An important link between academia and practice is research. A notable difference is the emphasis within such research on methodological matters. This is a critical aspect of scholarship, but is commonly lacking in practice, particularly within public relations where crowd-sourcing exercises and publicity-oriented surveys may be viewed unproblematically. This criticism can even be applied to some research undertaken by professional bodies.
Methodology is of vital important in academic research studies, including those with a historical focus as I explore below in the 4th post in the PR Conversations History Week.
Historical research requires a more robust approach than simply telling stories or relying on personal memoirs. In my paper at this year’s International History of Public Relations Conference (IHPRC) I stepped outside my PhD topic (examining career strategies in PR) and offered a methodological focus. This considered four issues that I encountered in conducting historical research using the internet and social media.
Methodological matters should be of interest not only to academics and students, but to anyone conducting research.
The historical period in my investigation is 1995-2015, which was a time of notable growth in public relations. It can also be described as a transparent age, as a result of increased openness and sharing of information through online means.
My primary method of research was a series in-depth, oral history interviews with UK-based PR practitioners who have 10-20 years experience in the occupation. Additional archival research contextualised participants’ career experiences, and helped to identify wider structural career constraints and drivers.
As my paper will be included in the IHPRC proceedings in due course, I am not going to explain my research philosophy or go into further detail of the methodology and resulting arguments in this blog post.
Rather I’m going to present some advice drawing on the four issues that I encountered. In particular this addresses ethical and practical challenges that arise when using the internet and social media within a research methodology.
Issue 1: Being an insider
A researcher needs to acknowledge their insider status in relation to the topic of inquiry.
Social media means the researcher can be considered to be a “double insider” (Adriansen and Madsen 2009 p.145) in respect of knowledge of the topic of inquiry, and relationships with participants; in my case fellow practitioners in the occupation.
Even when participants are not already known to the researcher, today it is almost impossible to be a “wayfaring stranger” in the style of Studs Terkel (1975 p.8) when conducting oral history interviews.
Whilst social media is useful for locating, contacting and profiling participants, in turn, a researcher’s own online presence is public. The researcher is easily researched; open to examination both personally and professionally (including any existing work which is published online). This begins the process of creating the interviewer-interviewee relationship.
Indeed, people who respond to a participation request are likely to make connect through social media, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn. Interestingly, I found potential participants referred me to LinkedIn rather than appending a CV/resume to my profiling documents. This seems to suggest an acceptance of the research relationship having an online dimension.
Additionally, LinkedIn overtly indicates existing connections between the researcher and participants. As with other online information this enables both interviewee and interviewer to consider “commonality of experience” (Merriam et al. 2001. p.406), which can be helpful in encouraging participation. It also, however, brings a dimension of ‘insider-ness’ even before the two parties meet (my resultant interviews were face-to-face, but the same applies with Skype interviews as I found in an earlier part of my PhD research; Yaxley 2013).
Ethical challenges arise, as Saunders et al (2015) contend, from accessibility online of private as well as public information. This adds another insider layer to research relationships.
The stories we are told, how they are relayed to us, and the narratives that we form and share with others are inevitably influenced by our position and experiences as a researcher in relation to our participants (Greene 2014 p.1).
Blurring of personal and professional identities is recognized for PR practitioners (Bridgen 2011), who arguably are adept at managing their public persona. But they are not alone in potentially having multiple personalities or representations online. Researchers need to consider how such matters can be ameliorated in their work.
Issue 2: Being a bricoleuse/bricoleur
Reflecting Greene’s (2014 p.8) recommendation to gather “referential adequacy materials” to supplement interviews, I used an “eclectic process” (Kincheloe 2004 p.2) of archival research. This allowed for verification as well as contextualization of participants’ careers.
The new technological landscape engulfs information – digitizing, transforming, accelerating, flattening, pluralizing, democratizing, fragmenting, etc… a third orientation to knowledge flourishes, Levi-Strauss’ bricoleur: the improviser who can take pieces of disconnected material and forge them into something new (Papson 2013 p.3)
Such research involves bringing together disconnected materials from online sources, as well as in my case, physical archives and other sources only available offline. Acting as a bricoleur (Rogers 2012) means the researcher needs to clarify their method in interpreting online and other publicly available resources alongside interviewees’ individual and collective lived experiences.
Bricolage is a highly subjective and individual technique – particularly when involving online research.
There are a number of challenges working with the oddments that are often found online. Traditional systematic scholarship advocates recording and following lines of enquiry in a logical pre-determined manner. Online research is a more organic and ad-hoc process that can be harder to record or replicate.
Academic literature in different fields is starting to look at the nature of researching online materials – particularly the challenges and opportunities.
One interesting consideration is the shift from accessing artefacts such as books or magazines that have been reproduced in digital format, to artefacts that are created specifically for digital publication (such as websites). Additionally, such information is being generated in response to interrogation of underlying data sources. This may mean that research becomes even more individualised and fragmented.
There is also the matter of who originates and makes material available – and the role of search engines, indices and algorithms.
The bricolage approach means combining different sources, voices and stories – which again raises questions about how to craft these in a logical and verifiable way as findings, conclusions and recommendations.
The biggest challenge to online research is that you work with what you can find – and may not know what you didn’t find, what isn’t there or what was once there but is no longer available.
Traditional research was constrained by time, money and contacts in order to access data sources. The same applies in many cases online. The lack of robust archival underpinnings, however, can make prospecting for gold a difficult process.
Most importantly, we need to recognise, research and teach – robust online research skills. There is limited academic work on what such skills and methodologies should be – particularly where there is no underlying structure to what you are trying to discover. This contrasts with online literature systems which publishers underpin specifically for the purpose of interrogation (although they also have flaws in methodology as they tend to rely on quantitative rather than qualitative criteria).
Issue 3: Becoming rhizomatic
The fluidity mentioned above in relation to being a bricoleuse/bricoleur has led to the concept of rhizomatic learning in education.
In respect of online research, this can be viewed as a self-discovery process, whereby the researcher becomes rhizomatic through “day-to-day experiential learning” (Clarke and Parsons 2013 p.42).
Rather than being a researcher, online investigation offers a developmental process of becoming a researcher.
As such, in my work, I acknowledge that I am in the middle of the research process. But, once you start, where do you stop? It is a challenge to determine the end point. When have you discovered enough?
In terms of conducting interviews, rather than opting for an artificially set number of participants (commonly a multiple of 10), the notion of saturation is recommended. This means continuing until additional data offers no further illumination of the research topic. Should, indeed could, the same thinking be applied by rhizomatic researchers to bricolage research? Or is this type of research inherently “a social constructionist approach to grounded theory” (Charmaz 2008 p.397)?
When do we stop tinkering or adding new bits and pieces to our findings if researching online?
Also, being embedded in the investigative process as a rhizomatic researcher raises issues regarding how knowledge and meaning are constructed when “doing and making history as digital practice” (Mussell 2013 p.79).
There is little research or literature concerning these aspects, yet it is vitally important to develop some common or recommended approaches. Increasing numbers of students and practitioners, as well as academics, are using the internet and social media (including multimedia artefacts) for research purposes. Simply applying traditional methodologies or ignoring these entirely is clearly problematic.
Issue 4: Being visible – or invisible
A methodology involving contemporary techniques means the researcher needs to reflect on their role as a “a willing participant in a dialogical process” of research (Jones 2003 p.60).
The subjective involvement of the researcher is generally accepted within qualitative research, although the response may be to seek to eliminate or militate against its influence. I believe that we need to stop trying to be invisible in this respect, particularly when using online research, and instead, use approaches such as bracketing to address our involvement (the same applies to the role of commissioning organisations, funders etc).
Research visibility is increasingly encouraged in terms of open access of published academic research, and higher profiles for researchers through their personal and professional online presence.
Online visibility can conflict with ethical demands to ensure privacy, confidentiality and anonymity for research participants.
There is little literature or research concerning the difficulties created by increased online visibility of the researcher, the published work, and participants themselves. For example, linkages between what someone says in an interview, that may be anonymised in a published piece of work, can be connected by search engines to social media where the same words have been used by the research participant, rendering them visible.
Similarly, many participants are interested in the outcomes of research and wish for their role to be acknowledged. Saunders et al. (2015) focus on use of disguise and pseudonyms, as well as collaboration with participants over anonymity issues and potential challenges in ensuring this.
Additionally, the goal of research is essentially to offer new thinking and even original theory, models or changes to a practice area. I am hoping to do that in challenging some of the ways that we currently think about careers in public relations.
If such developments gain traction, a researcher may wish to use their initial work in new ways. It gains further visibility, particularly when cited or used by others. These researchers take an insider perspective to your work, they too are engaged in bricolage, act as rhizomatic researchers and enhance the visibility of not only the findings, but potentially those anonymised participants who can be outed by increasingly clever algorithms.
In my case, I have identified a kairotic element of qualitative time within careers through the development of an innovative aspect of my research methodology, the use of time-line graphical representations (see above photograph for illustration).
Kairotic thinking has the potential to affect how we view online career identity as expressed through LinkedIn, for example.
Researchers have to be meticulous in respecting the wishes of research participants for confidentiality and anonymity whilst looking to discuss their research developments going forwards.
There are many benefits in conducting research (historical or otherwise), but the implications of being (becoming) a visible insider in a transparent age are under explored and often not even recognised.
At the least such studies should acknowledge the researcher’s role, engage with participants over their expectations of confidentiality, consider emerging ethical challenges and reflect on how outcomes of the research themselves are used online, particularly as these too become historical archive material.
Image: With thanks to Balint Brunner, via https://twitter.com/balintbrunner
This is the fourth and penultimate post in the PR Conversations inaugural History Week. See links below to all five posts:
Part 1: Made by history – a book collector’s story by Heather Yaxley
Part 2: The Museum of Public Relations – archives and artefacts under the gaze of Bernays (and Lee and Page and Byoir…) with thanks to Shelley Spector, and Adrian Crookes
Part 3: PR History – prospecting for archival gold by Tom Watson
Part 4: Conducting historical interviews in a transparent age by Heather Yaxley
Part 5: The dimensions of PR history: 60 x 75 x 94 x 350,000 by Tom Watson
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