Social Science and Digital Research: Interdisciplinary Insights

Don’t forget Monday’s symposium on “Social Science and Digital Research: Interdisciplinary Insights” here in Oxford. The event is part of the Oxford e-Social Science Project (OeSS) and will bring together a number of researchers from home and abroad. As the description says:

This symposium will provide an opportunity to critically assess the outcomes of such interdisciplinary initiatives through presentations that illustrate the potential for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary digital research to break new ground in our understanding of theory and research across disciplinary boundaries. Researchers from the Oxford e-Social Science Project (OeSS) and its various spin-offs will be discussing the lessons learned over the last six years of work in this area. Those researching this area, as well as those involved in completed or ongoing e-Research projects, are encouraged to participate in the symposium.

You can find the full programme here. The symposium will start at 9.30am at Keble College’s Acland Centre, 23 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PD.

Special Issue of Encounters: How to attend to screens?

by Malte Ziewitz

Just in case you are still looking for something to read this weekend, a Special Issue of Encounters has just been published. Edited by Brit Ross Winthereik, Peter A. Lutz, Lucy Suchman and Helen Verran, the Special Issue collects six contributions on the challenge of “Attending to Screens and Screenness”. While the object of interest (“the screen”) might seem straightforward, the authors develop a range of puzzling insights from some very interesting empirical materials. So if you can be tempted by stories about a raid on a Danish pizzeria, Californian wildfires, the Transmilenio of Bogotá, “problematic” Danish children, an energy control room, travelling researchers or online patient feedback, make sure you have a look.

My own contribution tackles the research-practical question of “How to attend to screens?” and turns on some recent themes in STS around ontology, technology and the notion of enactment. Here is the abstract:

In this paper, I explore the question of how to attend to screens. Starting from the puzzling observation that screens seem both ubiquitously present and conspicuously absent in everyday life, I find that existing studies tend to take the analytic status of screens for granted and juxtapose them with a human user to theorize the relationship between the two. In an attempt to avoid such dualisms, I turn to recent work in Science and Technology Studies (STS) and focus on how screens are being enacted in practice. However, exploring a strategy of enactment in the context of a recent ethnography of web-based patient feedback produces mixed results. Perhaps most importantly, the salience of objects is not given in enactment, but itself contingently accomplished—a process in which the role of the researcher is easily overlooked. The paper concludes that a call to attend to screens as ‘objects of interest’ may thus be better understood as an invitation to engage with people and things in situations in which the notion of ‘screens’ may (or may not) provide a useful heuristic for orienting inquiry.

Further papers by Karen Boll, Katrina Petersen, Andrés Felipe Valderrama Pineda, Helene Ratner, Antti Silvast and Jane Bjørn Vedel.

How’s My Feedback? – A Day About the Technology and Politics of Evaluation

by Malte Ziewitz

Just in case you missed yesterday’s conference, a quick pointer to a summary over at our project blog. You will learn more about the talks and their topics, the list of delegates, some reflections on the by now world-famous worm experiment as well as reactions from elsewhere on the web.

To get you in the right mood, here is a screenshot of Andy Balmer presenting on his autoethnographic inquiry into while simultaneously being worm-polled:

Andy Balmer being wormed

Read more here.

The (eighth) STS Talk-Walk: Visualising – what is it to visualise?

by Andreas Birkbak

The eighth installation of the STS Talk-Walks revolved around the theme of visualisations and visualising. What practical work goes into creating visualizations and making them travel? Who, which or what is actually being visualized? What are the risks involved in visualizing? How come that ‘visualization’ has gained such currency? Has it, actually?

Whether it was due to the all-too-familiar visualisation of ‘heavy rain showers’ on the BBC Weather homepage or not (the grey icon almost scared this writer off), the turnout was not overwhelming this time. However, the happy three that ventured out in the rain were rewarded with great conversational depth and a very tolerable amount of rain. Here follows a necessarily incomplete and biased story of how it went, but really this image says it all (or does it?):

A talk-walk visualization.

Walking downstream on the Thames Path from Said Business School, we started by noting how the term ‘visualisation’ is claimed by a confusing collective of actors. It is taken to mean anything from diagrams that sum up texts or ideas to digital stepping stones that have become integrated into how scientists proceed in laboratories. It was suggested that while this diversity makes it hard to run smooth conferences under the visualisation banner, it could also be cast as a powerful unifying concept. Further to this, one participant pointed out how a visualisation in itself can work as a focal point around which people with different interests are able to gather. Interestingly, our shared everyday language also seems to contain a throng of hints to the visual, as is for example ‘illustrated’ when politicians talk of the need for ‘transparent’ institutions and ‘clear’ policy making.

Later, a halfway pint at the cosy Isis Farm House became instrumental in discussing the concept of affordances and the ontological status of those environments that present themselves visually to us. None of the participants were entirely comfortable employing the notion of affordances (which has also been used by a very diverse set of writers), but it was useful for trying to get at what it is that might make visualisations appear so powerful in comparison to for example texts. Perhaps there is something more immediate about the way that we relate to the visual? This argument was only hesitantly accepted, though, with some unexpecting readers suggesting that they reacted in a highly emotional and instinctive way to the final passages of the novel ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. In this case the text seemed to have powers equal to the most arresting (in the Barthean sense) pieces of visual art.

During the walking and talking, we several times found ourselves reflecting on the recent InSIS conference Visualisation in the age of computerisation. For example, the keynote by Peter Galison was useful for thinking about how different styles of attaching truthfulness to scientific visualising have emerged over the last three centuries. The idea came up that if digital visualisations are gaining currency in our times, it might have to do with the classic statistical logic of attaching value to representations that sum up large amounts of data.

It turned out that more than one of the talk-walkers were doing current work in which they encountered the practicalities of visualizing, so this occasion to discuss was warmly welcomed. Whether some of the thoughts that were generated at the talk-walk can be transferred from the field of the Thames Path to the field in which visualising work is carried out remains to be seen.

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 22 July 2011.

The (seventh) STS Talk-Walk: Spinning – what is it to spin a topic?

by Malte Ziewitz

The first STS Talk-Walk this term took us downstream along the Thames to the Isis Farmhouse. It also challenged us to think hard about ‘spinning’: what is it to spin a topic? How have you spun your research in recent papers, talks and presentations? What were the practicalities involved? What did you find easy/difficult/challenging/etc. about it? Is there an ethics of spinning? How useful is it to talk about ‘spinning’ as opposed to ‘framing’ or ‘turning’?

Spinning like a spider?

As usual, the conversations were diverse and touched upon a myriad of aspects, thoughts and stories. In fact, it seemed that the theme of ‘spinning’ could be spun in many different ways. So here is a short and highly selective list of ideas and associations that travelled with us along the Thames.

  • What does it practically take to spin an issue? Jasper told a story about the candidacy of Michael Ignatieff in the Canadian federal elections and how it was spun by different political groups. While some argued that a well-educated leader with international reputation would be the right person to advance Canadian politics, others portrayed him as a stranger and outsider, who had long lost ties with his country and ‘common Canadians’. It was interesting to see how the different spins variously mobilized objects like ‘common Canadians’ or ‘international challenges’ to present their version of the world and spin a web of carefully crafted realities.
  • Also the ethics of spinning figured prominently. While some thought that ‘spinning’ already comes with strong connotations of dishonesty and betrayal, others suggested that it is the very idea of a fact (and not just a perspective on it) which is achieved in the process of spinning. At any rate, it turned out to be productive to think about what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spinning — and what it takes to make these arguments.
  • Some wondered about the different meanings the word ‘spinning’ has adopted in other languages. In German, for example, the verb ‘spinnen‘ can refer to the activity of threading or weaving a web, but is also used to denote the state of ‘being bonkers’ (as in the famous line from the Asterix cartoons, ‘Die spinnen, die Römer.‘ = ‘These Romans are crazy.’).
  • The longer we talk-walked, the less certain we were about who, which or what is actually spinning what, which or whom. Tanja told a story about a recent press release that was issued about her research on neuromarketing. While the press release had emphasized the generally critical stance of the project towards the currency of all things ‘neuro’, it turned out to be received quite differently. In fact, the project was presented as ‘cutting-edge’ neuromarketing research itself, and sentences indicating ethnographic distance were simply edited out in re-publications. As a consequence, people started e-mailing with praise for the interesting project and the need to advance the field of neuromarketing. While a lot more complex, the story showed that spinning cannot simply be credited to the magic craft of a few spin doctors or political consultants, but rather appears as a messy and unruly process with unpredictable outcomes. Spinning, in this sense, means becoming part of and engaging with an issue — if we like it or not.
  • All this led us to speculate that spinning may not be the exception to a rule, but rather a useful trope to talk about the activity (and politics) of doing research generally. What if everything is somehow spinning — and what kind of spin would that be?

Next STS Talk-Walk: Friday, 17 June 2011. More info here. If you have an idea for a topic, please let us know.

How’s My Feedback? – A One-Day Conference on the Technology and Politics of Evaluation

by Malte Ziewitz

How's My Feedback? - The Technology and Politics of Evaluation

If you follow the news from our How’s my feedback? project, you probably know already about the upcoming conference. On 28 June 2011, a range of researchers, designers, managers, government innovators and users will come to Oxford to discuss the technology and politics of evaluation. Specifically, we will focus on the phenomenon of web-based review and rating schemes, i.e. all those platforms that in one way or another invite, aggregate, calculate and distribute feedback about books, dishwashers, lawyers, teachers, health services, ex-boyfriends, haircuts, prostitutes or websites.

There is bound to be a lot of food for thought. While some have greeted this development as an innovative way of fostering transparency, accountability and public engagement, others have criticized the forced exposure and alleged lack of accuracy and legitimacy, pointing to the potentially devastating consequences of negative evaluations.

The conference will tackle these issues head-on. How are we to judge the effectiveness of these schemes? What modes of governance are implicated in their operation? What does it take to establish and maintain such a scheme? How can we make sense of different methodologies, such as algorithmic rankings (e.g. Google Web Search) vs. individual user reviews (e.g. TripAdvisor)? What counts as ‘good’ feedback and what as ‘bad’? What is it to evaluate the evaluators – and will this business ever end?

A special focus will be on our recent attempts to develop a platform that allows people to share their experience with online reviews and ratings — a feedback websites for feedback websites. An excellent line-up of speakers has volunteered to comment on this process from different perspectives, including Malcolm Ashmore (Colombia/Loughborough), Andrew Balmer (Sheffield), Stefan Schwarzkopf (Copenhagen Business School), Ian Stronach (Liverpool John Moores), Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths) and Steve Woolgar (Oxford).

So if you fancy a day in Oxford (and give some feedback), please have a look at the conference page and check out the homonymous project. Most importantly, please register soon to secure a spot.

Helene Ratner on School Management, Social Theory and Smørrebrød

What brings a Danish PhD student to study in the English countryside? Chris Sugden sat down with Helene Ratner and asked her a number of carefully prepared questions. Helene is based at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School and just finished a two-term visit to InSIS.

Helene, a lot of your work is about schools in Denmark. How did you get interested in schools?

That was really a coincidence. The education system is the focus of my PhD grant. So it was really an obvious choice, and a good one, too. The political debates about schooling really are a window into how we imagine the future: what kind of society, which competences, which values do we think are necessary in tomorrow’s society? The school in this way is a great way to explore how we apprehend and construct problems, solutions and futures in a Scandinavian Welfare context. Also, very importantly, one of the benefits of doing fieldwork in schools is that you get invited to delicious smørrebrød during examination times.

Helene doing fieldwork in Danish schools

Helene doing fieldwork in Danish schools.

So what is your PhD about?

I am doing an ethnography of school managers in socially marginalised areas of Denmark, who work in an inclusive school context. I’m particularly interested in three things: one is how they work with knowledge, because the knowledge models they use are very much inspired by social constructionism, and I find it very interesting to see the organising properties if working with knowledge which is defined by being socially constructed and therefore changeable. They work with that through various reflection technologies for instance. So that’s one thing I’m interested in.

Second, I am interested in the performativity of knowledge and in doing away with the distinction between theory and practice. A curious thing I found during fieldwork is that my own institution and department is very much involved in producing certain ideas of reality and certain concepts. Many of my colleagues’ texts are in school managers’ diploma projects and one of my case schools uses Niklas Luhmann, Ulrich Beck, and Lyotard to argue that the world is contingent and complex and that we should all be more reflexive as a response to that. I use this circularity to explore how sociological knowledge is performative and translated in practice – both through document analysis and ethnographic observations at the schools.

The third interest regards the chaos I experienced, at least from my perspective, during the fieldwork. Organising, in the conventional sense of clear roles, tasks and boundaries, would be the thing that constantly broke down, so the school managers would spend most of their time stitching up, fighting fires, solving conflicts and such. In that respect, what one would think are the exceptions to managers’ work, at least if you look at more official descriptions and discourse, would actually take up the majority of their time. I try to tie these three interests together in a metanarrative which will hopefully end up as a PhD thesis.

What have you found so far?

At the moment I’m tracing one particular model for reflection, called the SMTTE. I’m tracing its history, and it’s really interesting: it comes from an action research project. It’s hugely popular in Denmark, even though there only exist few official publications describing it. If you google it you find more than 13,000 hits, ranging from the Ministry of Education to municipalities and individual institutions and consultants etc. It’s maybe 15 years old in the Danish context, and I’ve traced the history of that. It’s been imported from Norway, where it had less success, and it comes out of this action research project, where it was not that successful but what was successful were the books that emerged from that research project. As a consultant explained to me very cynically, when you make an action research project you have to be a success, you have to come out with a result which can be seen and perceived as if you’ve produced knowledge which you can give to the domain of practice. So it was not so much about having an accurate representation of what works and how this model works; rather, it was about having a good example even though it was quite marginal. The example was so successful that it’s all over the Danish school system today. So I’ve been tracing the history of this and I’m tracing how it’s being enacted and what sort of challenges there are with working with this social constructionist model in Danish schools.

How did you find Oxford and InSIS?

I really enjoyed it. Of course Oxford University has this mythical status, both because it’s Oxford University, the place of old and solid knowledge, and because we’ve been bombarded with seductive images in various Harry Potter movies which I admit to having seen at weak moments. So it was quite exciting to go there.

And I also chose to go there because it seemed to be one of the few places where you could find STS in a business school, and I am myself from a department which fits somewhat oddly with a business school in the more conventional sense. In that way InSIS seemed to be a very natural place for me to go to. What I really enjoyed about it was the ethnographic sensibilities that I met there, both among my fellow PhD students but also among the more senior staff.

Where I work, the majority of my colleagues – maybe they do interviews but it’s mainly document studies, so in some way I felt at home in terms of the methodology and the experiences we could share about getting lost and finding your way again in your empirical material, which I think happens through different trajectories. And secondly, I found it extremely exciting to see that even if most of the people work empirically in very different areas, we would have a lot in common because we were interested in some of the same analytical issues. You could explore your own research challenges within a colleague’s field, by virtue of us having similar analytical questionings and engagements and concerns. And I found that quite fruitful.

Thank you for your time, Helene.