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Bloggers as public intellectuals and writing about them in a research report

Working on a paper on how I bring blogging in the text of my dissertation, I finally get to write a bit more on When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography promised long time ago. Although the book is well worth reading as a whole for anyone interested in relations between a researcher and those participating in the research, one of the papers is a must read for those studying bloggers:

  • Sheehan, Elizabeth A. (1993). The student of culture and the ethnography of Irish intellectuals. In C.B.Brettell (Ed.), When they read what we write: the politics of ethnography (pp. 75-89). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

In the paper the author tells about the challenges of representing in a research report academics she studied: public intellectuals, “who earn their living in large part through their ideas” (p. 81).

It is a cliché to say that knowledge is power, but in the case of informants who are intellectuals, knowledge is also capital, symbolic and otherwise. Here too the boundaries between public and private forms of information become confused, merge, and cross over to opposite sides in the exchange between anthropologist and informant. As a results, ethnographic writing about academics and intellectuals raises serious issues of intellectual attribution. […] As intellectuals, many academics create their lives through their work, and their work through their lives. Interviews with such information can provide exhilarating insight for the ethnographer (Yes! Yes! This is what I mean!), brought to a sudden halt by the realization that the ideas you are now thinking – and thinking of writing about – are not entirely your own at all but the product of mutual intellectual exchange. How to you correctly ascribe ideas that are offered within the context of an interview but which may also be the basis of new works, new publications? How do you separate the public thinker from the private, honour his confidentiality and intellectual property, and still offer a meaningful analysis? (Sheehan,1993, p.81)

This one has direct connections to my early questions on weblog research ethics in respect to he choices between protecting privacy of the participants and recognising their authorship. Browsing through the referrals to my post on attribution and ownership of ideas when blogging research I came across a nice summary of the issue from a research participant side in a post by Frank Carver (bold is mine):

One of my current concerns is the tension between perceived needs one the one hand for attribution, academic traceability and ownership of ones own words; and on the other hand for privacy. This is seen in sharpest relief in solicitations for academic surveys. Routinely such instruments come with a disclaimer pointing out that all answers will be anonymous. Well-structured surveys and questionnaires, though, often also contain a section for general comments and feedback. In most cases I do not want this to be anonymous – indeed I would rather it formed part of a dialogue between the researcher and subjects, allowing both to benefit, learn and develop.

I am considering taking up a habit of always adding my contact details to academic survey submissions to deliberately challenge the assumption that I wish to be an anonymous donor of information, and to encourage researchers to participate in a community of interest.

The stress on mutual benefits is important: often it’s not only the researcher who learns new things, but also people who participate in the research, when their thinking on a subject is triggered as a result of an interaction. Elizabeth Sheehan gives a nice example that the challenges of attributing the ideas in a case like this one may also exist on the participant’s side:

I might add that this process can work both ways, but with less ethical difficulty for the informant. I was both flattered and dismayed to see some insights of mine appear in the Irish Times, unattributed, under the byline of an academic I had interviewed a few days earlier. He had no need, as had I, to sort out his ides from my own in a setting which was, for him, just and interesting discussion with another academic. (Sheehan,1993, p.81)

Another issue that the paper touches is the one I had to deal myself: the need to represent research participants in a way that multiple parts of their input could not be attributed to the same person (in When they read what we write: respondent identification). An example from the paper:

…his identity had to be fragmented. In the dissertation he becomes several people, not my the questionable device of pretending he was really a number of different individuals, but simply by my failing to inform the reader that “one professor,” “another commentator,” and so forth who appear throughout the dissertation are actually one person. Consequently, this single individual is discessed as the unnamber center of the appointment controversy, as an anonymous example of the links between scholarship and party politics, as an attributed commentator on his research discipline, and as a published sources on his research specialty. (Sheehan,1993, pp.83-84)

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • David Andrew September 3, 2008, 13:11

    Something in your post reminded me of what I have said to students – often in response to the question about the use of 1st person language – that when doing academic writing you write from within the discipline. It is not your writing, hence the conventions of academic writing.

    Your post takes this deeper – traditionally the role of the academic journal has been as gatekeeper of knowledge within the discipline – as an academic I work on the information I know is reliable becuase of the source – and of course referencing makes that explicit. What I absorb into my thoughts is controlled as part of the discipline.

    What your post raises therefore is the deeper question about the role of the internet – not only does it make it easier for students to find and use information from outside the discipline – the wikipedia problem, but in knowledge generation we need a new way of controlling our own inputs to maintain some disciplinary boundaries around what we absorb into the development of our disciplines.

  • Lilia Efimova September 3, 2008, 14:03

    David, you may want to check a very interesting discussion on using 1st person language in academic writing and its relation to disciplinary practices in Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. The book is another one on my “to blog” list and worth reading for any academic…

  • Norman Dragt October 14, 2008, 02:52

    If I understand this correctly, you find it disturbing, that writing about qualitative research creates strange effects of dissection when you use different names when citing the same respondent. This I think has nothing to do with science, but with language use. Texts that use the same name over and over again, become boring and at a certain moment even laughable.

    So that is something you can only solve if you write some kind of legend, in which you explain that certain words used to assign text to a respondent, can make it unclear that the words were uttered by the same person. Or if you can use different fonts, and are willing to keep track of which respondent belongs to which font, you could solve your problem that way.

    However I would expect that most readers do not mind you figuratively dissect your respondents. As the ideas in your report are more important than the sources they come from.

    If people always wanted to know exactly who said what, they would have developed that ability long ago, when they first started talking. However most people only want to know the who and what in certain situations, depending on their personal experiences. So if you can appoint an idea to someone, you should. But if you create a new idea based on the ideas of someone else, you only quote the original idea if it is necessary to understand your idea. At a certain moment quoting and citing becomes useless, if you present ideas that are new and different from what others know and think.

    It probably would have been impossible for Einstein to write down his ideas about the relativity theory, if he would have had to quote and cite everybody, that might have had some kind of influence on his ideas.

  • Dux October 16, 2008, 11:15

    I like the concept that ideas are formed from a mutual intellectual exchange and I guess that is also my aim. Just to get ideas and out there and thought about. Sometimes I have ideas and wonder has anyone else thought of this or why issues haven’t been addressed? I like researching the topics of my blog to discover and promote intellectual exchange. I would like to know the influence of blogs from concept to reality but perhaps it is to premature to study this.

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