Several critical challenges are emerging in writing about data collection procedures and data analysis procedures – a necessary hurdle through which I must jump in writing a proposal. These challenges center primarily around 3 issues: 1. How does the very study of digital identity occur across multiple platforms? 2. What is representation of these digital identities mean from the perspective of complexity theory? and 3. What is analysis in a complexivist epistemological position?
How to actually study Digital Identity
One of the key issues I find with much of the current research on digital identity is a reductionistic tendency. By this, I mean that researchers have limited our understanding of digital identity by bounding studies to singular platforms (Facebook, MySpace, blogs, personal websites, multi-user domains, etc.) and often times to physically bounded locations as well (users at a particular school, university, or college; a particular classroom; a specific residence hall, etc.). These studies are important, but also limiting since they fail to capture the relationship of users who often engage across multiple platforms simultaneously.
The simultaneity of engagement is one issue I’m attempting to address in this research. Only by understanding, interrogating, or examining user presence across multiple platforms can we truly begin to understand the relationship an individual user may have with each of these various platforms individually. More importantly, it is my contention that only through examination of identity across platform context that we might actually begin to see a more holistic image of how identity is shaped across multiple contexts in real-time. In other words, how identity emerges across digital space.
To deal with this simultaneity of engagement and existence, I’m drawing on the work of Christine Hines (2009) who discusses the importance of immersion and multi-sited study. While Hines (2009) draws from a research tradition that might best be categorized as ethnography (or digital ethnography), her concepts of immersion and multi-sited study speak to the importance of embracing a more holistic approach to the study of digital identity across multiple social media platforms that are mediating our experience of/about/with identity (Markham & Baym, 2009).
Though my research will allow me to be immersed in the digital social media platforms of several college students, one limitation I already anticipate is the problem of representation. Osberg, Biesta and Cilliers (2008) talk about this problem in relation to complexity theory. Western, empirical, positivist science has produced the theories and conceptual models we use to make sense of our world. These theories and models are helpful in examining the metapatterns we observe through existence, but they also are, according to Biesta and Cilliers, reductionistic and limiting in their very existence. Why? Precisely because the world is not representable. Representation presupposes stasis, predictability, linearity. But the real world is constantly evolving, shifting, in disequilibrium, emerging in real time.
Therefore, there is no true way to represent through the research process the findings of the research. This is a deeply discomfiting proposition. And it relates directly to the third and most important emergent issue:
What is Analysis?
I’ve spent several days this week digesting ideas and questions raised in a recent issue of Qualitative Studies in Education. This particular issue was a special edition discussing the possibilities and questions about the new materialism and post-qualitative research and analysis, particularly in relation to educational research. These ideas speak to me, my positionality as a complexivist, and also to my research. The central theme in the pieces that I’ve read might be encapsulated by the question: how do we conduct research in a post-humanist and post-qualitative space?
Taguchi (2013) speaks most prophetically to this question of analysis. In talking about the analysis of interview data conducted with other graduate students, she discusses how though intention was to do post-qualitative analysis, her and the team “. . .still got caught up in the taken-for-granted images of thinking and doing analysis” (p. 706). Overcoming this instinct to set a methodology and analysis that will return to a “root text,” or what I read as a comfortable and representational position, is incredibly challenging for her and the other students. The discomfort can only be overcome, it appears, by trusting the process and continually seeking to disrupt this almost reflexive need we have as researchers to want to analyze and represent. This belief is rooted in the Western scientific belief that we can truly come to “know” something – the area of our inquiry.
Mazzei (2013) extends this discussion about analysis in an important way, dissecting and employing an idea of research and analysis as entanglement. For Mazzei, the entanglement is part of the post-humanist and post-qualitative push away from studying a human “subject,” to a more holistic vision of research. She states “. . .there can no longer be a division between a field of reality (what we ask, what our participants tell us, and the places we inhabit), a field of representation (research narratives constructed after the interview), and a field of subjectivity (participants and researchers). Instead, these are to be thought of as existing together simultaneously” (Mazzei, 2013, p. 736). This moves us to a new place in the very conception and act of research (and therefore analysis): the “. . .entanglement of researcher-data-participants-theory-analysis” (Mazzei, 2013, p. 734). In other words, research is analysis.
If research is analysis, then being is research. This is what Jackson (2013) argues in her piece about analysis in a post-humanist and post-qualitative world. What are we really researching? If the human subject is no longer the sole entity being researched in a post-humanist world, what are we studying, and how do we analyze our area of inquiry? What Jackson (2013) offers is a viewpoint built on Pickering’s discussion of the mangle, which “. . .encourages a shift in social science from ‘epistemology to ontology, from representation to performativity, agency, and emergence’ (Pickering, 2002, p. 414)” (Jackson, 2013, p. 747). In being, we are in the mangle, as Jackson (2013) says, and our analysis is an ongoing process not restricted by linear pre-determined steps, but rather through process, through emergence, through being.
The real issue
How does one write this in a dissertation as the analytical lens? These positions fit precisely with the larger conception of research as bricolage, and my own positionality as a complexivist researcher. Yet, as experienced by Taguchi (2013) and her team, the pull back toward establishing an analytic procedure is real, it is strong, and it is difficult to counteract, especially in the dissertation writing process. How will the committee, or the outside world, react to this post-qualitative, post-humanist, non-representational, mangle-theory-epistemological-rhizomatic-disembodied-ontological-model-analytical perspective?
Hines, C. (2009). How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects? In A.N. Markham & N.K. Baym (Eds.), Internet inquiry: Conversations about method (pp. 1-20). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Jackson, A.Y. (2013). Posthumanist data analysis of mangling practices. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 741-748.
Markham, A.N. & Baym, N.K. (Eds.). (2009). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Mazzei, L.A. (2013). A voice without organs: Interviewing in posthumanist research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 732-740.
Osberg, D., Biesta, G. & Cilliers, P. (2008). From representation to emergence: Complexity’s challenge to the epistemology of schooling. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), 213-227.
Taguchi, H.L. (2013). Images of thinking in feminist materialisms: Ontological divergences and the production of researcher subjectivities. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 706-716.