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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Dissertation research: perceptions of using social media for community engagement

I’ve talked about my MSc dissertation research before on this blog. In fact I originally set up this blog to explore some topics related to my research. Having had a bit of a break after completing my dissertation in August 2010, I have decided to publish it here, spurred on by the kind words of a fellow academic researcher Catherine Howe.

My research question was:

How do the attitudes and perceptions of citizens, Council officers, Councillors to the use of social media for community engagement compare and contrast?

My Master’s Degree was in Human Computer Interaction. If you have a particular interest in research into social media and civic engagement (and quite a bit of time on your hands), I’d recommend the full dissertation (PDF, 2.4 mb).

But if you are a local government officer or someone with less time and patience, then I’d recommend the 10 page (that’s the smallest I could manage!) Executive Summary (PDF, 50kb).

I also wanted to add a little disclaimer. The primary research data was gathered from semi-structured interviews with 18 participants. For purposes of confidentiality the data is not included within either document. Because the research question focused on a relatively new research area, it was challenging to find participants with significant experience of using social media, let alone those with experience of using social media for civic engagement. Whilst the collection and analysis of data followed rigorous qualitative research methods, the quality of the data collected was not as high as I had hoped for. I would therefore advise some caution in the interpretation and application of these research findings.

Please note that the usual Creative Commons copyright license I display on this blog does not apply to the two documents linked above.

You can find me on Twitter if you have any questions, comments, or would like more information about my research.

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ByMichele Ide-Smith

Research findings and recommendations for Councils

I’ve finally finished my MSc dissertation which is a massive relief. After four years of part-time study I am looking forward to having my weekends back! And I plan to get back to blogging, now that I’ve more time on my hands.

My research study investigated:

Attitudes and perceptions of Council officers and citizens to using social media to engage with local government.

My research was driven from a human-computer interaction (HCI) perspective, as I’ve been studying HCI and Ergonomics at UCLIC.

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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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