Paul Gooding’s review of DREaM event 2: workshop, Edinburgh 25 October 2011

The first DREaM workshop took place at Edinburgh Napier University on the 25 October 2011, with an excellent programme of speakers and the aim of developing a network of LIS researchers across the UK. One of the main reasons that I decided to attend was the opportunity to learn more about a wide range of research methodologies that could potentially influence my own research, and for this reason I thought I’d approach this review by reflecting on how I feel the talks from this session may influence my research. Firstly, though, I’d like to thank all the speakers for making the day so enjoyable and engaging: all the talks were both useful and entertaining. The programme of the workshop is available here.

In the first session of the day Dr Paul Lynch of Strathclyde University, introduced us to the field of ethnography. With some fascinating examples from the history of ethnographic studies, he outlined some of the methods that can be used to study people in cultures; I’m particularly eager to read more about the importance of punk cuisine (JSTOR subscription required) when I get the chance! The talk underlined two points that I found extremely valuable: the importance of reflexivity in the research process, and the need to avoid your own presence contaminating social interactions between participants. Both ethnography and technology user studies share a common difficulty in getting to the truth of a situation, and it’s been demonstrated in some studies that users will report the behaviour they think their interviewers want to hear. It’s essential, therefore, to design user studies with this in mind, and to challenge your own preconceptions in ensuring that the participants’ voices are heard rather than your own. It seems to me that these shared difficulties mean that ethnography could offer much to designers of user studies.

Dr Louise Cooke then introduced us to the concept of social network analysis. It’s essential to point out that this is not a technique concerned with researching social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. Instead, it’s a way of researching networks in order to analyse relationships between constituents, whether personal, business, transport or technical. Louise demonstrated the effectiveness of the technique through a quick game that demonstrated how interlinked the DREaM participants were, and it must be said that we currently demonstrate low levels of linking as a group. In order to help improve our results for the final week and of course to let you all know what I do, I’m studying the impact of large-scale digital collections on researchers, library professionals and publishers, and I would be happy to talk about the issues involved with anybody who is interested!

Professor Andy McKinlay led an extremely entertaining session on discourse analysis, a method for analysing discourse, for example as the spoken word, text. Discourse is produced not just for communication of information, but in order to perform certain social actions, and applying the methods of discourse analysis allows one to move beyond the words and look at the actions and rhetorical behaviours behind forms of communication. Again, it underlined to me the importance of reflexivity in my own research, and of planning interviews in a way to bring out the most effective answers.

Charles Oppenheim’s session on ethics and legal issues allowed us to consider the problems that arose from a series of real-life ethical conundrums such as: whether to filter literature reviews to match the demands of a supervisor; how to deal with an incompetent colleague; whether to accept gifts from potential contractors. Ethics is never a simple topic, but it’s absolutely essential to the work that we do as researchers. We may be dealing with vulnerable participants, sensitive personal data, confidential information or freedom of information requests, and it’s essential that we understand the ethical and legal implications of our work.

The most important thing that I took away from Edinburgh is how much we have to learn if we allow ourselves to look beyond our own areas of expertise. And we don’t have to abandon LIS research in order to achieve this: even if a certain methodology doesn’t seem right for your own project, there will certainly be something that will prove instructive and valuable. I’m a huge believer in interdisciplinary work as a way to increase the value of research, and I also believe that being exposed to so many fascinating fields can only improve my own work. I’m really looking forward to the remaining two workshops (in London on 30 January and Edinburgh on 25 April 2012), and hope that the sessions at these two later events prove to be as useful in widening my research horizons.

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