Methodology chapter: Quality verification strategies
[From draft version of methodology chapter for my dissertation, slightly adapted for the web]
In this section I propose several strategies to ensure quality of my research. I call them verification strategies, however similar to (Morse et al., 2002) I would like to emphasise that most of them should be used during research and not only for verifying quality of the outcomes.
Prolonged exposure "in the field" ensures that a researcher had enough opportunities to encounter a variety of perspectives that would allow rich representation of the phenomenon under study. Yanow (2006) notes that prolonged exposure refers not only to the time, but to location as well. For me this means "being long enough in the right places talking to a variety of people to uncover important issues".
While doing research this means taking an effort to "map the territory" (Yanow, 2006) in a way that allows representing a variety of perspectives. For example, in case of my research this means talking to bloggers with diverse practices, including those in minority. In the study at Microsoft I strive for diversity by complementing snowball interview sampling with finding people "outside the network" by searching for "deviating weblogs", e.g. those written in another language or used in "unconventional" way (see 'Those that belong to the Emperor' for an example). For KM blogger study I use social network analysis based on linking between weblogs to define communal boundaries next to my (more subjective) personal knowledge of the actors and setting.
In reporting research exposure is reflected by describing the study settings, time and duration of being there; efforts made to define the field, to acquire representative data, to include multiple perspectives.
Triangulation refers to use of multiple sources and modes of evidence to make findings stronger by showing and agreement of independent measures or by exploring and explaining conflicting findings (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Schwartz-Shea, 2006). I employ several types of triangulation in my research:
- Triangulating by study - studying blogging practices from three perspectives using a variety of methods.
- Data triangulation - including in the analysis different types of data (e.g. text and statistics), data sources and data collection methods. In my research that means, for example, including non-elicited data (Pargman, 2000) from public sources (e.g. weblog text) next to the recorded interviews.
- Involvement of multiple researchers in data collection and analysis in all studies except one.
Next to being a starting point or target for a research, theory could be an instrument to make it stronger. In my research I use theory:
- as a "sensitising device" (Klein & Myers, 1999) to inform research questions and conceptual categories, to tease out implicit nuances;
- to explain and to position findings;
- to "normalise the atypical" (Brower et al., 2000) by drawing parallels between my cases and conditions more familiar to the readers.
Participants as co-researchers
One of the strategies to ensure that research results represent the phenomena under study is informant feedback (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Schwartz-Shea, 2006), asking study participants to comment on the report. In my case I take it further, treating participants as co-researchers. This means not only asking for a feedback on finished reports, but also providing them opportunities to observe and to influence parts of the research process via my weblog.
Reflexivity refers to the awareness and theorising about the role of self in all phases of the researcher process (Schwartz-Shea, 2006). I also like to think about it in terms of reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön, 1983). The first one is the source of what Yanow (2006) calls "improvisational character of interpretive research" - reflecting to address difficult to predict research circumstances (e.g. reacting to unanticipated turn in an interview). The second one refers to evaluation in retrospect, formulating the "lessons learnt" to guide actions that follow and to share in research report. In my research this strategy is used in several ways:
- My weblog serves as a reflexive journal (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), which documents many of my reflexive moments, doubting and thinking aloud while doing research or evaluating it in retrospect. I also reference and quote those entries where relevant in the text.
- I try to convey uncertainties, choices and lessons learnt while doing research in reporting the results by choosing not to present the research as clear path, but instead incorporating stories about reflexive moments in the text. I also discuss my own role, influences and mistakes while doing research. I write (in my academic publications, but also in my weblog) to think with the readers, not for them, as I believe that "the skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think" (Edwin Schlossberg).
At its extreme, making one’s research transparent means conducting an audit, where a detailed record of research processes and decisions as documented by a researcher is examined by an independent researcher to access research quality (Halpern, 1983; Akkerman et al., 2007). I prefer a broader definition of transparency as a set of practices to document research for an inspection by others (Schwartz-Shea, 2006). In my research I do it in the following ways:
- I use my weblog not only to document my research, but also to carry out part of the research process. In this way it is available not only for auditing in retrospect, but also for a real-time feedback, which is more useful for a correction.
- Since some of the data I use is publicly accessible, I provide readers of my research reports with references to it, so they have an opportunity to check my interpretations by examining it for themselves to the public data.
- I provide descriptions of research processes and decisions made in research reports.
Thick description (Geertz, 1973) refers to the style of reporting the research results aimed to "transporting the reader to the field" by providing detail-rich description of life of the research participants (Klein & Myers, 1999; Brower et al., 2000; Yanow, 2006; Schwartz-Shea, 2006). In the case of my research this means providing extensive quoting from weblogs and interviews, describing history and context of a particular setting, portraying the complexity and interrelations between different aspects of blogging practices. When quoting from weblogs I preserve linking in the text and provide direct link to the post, so those who read my work digitally can literally "transport themselves to the field" with one click.
Purposeful confessional writing
I use the term confessional writing to address different forms of bringing personal experiences in a publication (using personal pronouns, talking about my background or beliefs, including personal examples, etc.). Taken to an extreme, this could turn a research report into autobiography (Schultze, 1999; Duncan, 2004). This strategy aims to avoid that risk by making sure that confessional writing serves a research-related purpose. I do so by:
- articulating the purpose of including confessional material (e.g. as an additional data source, to provide transparency of the research process, as a way to engage the readers);
- drawing parallels between my personal experience and those of other bloggers (in my studies or as reported in a literature);
- interlacing self-revealing writing with more traditional forms of academic writing (e.g. as a layered account Ronai, 1995);
- separating between personal data available for others to examine (e.g. my weblog posts) and personal interpretations of it.