The biggest lesson of graduate school for me? You gotta come to terms with how much you don’t know.
You gotta get to a Zen sorta place where that knowledge is a given: there’s way more in the world, in your field, than you even know to ask about. So have another beer and relax, ok?
Or, uh. Try to.
To that end:
I spent this past Thursday at a day-long symposium at Drexel University called Life Online: The Ethics and Methods of Conducting Research in a Digital Age.
Yeah, it was spring break this week. And yeah, I spent it learnin.’ Though I look at it as gathering arrows for my dissertation quiver. Because sooner rather than later, I’m gonna have to start doing research rather than just talking about it [ahem], so I say: load ’em up.
A few arrows I came away with:
Of immediate interest for wee young researchers like me is this chart from the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). Said chart sketches the different types of data that a researcher might collect online, the venues in which that data might be collected, and the concomitant ethical questions that a researcher might then consider. Interested parties may also find AoIR’s comprehensive Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research (2012) useful in generating a set of vocabulary for talking about and planning online research projects.
For me, the most useful part of the day was Mary L Gray‘s presentation on IRBs and the difficulty some have in dealing with what she calls “ethnographically-engaged” digital media research.
Dude, Dr. Gray was nine kinds of awesome: amazing research, super-smart as hell, and a great speaker. She was talking about Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), for gods’ sake–snore–but she had the whole room with her from go.
You better believe it.
Somehow, Dr. Gray was cut off for time when other speakers were not and we lost a good 20 minutes of her talk. That was—unfortunate. Especially since some later speakers had time left over. Ah well.
For me, here were the key takeaways from her presentation.
General concepts/questions re: digital research:
- Websites are both texts AND sites; digital media are both a tool AND a location.
- Online research regenerates the question: what constitutes a public space?
- There are no unembodied moments online; the body is always present.
- “The notion of privacy is a privilege,” which—
—holy crap!! One of those things that sounds so obvious and yet, damn.
Central questions re: ethics of online research:
1. Ethical dilemmas are an index of methodological flux/growth in fields of inquiry. Such dilemmas can be generative and productive and we shouldn’t shy away from engaging with them directly.
2. Ethics in online research are ad hoc and (re)constructed: they evolve over time, over the life of a project, and researchers must attend to this evolution.
3. Online researchers should talk through the ethics of a particular project with a trusted colleague, peer, or professor.
AMEN! Especially when your advisor’s own research is generating simliar questions.
4. Gaining IRB approval doesn’t signal the resolution of ethical issues around a project. Indeed, Gray argued that the setup of many IRB forms and procedures can obscure, rather than shed light on, ethical questions that can spring up around digital research.
5. Those who study worlds online should not let the computer screen become the sole terministic screen through which they study a given population or community. Gray emphasized the importance of talking to the people whose activities you see online; there’s much that’s lost without pushing into the broader context within which the user’s digital engagement sits.
This last one really got to me, especially because Gray was pretty damn convincing on this point. But such in-world examinations work directly against both my own instincts (eek! people!) and my sense of the “norm” in rhetorically-inclined digital research. Goddamn it. Because of course, the resistant aura that in-world engagement holds in this context is like catnip to me, man.
All in all, I came out with more questions and angst than answers, and that, for me? Is the sign of a day well spent.