creating natural withdrawal moment that would serve as a boundary between the field and home.
Finally, the feedback loops resulting from blogging changed the way I would write up my research for a publication. Although sometimes study participants are expected to read final research report, they are not the intended audience for it. In my case thinking of the study participants as readers of the finished work was the choice I could not escape knowing how little effort it would take for them to access my published work.