Tag Archives: qualitative research

A Mathematician Discovers Ethnography

At the Sociological Imagination, we recently blogged about an interesting article written by a mathematics professor and I wanted to share it here, too. Robert Harington writes about a study he recently had to do, as Head of the publishing division of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in order to find out how mathematicians use online resources and use that knowledge to inform AMA’s future publishing strategy.

Harington explains pretty well what ethnographic research is:

“…What do we mean by ethnographic research? In essence we are talking about a rich, multi-factorial descriptive approach. While quantitative research uses pre-existing categories in its analysis, qualitative research is open to new ways of categorizing data – in this case, mathematicians’ behavior in using information. The idea is that one observes the subject (“key informant” in technical jargon) in their natural habitat. Imagine you are David Attenborough, exploring an “absolutely marvelous” new species – the mathematician – as they operate in the field. The concept is really quite simple. You just want to understand what your key informants are doing, and preferably why they are doing it. One has to do it in a setting that allows for them to behave naturally – this really requires an interview with one person not a group (because group members may influence each other’s actions).

Perhaps the hardest part is the interview itself. If you are anything like me, you will go charging in saying something along the lines of “look at these great things we are doing. What do you think? Great right?” Well, of course this is plain wrong. While you have a goal going in, perhaps to see how an individual is behaving with respect to a specific product, your questions need to be agnostic in flavor. The idea is to have the key informant do what they normally do, not just say what they think they do – the two things may be quite different. The questions need to be carefully crafted so as not to lead, but to enable gentle probing and discussion as the interview progresses. It is a good idea to record the interview – both in audio form, and ideally with screen capture technology such as Camtasia. When I was involved with this I went out and bought a good, but inexpensive audio recorder. […]

With some 62 interviews under our belt, we are beginning to see patterns emerge in the ways that mathematicians behave online. “

As an ethnographic researcher, I would say that his definition is a bit narrow: ethnography is capable of so much more than just helping you assess user experience. Also I think that he is talking about a simpler and quicker variety of qualitative research (e.g. an open ended questionnaire) rather than full-on ethnography (the second comment under the article, by David Wojick, is spot on: Wojick calls the study described in the article “issue analysis” and points out that an in-depth ethnography is a far bigger “beast”). Nevertheless, it’s great to see ethnography used by mathematicians to study their own online behaviour in order to plan the strategy of an academic journal. Action research done by a community for its own benefit! And this article is an awesome explanation of ethnography by a scientist, for a scientific audience. Having read this will certainly help me next time I have to explain to a mathematician what my research is about and what my method is [and that I’m not simply having fun hanging out in their common room on workdays]!

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

The year of code

Yearofcode

Did you know it was the Year of Code?

I can’t really code. But it makes life so much easier (and cheaper). If your job requires using computers for anything, then learning a bit about coding will help you do more stuff, not rely on others for help, be faster and more efficient on the computer, and, eventually, spend less time on it. And it’s fun because you get the computer to do things.  It’s like training a dog – only in fact you are training yourself, and not the dog. Strangely, I haven’t been able to find much research about the addictive potential of coding, apart from this now old book from 1989 by Margaret A. Shotton and this book about Hackers by Paul Taylor – although several friends who have done programming swear that it can be a highly addictive activity.

Well, it’s not that much fun, if you have health problems with your hands, arms, joints or back like me, so it is a bit of a Catch 22. This – and also the fact that I ended up working as a social scientist specialising in qualitative research – is why I don’t know much coding.  Thankfully, my friends do, and so does Google. By pestering friends and Google I’ve been able to do some small bits of HTML coding, and write hundreds of pages in LaTeX (without losing any work or ending up with hideous formatting – MSOffice, it’s your turn to blush). I tried to learn R last month and although it didn’t go very well, I’ll go back to it soon, because there are some awesome extensions for R that don’t exist on “button-based” data analysis programmes, made “especially” for us, social scientists… One in particular, TramineR, is so awesome and relevant for my work that I’m dreaming of being able to use it. Not to mention how often SPSS and NVIVO crash and how expensive they are for anyone who isn’t attached to a rich institution which can buy the packages for its employees. And- meh – they don’t work on Linux, while R and LaTeX have no problem with different platforms.

I really think that social science students and researchers in the UK, in general, could do with more knowledge about how to use computers to their own benefit. One reason why the existing packages are so, well, bad, is because the market is not educated enough. I’m told that the quality of coffee in the UK has soared in the last two decades. Why? Because consumers have become more demanding. I’m sure that one day when more social scientists and other people who need computers for their daily lives start being a bit more discerning about the software they use,  someone out there, or even one of us, will gather their wits and design better software.

It might be a better idea to get a keen pupil teach a class on coding, and not a teacher who is new to it, but hey. If “2014 – the year of code” succeeds in getting more students and teachers to learn code, then  with all its flaws it is a fantastic initiative (watch the video…but try not to headdesk when you realise that its director can’t code yet). Knowing some code it’s like knowing a bit of swimming – won’t hurt you (unless you have an underlying health condition, and even then can be beneficial under supervision), makes life more fun, and heck, it can even save your arse. So if like me you know little or no coding, do check out the Code Academy. And if your word document has ever crashed on you, have a peek at the marvellous thing called LaTeX [pronounced “leitek”].

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: