Research as Dialogue

Reflections on New Communication Technologies and the Possibilities for a Dialogical Anthropology by Mark Johnson, Nerys Roberts and Andrew Dawson, published in the online journal iNtergraph: journal of dialogic anthropology, volume 2, issue 2, 2009.

This blog is not particularly radical. People have been talking about more open ways of doing research for years. In fact, social science researchers have been embracing ‘participatory’ methods (where research participants get lots of power over the form and direction of research) for a couple of decades. But the opportunities for harnessing new communications technologies (NCTs) to engage in participatory research are relatively new.

The article by Johnson et al. explores some of the challenges and opportunities for using NCTs in anthropological research. They remind us that, as researchers we very often draw clear demarcations between “the users, producers, and subjects of anthropological knowledge”. So, for example: an academic produces a piece of writing; students, the educated public, or other academics use that knowledge; and the people who were studied are simply passive subjects for those folks to talk about. Do you feel as uncomfortable about that as Johnson et al. and I do? They, and I, hope that NCTs might open up possibilities for overcoming these divides. In their words:

…it is beholden upon us to incorporate more effectively the subjects of, or more appropriately, the participants in our studies into both the making and use of anthropological knowledge.

with the hope that:

…the schisms between the subjects, producers and users of knowledge [will] begin to dissolve.

But there are a couple of things they warn us about, too. One of the dangers of being open about the multiple people and voices involved in a project, they suggest, is that the researcher can sidestep being accountable for the research. I also wonder whether this openness also has implications for the way we think about the amount of work the researcher has to do. If the process is thought about as being ‘driven by the participants’, then the researcher could (possible, although I’ve never seen this happen) sidestep responsibility for the work of co-ordination, analysis and dissemination. I’m wondering at the moment whether thinking about research as a service to and for the participants overcomes some of these challenges. Your thoughts would be welcome!

Johnson et al. also draw attention to the fact that the Internet, while available to many, isn’t available to everyone. And that the Internet itself can be a tool used to dominate and suppress rather than a tool of freedom. So, if I want to do really open research, a blog on-line won’t be enough, although hopefully it will be a good starting point.

…is the internet any more inclusive if the people whose lives one is writing about have little or no access to, or knowledge of how to use, the internet, or do they simply become the focus of further exoticization through internet user groups, etc.?

Finally, they suggest NCTs open up interesting possibilities for the form research can take. Most research is written up as books or journal articles. Sometimes visual media (photos, art work etc) are used. The Internet not only provides opportunities for multimedia research output, but it also provides the opportunity for non-linear analysis, interpretation, and review. It could be more like going to an art gallery and choosing your own path through the art work, than sitting down with a glossy art book and turning the pages in a prescribed order. Sounds like fun – and more authentically true to life – to me. Does anyone know of research that’s tried to do this?!

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