Over the last week I’ve posted every day about the ethnographic research I was doing at the Tate Summer School, research carried out with the Tate Schools and Teachers team. Why? Why did I interrupt my normal flow of writing about academic writing and research with a set of posts about my own research? Why was I blogging my research at all?
A lot of people tell me that they are worried about posting about research that is so clearly work in progress. But I want to convince you that there are some good reasons to do so, particularly if you’re doing qualitative work with real live people. And here’s a few of them:
(1) it’s a good record. Writing a blog post forces me to focus on providing a straightforward account of what went on each day. I have to choose the key points and write them succinctly. The posts form part of the data that I have – this is just a fairly simple diary-like account of the sequence of events.
(2) a summary gets done. It’s very easy, after a busy day taking notes and pictures and talking with people, to come back to where you’re staying and put the notebook away, saying to yourself that you’ll work on writing your notes out some time later that night. But you usually don’t. Blogging provides good research (self)-discipline.
(3) the post is often a better account than the field notes. Notes taken while participating and observing are always a bit sketchy. Writing something immediately after you leave your site means that you can use your short-term memory to fill in any gaps. If you wait you may in fact forget some key details. And in the post you do, of course, have to start to sort out what is important and what’s not. You edit out some of the extraneous details you have in your notes – and images. (Why did I take a shot of the the dirty dishes, I must have been thinking about something at the time!).
(4) it’s an easy way to keep a record of things to follow up. A blog post offers you the opportunity to link though to other organisations, people, reading, “stuff”, which were part of the day. You can then pursue these in more detail later. You don’t forget what they were or struggle to recreate them from your notes.
And I’ve found that:
(5) participants and research partners like to read the posts each day too. It not only works for you but also works for them as a record of what’s gone on and what resources, people, organisations and “stuff” they used – so they can follow these up too.
(6) participants know more about what you’re doing. We all read our institutional ethics forms about checking with participants and keeping them informed, but this is often not taken very seriously IMHO. A daily post goes a little way to telling people what youre doing, and…
(7) a post can lead to good conversations with participants. if something is online, people can read it and then – tell you’ve got something wrong, or disagree with you, or discuss something further or tell you what they think. If your notes are locked away in your notebook, then this kind of responsive conversation is less easy to begin.
(8) the telling of the events as they’ve just happened has “live-ness” which is often missing from accounts which are heavily processed long after the event has happened (see “Live methods” by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar)
(9) blog readers may get some ideas of their own from reading about your work (I’ve just been contacted by one of my colleagues who is going to play with GIFs and zines on the back of yesterday’s post.)
BUT of course there are some parameters you have to establish around your live research blogging.
You need ethical permissions – participants need to know you’re blogging. And if you use pictures then you must get specific consent.
You’ll have to work out who you name and who you don’t. In my posts I follow a convention of naming key people (artists and co-researchers) and leaving everyone else as “participants”. But I show participants’ pictures, with permission, so they are not entirely anonymous – but I don’t actually attribute particular ideas and opinions to any one in particular.
And I don’t put anything that might be controversial or harmful to anyone or the organisations involved.
You have to sort out the purpose of the posts, and this dictates the content and style. My posts are a form of audit trail, as I’ve explained, and they are straightforward accounts/recounts of events. But of course I’m writing blog posts for a wider audience, not just myself or the immediate research participants. So I do raise a few questions that I know might be of more general interest. I don’t write too much either. The posts can’t be too long. I also try to put in a few images that themselves are a little informative. I don’t see my live research blogging as the place to start conducting an analysis or having a theoretical discussion – but that might be appropriate for you. The trick is to work out, before you start posting, what you want to do, why and what might interest potential readers.
If you’re going to post regularly while you’re researching you do need to allow the time to do this. I got up at 6 30 each day and wrote a post about the events that happened the day before.
You also need to make sure you have the right gear to do what you want – good internet, a decent keyboard, the capacity to get images into posts without too much time-consuming faffing about. I used a mini ipad this time round, and it was a great deal less heavy than lugging a note book and camera around, but it was a lot more irritating writing and publishing the actual posts.
And did I say already you have to be well organised and committed? Starting a blog about your daily research and then not doing it sends a negative message to your participants, telling them you have good intentions but cant follow through. Not what you want them to think when you’re still in the middle of your research!
So do think carefully about whether blogging your research is for you. But I’d certainly urge you to consider it.