Reflecting on my MSc research

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Reflecting on my MSc research

For anyone that’s familiar with my posts on social media or usability this one is rather academic and self-indulgent, so bear with me!

I’m making fairly good progress with my MSc research, having completed a few interviews and some of my literature review. Every so often I take stock of the approach I’m taking and re-evaluate my research question and approach. I decided that writing about the issues I come across would be a good form of therapy and also a good way to reflect on my situation and decisions.

“[We] become reflective researchers in situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and conflict.”
Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, 1983

I have chosen to research attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens to community engagement via social media. Because this is a potentially vast and complex area I have chosen to focus my research around a project I am working on in Fenland, Cambridgeshire. I decided to limit my research to council officers and citizens. Because within the scope of an MSc project I didn’t have sufficient capacity or time to also interview colleagues working in the Police and Fire services or elected members.

Because there is not much existing research or theory in this area of investigation, I’ve chosen to use a Grounded Theory method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Corbin and Strauss, 1990; Charmaz, 2006) . I’m carrying out semi-structured interviews to collect my data. Once I have transcribed the interviews I am carrying out a detailed analysis of the data to identify emergent concepts or themes. As I identify concepts I start to categorise them and compare them across all the data. As the process continues I am starting to develop theories which I can in turn test out by collecting and analysing more data. And so on until saturation point, or until I need to write up my dissertation and hand it in. Whichever comes first.

So far I’ve interviewed four colleagues and am lining up several more interviews. My sample is probably what you would describe as ‘selective’ rather than ‘representative’ or ‘purposeful’ (Coyne, 1997). Simply because of the constraints of doing research within your own organisation and in the timescales of an MSc.

I’ve encountered a few issues with the approach and method I’m taking so far. Using social media for community engagement is a new phenomenon, certainly within the organisation I work for. The colleagues I have interviewed so far do not have hands on experience of using social media for community engagement. So their stated intentions may well not reflect their actual behaviour (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980).

Now for me using social media has been experiential. I personally believe that you can’t really understand the possibilities and impact of the social web without experiencing it yourself. Hence the JFDI mantra which is so often mentioned by those who are active in the local social media or digital engagement field (see Dan Slee, Sarah LayDave Briggs and Steph Gray to mention a few). To get round this I have shown my participants a range of sites which I feel represent how social media can be (and is being) used for community engagement.

Whilst initially I found it problematic that I was not interviewing participants about their actual behaviour and experiences, I feel there is still merit in my research approach. Many local authorities have been reluctant to adopt social media. Some are blocking staff access for fear of time wasting or the risks of security breaches or damage to reputation (Socitm, 2010). Other authorities are cautious of the benefits of allocating resource time to monitor social media spaces and interact with citizens.

By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement. I hope my findings can be shared with other authorities, organisations and researchers. I am also hoping my research could be a useful reference to anyone researching attitudes and perceptions of council officers and citizens who are actively using social media for community engagement.

At this point in time I don’t want to have too many lofty ideas about the impact of my tiny microcosm of research. But even as a student researcher I have to consider the value of my research to my employer and the wider research community.

I’ve also had concerns about interviewing colleagues who are unlikely to be using social media in a very hands on way for community engagement. This is primarily because they are at a more strategic level and not what you would describe as ‘front-line’ staff. But in reality they are quite likely to be the people who make the policy level decisions about how social media is used and incorporated within community engagement activities. So understanding more about perceptions and attitudes is important, to be able to sell the benefits and persuade senior managers to take risks and innovate.

So far the data I’ve collected has been fascinating and has led me to reflect on how we are approaching our project in Fenland. I’m really looking forward to interviewing some residents in Wisbech in the next couple of months to get their perspective.

References:

Ajzen, I. and Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. Prentice Hall, facsimile edition.

Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis. Sage Publications Ltd, 1 edition.

Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. SAGE Inc, third edition edition.

Coyne, I. T. (2007). Sampling in qualitative research. Purposeful and theoretical sampling; merging or clear boundaries? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 26, 623–630, Blackwell Science Ltd.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Aldine Transaction.

Schon, D. A. (1984). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. Basic Books, 1 edition.

Socitm (2010). Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it.

Social media – why ICT management should lead their organisations to embrace it

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3 Comments so far

Gerard ScullionPosted on11:53 am - Apr 7, 2010

All the best with your research project Michelle. It sounds like a tough assignment though hopefully of practical use to you and others.

Maybe see you at the next SOCITM ‘Building the Perfect website’ event, haven’t heard a date for this yet.

Gerry

Paul HadleyPosted on11:40 pm - Apr 8, 2010

Hi Michele,
Here’s something a little similar that I conducted over a short period last year. Hope it helps a little. Feel free to email me if you want to see the raw data collected.
http://justblogging.co.uk/2010/01/investigating-digital-engagement-between-solihull-councillors-and%C2%A0-local-citizens-a-comparison-with-national-party-political-policy-and-practice/

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on7:06 am - Apr 9, 2010

Thanks Paul – I’ll have a look through this over the weekend.

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