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Academe playing catch up: can digital methods go mainstream?

By Yang Min | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today
Christine Griffin is a professor of social psychology at the University of Bath. Her research focuses on identity and consumption for younger generations, within which she has had a long standing interest in contemporary femininity, and leisure and social media in youth culture. She is regarded as leading figure in the development of quantitative methods in social psychology.
CSST: Last month, you spoke at an event on digital methods at the University of Manchester. What are some of the basic categories digital methods fall under, and why is it important to recognize these divisions?
Christine Griffin: I make a distinction between digital methods such as archiving the web, sentiment analysis (of ‘likes’), email interviews, digital ethnography, and research using social network sites and Skype; I also distinguish researching the digital world—or the ways in which people use digital and mobile technologies in their everyday lives. The latter might involve using digital methods, or it might not. But it could include analyzing website content, online practices likes pokes and sharing, affordances of software and how this shapes our uses of digital technologies. It could also include analysis of data mining and online marketing practices and much more…
My main argument is that the major challenge here is to develop the conceptual and methodological tools to enable us to research (i.e. understand interpret and analyze) the online or digital world using whatever methods are appropriate
CSST: Do you believe digital methods will become mainstream in social sciences research?
Christine Griffin: Yes. Most of those doing the most cutting edge work are relatively young and doing postgraduate Masters or PhD research. It surprises me how few more established researchers are using digital methods or trying to extend their research to understand online practice. However, once the current generation of PhD students have become lecturers, they will start to teach this in research methods courses and more text books on the subject will come out.
CSST: Could you tell us the differences between digital methods and non-digital methods?
Christine Griffin: I don’t think of digital methods in this way as a different form of research method. The same sorts of problems and challenges and opportunities apply to digital methods as any other. The main thing is that your research methods should enable you to answer your research question—and I see no reason why digital methods and more traditional methods should not be combined.
The most important point is that research methods people use should be dictated by their research question; they should not use digital methods for all studies regardless of the research question.
CSST: What difference would it make if we apply digital methods to research?
Christine Griffin: I could be sure that one change I would hope to see is research that is more accessible to people outside of academia—to get involved at all stages if that’s appropriate. However, given the pervasive engagement of multinational corporations in the online world, I would be careful about seeing this as a great emancipatory movement.
CSST: How is the digital environment changing nowadays?
Christine Griffin: The growing involvement of major multinational corporations in the online world and the use of software to shape what we can and can’t do online—and to shape how we think about our worlds and ourselves and other people. I became interested in digital methods through my research on young people’s alcohol consumption, where in the UK (and elsewhere) there is strong and widespread culture of drinking to get (very) drunk. This is partly shaped by the alcohol industry, who is now investing very heavily in online marketing practices using social media and digital and mobile technologies. But also young people use social media and digital and mobile technologies themselves in their everyday social lives as just a normal part of social interaction, so I wanted to be able to investigate that in research. It turns out to be extremely complicated with many levels and layers of representation and interaction! The problem to social science researchers is that technologies—and how they are used—are changing much faster than we are able to keep pace with in terms of developing new methods of data collection and analysis.
CSST: For academics, what new skills or knowledge should they have to fully master digital methods?
Christine Griffin: Just get onto facebook, twitter and see how people are using it, see how you want to use these platforms in your own life. But I describe myself as a ‘techno sloth’—very slow to get engaged with social media—so I am not a ‘geek’! Look at the phenomena you want to study or investigate and consider what role digital technologies are playing, e.g. in marketing or how people interact with one another. Then consider if any digital methods might be useful for your study—even if digital technologies are not central to your topic of research. See what sort of methods others in the field are using. The biggest challenge (as with all research) is to be able to maintain some level of philosophical detachment alongside an engagement with and understanding of the phenomena you want to study and the methods you want to use. The main thing though is to have a sound theoretical framework on which to base your research.


Professor Christine Griffin is a professor of social psychology at the University of Bath, UK
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No.439, March 15, 2013