Tag Archives: research

Using Hybrid Methods to Study Digital Media

In this topic series on media skills for scholars, we have focused on using digital media to communicate your research and measure your online impact. But what about researching digital media itself?

Digital scholarship has quickly become a major area of study in the social sciences. Studying such an interactive, dynamic and ever-changing field can be challenging, but fortunately for researchers, there is often a record. As with most social science research, digital research usually falls into either the quantitative or qualitative camp. Endless debates have pitted the two approaches against each other but, as with the great peanut butter – chocolate debate, they can go great together!

Ethnographic content analysis is a hybrid methodology that draws from both of these approaches and is very adaptable to the digital field. Ethnographic content analysis, or ECA for short, was developed by media scholar David Altheide in the late 1980s to study television news coverage of the Iran hostage crisis from 1979-1981. He argued that while conventional quantitative-focused content analysis is useful for revealing patterns and big-picture information, it leaves out room for more the nuanced interpretations that qualitative methods elicit.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 12.12.51 AMTypically, content analysis is a linear, step-wise projection from data collection to analysis to interpretation, while an ethnographic approach is reflexive and circular. Aiming to meet in the middle, ECA is “systematic and analytic, but not rigid” (Altheide 1987). As with conventional content analysis, information is organized by categories and sub-categories, but with an ethnographic approach, other categories are “allowed and expected to emerge throughout the study.” As any qualitative researcher will tell you, the most interesting findings are often the unexpected ones.

For example, in reviewing TV news coverage, Altheide noticed that while the hostages’ families were a part of the story from the beginning, they became more prominent over time. This had to do, in part, with media access. Families were often willing to be extensively interviewed on camera, and a group of families formed a quasi-organization with articulate spokespeople. Had he not been analyzing data qualitatively as well as quantitatively, he likely would have missed these contextual factors that shaped and influenced TV coverage, or there may not have been a place for this interpretation to “fit” in a conventional content analysis.

The digital field offers so much data, both quantitative and qualitative, and ECA is a highly effective approach for handling both of these. For example, I studied personal blogs written by women with Multiple Sclerosis. Gathering quantitative data, such as the number, frequency and length of posts; images and multimedia; and examining blog architecture demonstrated patterns of activity, topical themes, and design choices, and gave me an overall sense of my sample. I then selected a subset of posts to analyze in more depth, paying closer attention to not just what bloggers wrote about but how they wrote about: Was their blog more information-focused or personal? What was the “tone” of their writing (humorous? serious? what did they complain about?)? Did they write about everyday life or significant events?

Looking at the focus of their blogs revealed that the bloggers saw themselves as having different “roles.” For example, some considered themselves as translators of complex medical information for a general audience. They felt a responsibility to make sure the information was reliable and were diligent about citing sources and providing links.

MS Renegade Front


Looking at the tone of their writing (the how), and not just the content (the what) demonstrated that there were different narratives, some that conformed to social expectations about how a personal with serious illness should act (i.e. putting on a sunny face) and some that challenged these expectations and took an activist stance.

I also reexamined and interpreted images and graphics. Some bloggers posted pictures of themselves, their families, and their pets, and provided ways to contact them, while others were not as forthcoming in these ways, indicating varying levels of comfort with a public identity.

The ECA I conducted was the first phase of a three-part mixed method study, which also included a survey and online discussion forum. The information I gathered helped me craft the subsequent survey and discussion questions and guide the rest of the study. The results served as a foundation to which I returned again and again during data analysis. As I found, ECA is a well-rounded and adaptable research method for the digital field, which can be used both on its own and in tandem with other methods.

Peanut Butter – Chocolate; Chocolate – Peanut Butter. Either way, they work well together.

collette-portraitThis post was written by Collette Sosnowy (@SOsnowyNYC). She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center and is the Project Manger for JustPublics@365. She likes both chocolate AND peanut butter.

Flickr for Visual Data Research and Analysis

In the spring term of 2013, CUNY sociology Professors Juan Battle and Bill Kornblum offered a unique course called CUNY As a Lab, in which MA and PhD students at the Graduate Center conducted research about CUNY itself. Together, the class documented the wide variation in student experience across the wide array of CUNY institutions. JustPublics@365 helped CUNY As a Lab students collect, store, share, and analyze visual data using the online digital photo storing and sharing site Flickr. While there are many ways to collect and store visual data, I want to highlight some of the tools that made Flickr especially useful for research and teaching.

How did we use Flickr?

In small groups, CUNY As a Lab students used multiple research methods to profile each of the 23 CUNY colleges. They profiled campuses using history, ethnography, demographic analysis, interviews, and observations about campus space. As students conducted research on their respective campuses they uploaded pictures to a Flickr account shared by everyone in the class. Photos from each campus were grouped into “sets”. In order to preserve confidentiality of research participants, the Flickr account was kept private so only students in the class could see it.

Why visual data?

Visual data is different from “data visualization” which usually involves representing abstracted quantitative data in creative ways. The visual data collected by CUNY As a Lab students was digital photographs which students analyzed for clues about life on any given CUNY campus. Because the Flickr account was shared, students could also analyze each other’s photos during the research process for insight into what their peers thought was important to document. This helped students to generate ideas about what they wanted to capture in their photos.

Why Flickr?

Flickr is a great place to store photos if only because it is free, open, and easy to use. It allows users to choose from a range of licenses for each of their photos, including a license which allows people to contribute to a commons of photos with “no known restrictions” which can be used and shared by anyone. Often people don’t know that the photos they find using a Google image search can’t necessarily be used and shared freely due to copyright restrictions.  Flickr offers many open access photos, and makes it clear which ones are free to use and which aren’t.

Beyond being a great place to store photos, Flickr offers a number functions which make it a potentially rich tool for pedagogy and research practice. For the purposes of CUNY As a Lab we focused on annotating, tagging, mapping, and sorting photos into sets. As students uploaded photos to their campus sets, they came up with tags which conveyed themes that were represented in their photos.

Tagging is kind of the equivalent of coding.  That is, the process by which social researchers identify and keep track of themes in their qualitative data shares much in common with “tagging” in social media. After students had tagged (or, coded) their photos they could click on any given tag and a Flickr-generated group of photos with the same tag from all campus sets was produced. This allowed students to compare themes like “common area,” “leisure,” “activities,” and “security” across campuses. The following Flickr-generated tag cloud indicates the range of tags students came up with:

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Another feature offered by Flickr is the opportunity to annotate photos. If tagging photos is like coding, annotating is like taking field notes. Some students made notes on particular sectioned-off parts of their photos to draw attention to what they thought was important about the photo. Flickr allows notes to be tagged by theme and linked together. We didn’t take full advantage of that in CUNY As a Lab, but here’s a link to a great idea for an exercise that does.

One of the most visually compelling outcomes of the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab was the  Flickr-generated map of New York City with CUNY campus locations tagged. Here’s a frame which encompasses all the locations tagged in photos of CUNY City College:

Flickr Maps function

Flickr Maps function


Most students who responded to my survey of the class reported that they hadn’t collected visual data for research purposes before their CUNY As a Lab research, and all agreed that the collection and coding of visual data enhanced their projects. One student commented that:

[Using Flickr] “gave me an additional frame of reference when thinking back and analyzing my data.”

Most responded that they had spent time looking at each others’ photos during the research process and that the open, collaborative nature of the Flickr account enhanced their own research. The process wasn’t perfect.  A number of students commented that there could have been more parameters set for the collection of photos. One great suggestion that emerged from the class survey was that the instructor could specify a set of tags or themes beforehand that students would then go out and look for. As one student commented, this could make for a more cohesive research and photo-browsing experience.

Students used photos in their final presentations about each campus. The following slides are from CUNY As a Lab students Rachael Benavidez and Amy Blair’s final presentation about CUNY Community Colleges in Queens. Many students chose to document the outdoor spaces of their respective campuses, which made for really interesting comparisons of the range of physical environments on CUNY campuses:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

In the slide below, the same students captured a theme that was reiterated in their interview data, that access to advisement is slow and difficult at both LaGuardia and Queensborough Community Colleges:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

While we know that photos enhance our ability to communicate ideas, the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab suggests that the process of collecting, coding, and organizing photos can also be useful before the presentation stage. Organizing visual data can be an opportunity for a class to collaboratively clarify and organize their ideas, and learn from each other’s work in the process.

If you’re interested in this technique and would like to learn how to take better photos with your mobile device, you might consider taking one of these workshops designed to help you do that: Smart Photos with Smartphones.

Smart Phones and Academic Research

For academics, smartphone cameras can be used to gather and document information during field research, augment presentations, and connect to a wider audience through the myriad of communities online. Scholars in fields as different as clinical medicine and art are using smartphone technology to not only aid in research but also to share their findings with people who would not otherwise be engaged with their academic research. We’ve put together a list of some examples below.

(Photo from Flicker Creative Commons)

Pelckmans, Lotte. (2009). Phoning anthropologists: the Mobile Phone’s reshaping of anthropological research,” in Mobile phones: The new talking drums of everyday Africa, 23-49.

Pelckmans addresses the new methodological options of the phone as a multiple tool (visual, archiving, recording, broadcasting) and its potential as a research assistant.

Baker, C., Schleser, M., & Molga, K. (2009). Aesthetics of mobile media art. Journal of Media Practice, 10(2-3), 2-3.

In this article, three London-based creative practitioners examine the new emerging possibilities of mobile media in the domain of art and media practice. The three practice-based research projects reflect their diverse backgrounds and perspectives within the emerging field of mobile media, in an effort to define the new genre of mobile media art aesthetics. Despite the different approaches towards working with mobile media, a shared original aesthetic emerges specific to the mobile phone. The article focuses on the pixilated, low-resolution mobile screen aesthetic, interface, production processes and uses, made possible by the mobile phone, revealing their contribution to the field of screen media in the decade of HD. Within the collaborative examination of the work, the authors attempt to define an emerging category of Mobile Media Art.

Clinical Medicine
Jayaraman, C., Kennedy, P., Dutu, G., & Lawrenson, R. (2008). Use of mobile phone cameras for after-hours triage in primary care. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 14(5), 271-274.

Mobile phone images might be useful in after-hours triage of primary care. We conducted a study to identify population access to mobile phone cameras and to assess the clinical usefulness of mobile phone cameras. The survey was conducted among 480 patients attending two rural New Zealand practices. There were significantly more Maori owners compared to non-Maori (P = 0.002). Age was a significant factor influencing the ownership of mobile phones. We also conducted a clinical quiz among health professionals to assess how the provision of images on a mobile phone and on CD-ROM (to simulate the image that would be seen if email was used to transmit the images) influenced diagnostic confidence. Ten photographable clinical conditions were used to quiz 30 health professionals who were randomized into three groups of 10 each on diagnostic confidence. Images were found to significantly increase diagnostic confidence in all cases except one. It appears that mobile phone cameras are generally acceptable to patients and likely to be of practical use to rural practitioners in a range of clinical scenarios. 

Early Childhood Education
Plowman, L., & Stevenson, O. (2012). Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives. Childhood, 19(4), 539-553.

This article describes a novel approach to experience sampling as a response to the challenges of researching the everyday lives of young children at home. Parents from 11 families used mobile phones to send the research team combined picture and text messages to provide ‘experience snapshots’ of their child’s activities six times on each of three separate days. The article describes how the method aligns with an ecocultural approach, illustrates the variation in children’s experiences and provides sufficient detail for researchers to adapt the method for the purposes of collecting data in other contexts. The article summarizes the benefits and shortcomings from the perspectives of families and researchers. 

Beddall-Hill, N. L., Jabbar, A., & Al Shehri, S. (2011). Social mobile devices as tools for qualitative research in education: iPhones and iPads in ethnography, interviewing, and design-based research. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, 7(1), 67-89.

This paper’s focus is on the development of research methodologies to investigate learning in higher education. These methodologies have made use of Social Mobile Devices (SMD) for data collection, a relativity new concept in qualitative research. The paper provides examples of practice linked with discussions from the Learning Without Frontiers Conference 2011 (LWF 2011) around the constraints, affordances, and ethical issues inherent in the use of SMDs for research. While the researchers used Apple iPhones and Apple iPads, this should not limit the applicability of the paper to other devices. It is hoped that this paper will aid the development of these tools for research purposes in the future through wider discussion, use, and dissemination. Technological development of SMDs continues unabated, hence developing methodologies around their use is an important task that will enable researchers to take advantage of the future applications they provide, whilst being aware of their impact upon the research process.

Wells, K. (2011). The strength of weak ties: the social networks of young separated asylum seekers and refugees in London. Children’s Geographies, 9(3-4), 319-329.

This paper is about the social networks of young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees in London. It discusses the findings of a 12-month qualitative study using photo elicitation interviews with eight young refugees to explore their social networks. The analysis points to the potential of social networks to provide emotional and material support for young refugees and discusses the extent to which social capital flows through these networks. It explores the importance of place and gender in shaping their entry into and formation of these networks. It concludes that the formation of weak ties particularly to institutional actors is important in providing young refugees with access to material and cultural resources. 

Weng, Y. H., Sun, F. S., & Grigsby, J. D. (2012). GeoTools: An android phone application in geology. Computers & Geosciences.

GeoTools is an Android application that can carry out several tasks essential in geological field studies. By employing the accelerometer in the Android phone, the application turns the handset into a pocket transit compass by which users can measure directions, strike and dip of a bedding plane, or trend and plunge of a fold. The application integrates functionalities of photo taking, videotaping, audio recording, and note writing with GPS coordinates to track the location at which each datum was taken. A time-stamped file name is shared by the various types of data taken at the same location. Data collected at different locations are named in a chronological sequence. At the end of each set of operations, GeoTools also automatically generates an XML file to summarize the characteristics of data being collected corresponding to a specific location. In this way, GeoTools allows geologists to use a multimedia approach to document their field observations with a clear data organization scheme in one handy gadget. 

Reading, A. (2009). Mobile witnessing: ethics and the camera phone in the ‘war on terror’. Globalizations, 6(1), 61-76.

Some of the first images rapidly circulated globally in news media of the London Bombings on 7 July 2005 were taken by non-journalists using mobile camera phones. This paper explores some of the ethical issues raised by mobile phone witnessing in the ‘war on terror’. The article uses a performative approach to witnessing in which mobile testimony is seen in terms of performances and speech acts between different parties, including mute witnesses, the survivor witness and the witness(es) to the survivor (s). The approach enables us to see the significance of global mobilities and mobilizations in relation to ethics and mobile witnessing, rather than focusing only the ethics associated with the discrete mobile witness image itself. The article examines some of the global virtual traces and data trajectories on the World Wide Web associated with a mobile camera phone image taken by a witness survivor, Adam Stacey in the 7 July 2005 London Bombings. This suggests that mobile witnessing involves a fluid and travelling involvement in data capture, data sharing, and receipt, through global networks mobilized through multiple mobilities. Mobile witnessing has trajectories across and moments of emplacement between the self and the other, the individual and the group, the private and the public, the citizen and the professional journalist, the living body and the machine. In traversing the ordinary and the extraordinary, speech and speechlessness, mobile witnessing can involve engagement beyond mere spectatorship, establishing new ways of recording events in the ‘war on terror’.

Cox, R. J. (2007). Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference. First Monday, 12(11).

Technology is transforming the way in which researchers gain access to archives, not only in the choices archivists make about their uses of technology but in the portable technologies researchers bring with them to the archives. This essay reviews the implications of electronic mail, instant messaging and chat, digital reference services, Web sites, scanners, digital cameras, folksonomies, and various adaptive technologies in facilitating archival access. The new machines represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to support one of the main elements of their professional mission, namely, getting archival records used.

Smart phones are also being used in historical, archival research.  Here is a recent article from the NYT.

Information & Library Science
Boyer, D. (2010). From Internet to iPhone: providing mobile geographic access to Philadelphia’s historic photographs and other special collections. The Reference Librarian, 52(1-2), 47-56.

PhillyHistory.org contains more than 95,000 map and photographic records from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records and other local institutions, searchable and viewable by geographic location and other criteria. The Department of Records further expanded public access capabilities through the release of PhillyHistory.org optimized for smartphones, enabling users to view historic photos of a location as they stroll the streets of Philadelphia. PhillyHistory.org serves as a case study for how libraries can use mobile technologies to increase access to their special collections and provide learning opportunities that transcend the traditional web site.

Gromik, N. A. (2012). Cell phone video recording feature as a language learning tool: A case study. Computers & Education, 58(1), 223-230.

This paper reports on a case study conducted at a Japanese national university. Nine participants used the video recording feature on their cell phones to produce weekly video productions. The task required that participants produce one 30-second video on a teacher-selected topic. Observations revealed the process of video creation with a cell phone. The weekly video performances indicated that students were able to increase the number of words they spoke in one monologue. The surveys indicated that participants believed that using the cell phone video recording feature was a useful activity. However, they did not believe that such a task was transferable to other courses. The discussion emphasizes that, due to technological advances, educators need to understand the benefits and challenges of integrating cell phone devices as learning tools in their classrooms. In addition, whereas in the past researchers focused on reading and writing skills, this article reveals that it is now possible to use the video recording feature to evaluate learners’ speaking skills.

Anzai, Y. (2013, March). Mobile Photo Note-taking to Support EFL Learning. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (Vol. 2013, No. 1, pp. 2012-2020).

We take photos to reinforce our memory in our daily life. However, it is not so common to take photos in language classrooms, in spite of the fact that mobile phones are a device almost all students have, and taking photos with mobile phones is also a common activity. So, in this study, we explore the effect of mobile photo note-taking, which may have a significant impact on how we learn. An EFL instruction was developed based on the dual coding theory (DCT) framework. There are scarcely any studies which have examined mobile photo note-taking to verify the dual-coding theory. The study found that mobile photo note-taking has positive effects on EFL learning, particularly in memorizing and retaining English vocabulary. The author concludes with a call for further study to identify the cause of the positive effects.

Rollo, M. E., Ash, S., Lyons-Wall, P., & Russell, A. (2011). Trial of a mobile phone method for recording dietary intake in adults with type 2 diabetes: evaluation and implications for future applications. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 17(6), 318-323.

We evaluated a mobile phone application (Nutricam) for recording dietary intake. It allowed users to capture a photograph of food items before consumption and store a voice recording to explain the contents of the photograph. This information was then sent to a website where it was analysed by a dietitian. Ten adults with type 2 diabetes (BMI 24.1–47.9 kg/m2)recorded their intake over a three-day period using both Nutricam and a written food diary. Compared to the food diary, energy intake was under-recorded by 649 kJ (SD 810) using the mobile phone method. However, there was no trend in the difference between dietary assessment methods at levels of low or high energy intake. All subjects reported that the mobile phone system was easy to use. Six subjects found that the time taken to record using Nutricam was shorter than recording using the written diary, while two reported that it was about the same. The level of detail provided in the voice recording and food items obscured in photographs reduced the quality of the mobile phone records. Although some modifications to the mobile phone method will be necessary to improve the accuracy of self-reported intake, the system was considered an acceptable alternative to written records and has the potential to be used by adults with type 2 diabetes for monitoring dietary intake by a dietitian.

Kikunaga, Shigeshi, et al. (2007). The application of a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi) to the general population in a dietary survey. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 53(2), 109-116.

This study was carried out to examine first, the validity of a new dietary assessment method, a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi), in comparison with a weighed diet record as a reference method and second, the relation between obesity and underreporting in the Wellnavi method in 27 men and 48 women volunteers aged 30-67 y from the general population. On the validity, there were significant correlations (0.32-0.75) between the daily nutrient intakes measured by the Wellnavi method and the weighed diet record method in all the subjects except for some nutrients such as iron, magnesium and vitamin E. Results similar to those from the group of all the subjects were obtained in the men’s group and the women’s group. In all the subjects and the men’s group and the women’s group, the differences in the daily nutrient intakes between the two dietary assessment methods were statistically significant.

Winddance Twine, F. (2006). Visual ethnography and racial theory: Family photographs as archives of interracial intimacies. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(3), 487-511.

I propose a model for employing photograph-elicitation interviews in longitudinal ethnographic research on race and intimacy by drawing upon research that I conducted among British interracial families between 1995 and 2003. I evaluate my use of family photographs in photo-elicitation interviews as a methodological tool, a source of primary data and as evidence for theory. I used photo-interviews as a collaborative methodological tool to clarify and challenge theories that I had developed to explain how white birth mothers of African-descent children negotiate their “racial profiles” in public and private arenas. I analyse a case study of one transracial mother who strategically employed family photographs to project respectable “presentations” of her interracial familial life.

An undergraduate sociology student named Amanda Hills “spent six weeks showing adolescent girls how to use iPhones to record and edit videos about their lives.”
See a report about this work here.

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Inspired by this cutting edge work and want to learn more about ways to incorporate smartphone cameras into your own work? You may want to take one of these workshops on Smart Photos with Smart Phones” on Wednesday, July 24 (register here) and Thursday, August 8 (register here). The workshops are offered by JustPublics@365 in collaboration with the CUNY J-School.