As a researcher, have you considered how the many things assisting you with your research—laptop, wireless internet, email, data analysis and visualization software, digital recorder, voice recognition software, digitized transcripts, multimedia files, academia.org, backup systems, digital calendars—may also be silently shaping your scholarly practices?
Cathy Adams (University of Alberta, Canada) and I are interested in how such thingly gatherings serve in co-constituting and enacting professional practices. In a recent paper (Thompson & Adams, 2013), and our presentation at the Networked Learning Conference 2014 (Adams & Thompson, 2014), we examined digital technologies increasingly intertwined with social science research work and practices.
Calling on Actor Network Theory (ANT), phenomenology, and other approaches undergirding human-technology studies and posthuman theorizing, our disentangling of the digital materialities of qualitative inquiry involved “interviewing” digital objects—a recording device, a digital camera, an iPod, and a software program—recruited at different stages of several contemporary research projects. We used heuristics we developed for interviewing nonhuman research participants (see Adams & Thompson, 2011) and revised and applied these to the digital things of qualitative research practices.
We suggest that these digital entities—coded materialities—participate as co-researchers that transform, extend and support but also deform, disrupt and circumscribe research practices, inevitably introducing new tensions and contradictions.
In decoding our networked selves, the taken-for-granted and often “silenced” nonhuman research crew supporting our efforts suddenly becomes apparent. Like our human research assistants, it seems important that we take time to interview the assemblage involved in enacting research practices before “we” set off.
Such immersive entanglements ultimately raise new questions about new kinds of digital—or indeed, posthumanist—fluencies demanded in social science research practice. We highlight four such fluencies here.
One fluency is reckoning with how our agency as researchers is increasing shared with digital technologies/coded materialities. Although some technology-human entanglements may be deliberate, we suspect practices also change in far more subtle ways with the tentacles of other “distant” actors and practices making themselves manifest closer to home. These entanglements introduce new ethical tensions and responsibilities into research practice.
Second, new fluencies may also be called into play as the researcher’s work is potentially both deskilled and up-skilled. De-skilling as some research practices are downloaded to digital co-researchers. But also up-skilling: for example, interfacing with digital devices and working with the encoded data being generated demands sophisticated digital curation skills.Lucas Introna (2007) writes about the seductive practices of delegation: we always delegate more than we realize and while we can appreciate the gains in usefulness, efficiency, or convenience, awareness of the subtle changes in our ongoing way of being emerges over longer periods of time. This second fluency focuses on how we address (or even anticipate) these kinds of shifts in practice.
Third, when data is viewed not as frozen but lively and mobile, new enactments and understandings of data are possible. What are the implications of thinking of data not as a “thing” but instead as something more relational and performative?
Fourth, the scale, mobility, and spaces of research are being radically reconfigured as they become more distributed, public, and fragmented. These new spatial configurations bring both challenges and opportunities that require navigation and negotiation.
Last winter Cathy and I moderated an online Hot Seat in the lead up to the 2014 Networked Learning Conference. Several “points of friction” were identified in these conversations as folks shared how they were coping with these new digital fluencies:
- being defined (at times) by the particular technologies with which we keep company in our professional practices
- practices that are less “techie” may be considered old-fashioned or even less objective
- some technologies could be considered domesticated (and even more invisible) while others have an aura of the exotic (and wrapped up in a level of rhetoric that can be difficult to wade through)
- researchers make decisions to outsource particular research tasks to technologies while also keeping other tasks closer to hand
- there is a speeding up of research practices but also a desire and need to do “slow” research.
Open for discussion is how these—and other—increasingly complex posthumanist fluencies are entangled in the professional work and learning practices of researchers, how to make them more visible, and how to acknowledge and address them.
Adams, C., and Thompson, T. L. (2014, April).Interviewing the digital materialities of posthuman inquiry: Decoding the encoding of research practices. Paper presented at the Ninth International Conference on Networked Learning, Edinburgh, Scotland. Retrieved from http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/info/confpapers.htm
Adams, C., & Thompson, T. L. (2011). Interviewing objects: Including educational technologies as qualitative research participants. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 24(6), 733-750.
Introna, L. (2007). Maintaining the reversibility of foldings: Making the ethics (politics) of information technology visible. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(1), 11–25.
Thompson, T. L., & Adams, C. (2013). Speaking with things: Encoded researchers, social data, and other posthuman concoctions. Distinktion: Scandinavian journal of social theory, 14(3), 342-361.