Saturday, December 24, 2011

Barbara Herr Harthorn...Nanotechnologies, Cultural Values, and Methodological Challenges

A depiction of a putative technomimetic molecu...Image via WikipediaI do not work in a nano-deficient environment.  At my university (UMass-Lowell) we have what we call the "Nano Queens", three female scientists who excel in this field, and a new building is rising on our North Campus that will be dedicated to nanotechnology, among other things.  So, I think of myself as nano-aware.  But, Barbara Herr Harthorn's article "Methodolocial Challenges Posed by Emergent Nanotechnologies and Cultural Values" in Hess Biber's edited volume--The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research (65-88)--has taken me to new heights.  Harthorn is definitely the nano-babe of social science research (in my eyes).

Her piece took me back immediately to the first article in the book, by Edward Hackett, and the issues he raises about researching in the new scientific and technological environment of today.  Her piece provides many specific illustrations to fill in the general ideas he discussed. 

Nano queens, Nano buildings, and Nano babes aside--Harthorn makes it clear that defining the nano is not all that easy, and, thus, researching it is just that much more complicated.  Nano is in the process of becoming, it is quintessentially emergent, so research of the issue is "upstream". In other words, you are in the business of identifying, finding, describing.  This danger is well noted when she says:

Social scientists and humanists recruited to study NSE processes for technological development are thus at some risk of creating the very object we are studying, of reifying a category that may have little inherent meaning outside the funding world (71)

As an ethnographic, feminist social science researcher, Harthorn has had a unique opportunity to be in on the beginnings of the nano world through participation in the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Her article makes excellent reading because the social science that she is describing, she has lived! 

Of the points I take away with me from this reading, one is related to interdisciplinary research (a point Hackett also raises)...and this point is also related to the issue of researching those things that are "upstream" as she defines the emergent world of nanotechnology...and this is that true, dynamic interdisciplinarity is required to get at these forming masses that span science, social science, and the humanities.  Having scientists, social scientists (of diverse backgrounds and skills) and John and Jane Q Public together at the table is probably the only way to get at the potential good (and bad) of these extremely powerful, but as yet, emergent technologies. 

I am also drawn to her discussion of the importance of mixing qualitative and quantitative in order to be open enough to discovery of what you haven't imagined and, simultaneously, primed to track down what you have identified.  Harthorn recommends use of a methodological toolkit that is constantly evolving itself, always being honed to address specific questions and situations that may not have been imagined by methodologists from an earlier era.  This experimentation in methodology has led her to team to develop "deliberative forums" and to make use of "experimental deliberation" as well as  new forms of web surveys.  She charts an interesting pathway in the social sciences.  From lab-based experiments, social scientists moved out into the world to focus on behavior and practices in their real or natural locations, but now with new communication media we can move back into another kind of lab where we can engage with a much wider range of people in a virtual space (a kind of lab) asking them to reflect on their behaviors, practices, decisions, and potential outcomes (a kind of naturalized perspective). 

The article is worth much, just for the bibliography alone.  Harthorn's close connection with the development of this field--the social study of nanotechnology--has given her access to a vast amount of the material that is being released on this topic.  She shares her riches generously with the reader. 

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David J. Gunkel ... To Tell the Truth...

This image was selected as a picture of the we...Image via WikipediaI am returning to a project I had started earlier, before semester intervened, and that is the close reading of The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research (2011, Oxford University Press) edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber.  Yes, I am still working on the first section:  Emergent Technologies in a Broad Social Research Context. 

This morning I re-read David J. Gunkel's article:  "To Tell the Truth:  The Internet and Emergent Epistemological Challenges in Social Research" (47-64).  Gunkel, who is at Northern Illinois University in the Department of Communication, has written a trim little essay that struggles with "truthiness" (an emergent Internet term he introduces us to in the beginning of the piece) as it is raised by the Internet and our new virtual lives. 

Gunkel is clearly a skilled teacher, as demonstrated by the careful way he introduces problems for us to chew on--from our day-to-day life (TV shows, Internet episodes) in juxtaposition to the classical stories or problems raised by philosophers (Plato's Cave; Heidegger's example of a statement about a picture being askew).  As I read, I felt myelf weaving thoughtfully back and forth between the worlds of popular and intellectual thought, and this is the hallmark of the best philosophical writing.  

He opens with the problems of truth that the Internet has raised for us--what, for instance, makes Wikipedia truthful?  If it is open to be edited by anyone how/why, should we believe it as a source of truth?  The essay lays the foundation for considering this issue through returning to "the correspondence theory of truth" that Gunkel contends underlies all Western thinking.  Simply stated:  "the accuracy of an assertion to the thing about which the assertion is made" (50). 

What follows is the proverbial opening of the can of worms:   There are serious problems, Gunkel states, with the correspondence theory of truth.  It doesn't account, for example, for theories that are developed and used as truths before we can actually verify them with a comparison to the real (string theory in physics).  Nor does it account for the fact that many things we think are verified by the correspondence theory are actually a maze of reports on reports of the thing...not the actual comparison to the real again (Plato's cave is raised here and reference to the problem of identity cross-dressing on the internet). 

He presents two possible alternatives to the limitations of the correspondence of truth:  pragmatism and Heidegger's notion of "unhiddenness".  Pragmatism brings to the table the honoring of the process by which knowledge is created, and a recognition of "mental abstractions and other things" (p. 56...a la William James) as critical elements of truth.  Heidegger's concerns with "unhiddenness" also help to account for the value of ideas, theories, and descriptions that describe a thing, and through that description, create the meaning we attribute to it--or the truth by which it is seen and known.  Both of these perspectives are grounded in the social, cultural, intellectual contexts in which we are placed and the thing we wish to know is placed. 

In concluding, Gunkel's resolution to this issue of truth and the internet (and indeed the larger issue of truth as social scientists confront it in the digital age)  is that researchers must become explicity reflective about the process of knowing.

It is a method of research that makes its own protocols and procedures an object of its continually conceptualizes the place from which one professes to know anything and submits to investigation the particular position that is occupied by any epistemological claim whatsoever (62)

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Publication in "Qualitative Inquiry"

I am extremely happy to announce that I have just had an article published in Qualitative Inquiry. 
Judith Davidson

1 January 2012; Vol. 18, No. 1

This publication makes me particularly happy because "The Journal Project" and the Exhibit that grew out of it seemed like such risky work.  It was risky to study self in this way.  It was risky to fool with arts-based research.  It was risky to consider exhibiting--going really public in the way that I did.  
My thanks to Norman Denzin and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry (ICQI)  for believing in my work and supporting me, as a qualitative researcher, to try the risky.  I was able to push my personal boundaries as a qualitative researcher.  I have come through the experience better able to engage with many qualitative research topics from a new and more informed perspective. 

QRN Brown Bag December 13: Steve Tello and Yi Yang

University of Massachusetts LowellImage via WikipediaTello and Yang presented the last Qualitative Resarch Network Brown Bag on the UMass-Lowell campus for the Fall 2011 semester.  The topic "How Nascent Entrepreneurs Leverage Networks in a University Network" drew a large audience from many corners of campus. 

The two are working with cases drawn from a university incubator for medical devices.  They found significant distinctions among the case examples, particularly between entrepreneurs who had prior experience with full product development processes and those who did not. 

What I particularly enjoyed in their presentation is their discussion of their process as qualitative researchers.  The description of how submitting to a presentation and getting feedback helped them to hone in on their analysis issues was very helpful. 

As in any field, even when a methodology is accepted (and in business qualitative research is a newer acquisition) each reader will come with their own pre-conceptions of that methodology.  We discussed the ways this affects the journal review process.

I can't wait to see where they will go next with this research.  I am sure there is going to be more to come.

Speaking of more to come...the Qualitative Research Network also has more to come in the next semester.  Plans are afoot for another great semester.  

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mobile Apps And Qualitative Research

English: A red Samsung Mobile Phone Svenska: E...Image via Wikipedia

Follow this link to learn about a challenge for the development of social justice apps.  The winners will be presented at this upcoming conference. 

3rd International Conference on Mobile Communication on Development in New Delhi 28-29 February 2012!

I dipped into some of the ideas that have been offered and was quite intrigued.  These have a lot of relationship to qualitative research/action research/collaborative action research and the ways people can use mobile applications for research. 

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