Posts Tagged ‘qualitative research’

“Qualitativeness” and Turkle’s Life on the Screen

March 29, 2010

MIT professor of Sociology of Science and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995) is an early landmark ethnographic study of online life. Bogdan and Biklin (2007) describe the 5 features of qualitative research as being naturalistic, as collecting descriptive data, as being concerned with process and not simply outcomes, as performing inductive data analysis, and as having an interest in meaning or how people make sense of their lives. Given these characteristics, it is clear that qualitative methods are well suited to a study of online life and computer-mediated communication (CMC).  As Hine (2000) asserts, “Qualitative and interpretative studies are however particularly well placed to study a cultural context in its own terms and have been influential in establishing the features of CMC” (p. 18). Turkle’s groundbreaking study is one of these which helped to establish features and also how people take them up and make them a part of their own lives through the use of qualitiative methods.

Naturalistic research as dictated by a qualitative approach to the study of CMC requires new thought in terms of how to approach and delimit the field or “case” (Dyson & Genishi, 2005). As Turkle explains in her notes on method, “Virtual reality poses a new methodological challenge for the researcher: what to make of online interviews, and, indeed, whether and how to use them.…researchers with different interests and theoretical perspectives will surely think about this decision [regarding method] differently” (p. 324).  Indeed, the use of qualitative methods in studying social interactions online must begin with a theoretical framework that addresses the nature of reality. Some qualitative researchers approach the Internet as a virtual reality, separate from “real life”. Others, like Miller and Slater (2000) maintain that “We need to treat Internet media as in continuum with and embedded in other social spaces…they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape into a self-enclosed cyberian apartness” (p. 5). The nature of the screen, body, and cyberspace can only be explored after a theoretical approach is decided upon.

In Turkle’s study she sought to explore the social functions of Internet use. She wanted to “explore an individual’s life history and tease out the roles technology has played” (p. 324). Though she carried out participant observation and interviews online, she also observed face-to-face and made the decision to report out if she had met the person face to face for interview only. She says that this choice is related to the purposes of the “real life bias” of her study and argues that this approach allowed her to present her findings with more richness and attention to the complexity of social life. As Hine (2000) says “The decision to privilege certain modes of interaction is a situated one. If the aim is to study online settings as contexts in their own right, the question of offline identities may not arise” (p. 22). Turkle presents a view in her book of identity as fragmented. Such a view is certainly influenced by early utopian claims about the Internet that indeed present a picture of the Internet as a “cyberian apartness” where differences are erased. One popular New Yorker cartoon from 1993 of a dog going online illustrated the caption, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.

I take a view of the identities as more fluid, and I view the Internet as embedded in people’s lives and only taking significance in the ways in which people take it up and use it. I would criticize Turkle’s statements about identities as fragmented such as “you can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want. You can be the opposite sex. You can be more talkative. You can be less talkative…you can just be whoever you want really” (pp. 184-185). I believe on the other hand that offline and online are not discrete but simply a part of people’s lives.

This study was fruitful for me in thinking about how to approach qualitative studies of “social lives and cultural meanings that people are constructing as their lives become increasingly entwined with computer technology” (p. 323). I am concerned with studying what has been called the “new ethos” (Lankshear & Knoebl, 2006) that is arising around technology use. In the way of technology and change, Lankshear and Knobel (2006) differentiate between the new “technical stuff” made of hardware and software and new “ethos stuff” (p. 93) which they define as the “the emergence of a distinctly contemporary mindset” (p. 73) which arises in conjunction with the social use of new technologies. This is the difference between the technologies themselves and how people take them up. Leu et al. (2004) describes these new ethos or mindsets as the “important new strategies and dispositions required by the Internet” (p.) Leu et al. (2008) argue for the existence of “changes in social and cultural ways of doing things, ways of being, ways of viewing the world (world views), and so on” (p. 7).

In my interest in exploring the mindsets and “new ethos” of Internet use, Turkle’s work enhanced my understanding of “qualitativeness” in its flexibility or reflexiveness. She not only responded to the data and interpretations as she was in the field by shifting her approaches or refining her theoretical lens, but she brought her own background into the way in which she approached her study. She opens her section containing notes on method in facts by stating, “This is a very personal book. It is based on ethnographic and clinical observation, where the researcher, her sensibilities and taste, constitute a principal instrument of investigation” (p. 321). She goes on to explain where her “sensibilities and taste” originate, including her background in sociology, anthropology, and personality psychology as well as her work as a licensed clinical psychologist. Thus her approach comes to be of two parts, that is, field research and a “clinical component”.

It was helpful for me to realize the flexibility of qualitative design. My own research of the “new ethos” of the Internet will require such flexibility because “burning issues in representation and communication have proliferated along with the profound changes in the social, cultural, economic and technological world, issues for which there are as of yet no answers. In that context the need is to open up questions…” (Pahl & Roswell, 2006, ix). Just as Turkle explored the ways that ethnography and clinical approaches can speak to each other, I will seek a flexible approach that responds to the interests of the study at hand.