Conceptualising ethnographic notes and Paul Hepburn’s Talk on “the Internet and local governance” (15 January 2010)

In the last session of the research module, we looked into how to theorise and conceptualise qualitative data.

Students have been posting their “people-watching” experiences in different urban places: gym, football stadium, commuters trains, and pubs. From the kind of fields the students entered and the notes they’ve written, I can also guess their lifestyles, beliefs, preferences and tastes. Not much privacy for them, unfortunately.

To help conceptualise these data they’ve collected, I thought we could draw on some published paper around these milieus. Sport seems to be a common topic. So I suggested:

Crossley, N. (2006) In the Gym: Motives, Meanings and Moral Careers, Body and Society.

Sport, like any other social /leisure activities, is socially constructed. Places like gym, football stadium or even trains supposed to be social places that people interact (or not), sociallise (or not), demonstrate their individuality (or not). There has been a lot of research done on identity (e.g., associating football with British identity), on football hooliganism, on class, on gender, on races and ethnicity, and on disability etc. Sociology is an amazing discipline. You can look into something from so many different perspectives.

We walked through their data: so much you could talk about just by looking at who’s around, how they look like, what they wear, what they are doing/talking, and given that this is a “Social Media” programme, we can talk about what (mobile) technologies they are carrying and using as well (e.g., iPod, smart phones, mobile phones, digital cameras). The space itself is also a very interesting research subject – how the space and the set-up afford visitors to do certain things but not other things (e.g., a TV in a pub helps socialising, or not?).

Several interesting research topics have emerged from our discussion. For example,

– Why people enter a pub which is already very crowded? Why don’t they go somewhere else?

– Why there are more men than women going to see football matches?

– Why don’t people want to meet their colleagues in the gym?

Other than research topics, the real-life ethnographic experiences also instigate some interesting issues research ethics. For example, the student who did the fieldwork at pubs mentioned that she didn’t feel safe when going to pubs. It’s important to bear in mind that there’s no need of jeopardising one’s safety for fieldwork. One should always put his/her safety (and other people’s safety as well) first when entering the field.

There’s another issue about revealing one’s identity. When asked whether she’d reveal her identity as an ethnographers to those working out in the gym, the students said “no”. “Well, Nick Crossley didn’t disclose his researcher identity either in the gym”, said one of the students. They thought that since they were not going to “interview” those people, it doesn’t matter if they just hanged out there and have some little chat. “But how if later on you have to interview some people? Would it be too late disclosing your identity at that stage given that you’ve been hanging around for quite a while without telling people who you are and what you are doing? Perhaps people would not trust you anymore?”, I asked. They still thought announcing the researcher’s presence doesn’t matter too much in those cases. And they also thought that once their identity is disclosed, perhaps they would not observe “normal” behaviours in the field any longer – would people really behave differently when they notice they’ve been watched by an ethnographer? Anyway, more food for thought.

It was fun to discuss the empirical data – as always. But it’s time to close this semester’s research module.

I’d like to thank Paul Hepburn to share his very interesting PhD research on e-Democracy / network democracy. His talk titled “An Internet mediated domain of local governance?” was very well-received. He not only presented the very fresh findings, but more importantly, he covered how his research has been conceived and conducted in such details that students found it very useful. After all, research processes are often ignored or made invisible after a project is completed. But the newcomers would like to know how it’s like, how research is like. Well, it’s never linear.

I also appreciate that there were three external students attended Paul Hepburn’s talk. They were from the School of the Built Environment, ESPACH, and the University of Manchester. I hope to organise more “guest lectures” (well, you can call them seminars, if you like) for research students at Greater Manchester to meet and to share thoughts.

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