New Relationships: Our Experience of the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme 2013
(by Kim Osman and Ana Vimieiro)
Following on from the amazing experience that was the CCI Winter School, we decided it was time for a change of temperature and switched it up by travelling to Toronto for the Oxford Internet Institute’s Summer Doctoral Programme (OII SDP). Held at the iSchool at the University of Toronto, the SDP brought together 28 students from around the world for two weeks of seminars, workshops and collaboration.
It is difficult to overstate how valuable the SDP experience is, not only for the experiences and knowledge gained from being involved in such an intensive programme, but also for the relationships that were formed. In fact relationships seemed to be a key theme of the conference. Relationships between society and technology, between traditional and new methods, between researchers and the objects they study.
There was an incredibly diverse range of projects being undertaken by participants (from fields ranging from law to geography), however there was enough overlap among theoretical frameworks and perspectives that made feedback and engaging in conversation with our fellow participants a valuable and often enlightening experience. Among the student presentations there were a number of studies using Twitter data and some using Facebook data, however there were also a number of projects that focused on non-traditional or non-commercial parts of the internet such as peer-to-peer sharing, Bitcoin, Ushahidi, Open Street Map and citizen science. Among the projects there was also recognition of the mutual shaping effects of both technology and society, and that the relationships between different actors are complex and worthy of further investigation. There is a trend toward examining how the technologies we are researching are constructed, and by whom. For while we all acknowledge that we are drawing from a solid base of existing theory, we also recognise the need to critically analyse the theories we are using and how they apply particularly in relation to Internet Studies and our own projects.
Another relationship that stood out in the discussions was between traditional and innovative methodological approaches. Indeed, one of the visible commonalities among the students was this concern for techniques and tools, and this was also a recurring topic in the mentors’ presentations. For instance, Sara Grimes discussed how she approached the relationship between old and new methods using an interpretive and multi-method research design. Her approach combines content, design, discourse and textual analyses, with techniques such as interviews, observation, surveys and creative methods to investigate digital games.
Similarly, many of the participants are adopting a mixed-method perspective in their projects. Social network analysis, content analysis, in-depth interviews, surveys and so on: they were all mentioned, many as part of the same research design. Digital methods, the digitalisation of conventional processes (such as better practices for recording interviews and coding texts), and the combination of human research techniques with digital tools were all discussed. There was an interest in and openness to the possibilities and affordances of innovative methods and in combining these with more traditional approaches.
A more tenuous relationship and one that is still being negotiated, is the relationship between ourselves, as researchers, and the communities we study. As many of us are members of the community we are researching, questions were raised among participants about the ethics of engaging with community members and the artefacts they produce. Opinions varied both within the group and from the invited mentors as to what extent informed consent from community members is needed when undertaking such research. Is a forum discussion published text, or a personal conversation among members? Do you need to disclose your status as a researcher in one part of the community, when your research object is an unrelated part of that community? After considerable discussion, these are still very much open questions. Eric Meyer posed quite a nice way to frame these questions however – we need to think of the researchers who will come after us.
We therefore came home then with a myriad of things to reflect upon: research design, ethical issues, and our place and responsibilities as researchers in a wider social context. The SDP also provided us with the forum to engage with established scholars such as Barry Wellman (who gave the opening keynote), to SDP alumni who shared their experiences as emerging scholars who were not long ago sitting where we were. Even among the participants, who were all at varying stages of their research, there were different perspectives reflecting different academic traditions. We were challenged to think about our own research, think about the assumptions we are making, the perspectives and traditions we are continuing and those that we are questioning as new generation of researchers.
So in the end many new relationships were formed, the most valuable of those the friendships made among a group of outstanding and wonderful internet researchers from around the world who will be colleagues in the years to come. With such a variety of approaches, perspectives, experience and knowledge among the group it would in fact have been very strange if we had not come home with so many things to reflect upon! And that is pretty much what we have been doing since then.
If you enjoyed our brief account, check this link out: http://wiki.oii.ox.ac.uk/doku/doku.php/sdp:sdp2013:readings
It is the complete program, with abstracts for each session and suggested readings.