Category Archives: publications

on the rights of privacy in research that harvests social media for data

Following up on my previous post on the Frontiers of Psychology decision to retract a published paper that investigated conspiratorial ideation by analyzing blog posts, the most recent statement by the Frontiers group re-writes its reasons for the retraction:

Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

And, they continue: “we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper.”

A troubling feature of this revised retraction is that is contradicts the first, which asserts there were no ethical issues with the research, but now there are. This does not speak well for the journal, its editors and the umbrella Frontiers group. (See here for commentary about the media coverage of the journal.)

But the heart of the matter is whether the identity of  bloggers who made comments openly and publicly should be protected? The short answer is, no. The key here is that bloggers’ personal comments are public and so once made, bloggers give up their rights to privacy. And indeed, in the discourse one presumes these bloggers do not wish to be anonymous, but to own their viewpoints.  Blog comments are not responses to a researcher’s queries offered in the frame of most social science research, which does offer protection of privacy through confidentiality and anonymity. The blog comments are therefore a legitimate source of found data that support a range of analyses, including in this case what they might reveal about conspiratorial ideation.

I would note though that this matter is not straightforward and harvesting of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is still new territory for social scientists. There are essentially two positions:

  1. what is archived on the internet is public, and no consent is required from those who created the data
  2. what is archived is public, but the content creators imagined they were writing in private and so consent is required

(See here, for one discussion of both sides,  here for a discussion of the blogosphere as a source of data, here for a commentary on qualitative research blogs. And here for a legal opinion on the matter.)

power over publishing ~when special interest trumps scientific research

In 2012 Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia published an article in Psychological Science, which analyzed anti-climate change blog comments to explore the idea of conspiratorial ideation. He concludes people who believe in one unsubstantiated conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others. Amusing at times (people who believe Princess Diana was ordered to be murdered by the Royal Family are also likely to agree she faked her own death and is still alive ~ pay no attention to the contradiction) and decidedly not amusing at other times (people who endorse free market economics reject climate change, and a number of other scientific facts like HIV causes AIDS and smoking causes lung cancer ~ pay attention to the potential constraints on improving the quality of individual and collective human life).

This article outraged conspiracy theorists and a maelstrom of protest hit the blogosphere, which Lewandowsky also analyzed and published in a subsequent article in the Frontiers of Psychology, part of the Frontiers conglomerate publishing 45 open access journals in all. This paper was also challenged by the conspirators, and although no fault could be found with the quality or ethics of the research Frontiers has withdrawn the article from the journal with the vague legal issue (read, I think, fear of a lawsuit) as the reason.

But fear not, you can still read the paper, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, thanks to academic freedom and the internet. Read more at I Fucking Love Science, here. And, there are no shortage of blogs that follow the climate change deniers (see, for example, Watching the Deniers).

Lewandowsky also talks at length about the controversy and issues.

Stephan Lewandowskay: In Whose Hands the Future? from Peter Sinclair on Vimeo.

What should trouble ALL researchers is that a powerful special interest group has threatened academic freedom, and especially an open access journal that although levying author fees does not likely have the resources to withstand legal challenge in the same way that a for-profit publisher does. Sage Publications, owners of the journal in which the original article was published, never buckled under protest to the original article now referred to as LOG12. Indeed, an investigation by the journal asserted no wrong doing and Lewandowsky’s own university supports him by posting the article on the UWA website, thus also affirming academic freedom. Even more important, this threat is based on deniers skeptics disliking the research topic and conclusions ~ not one based on poor quality research, unethical research practices or failure of the peer review process. This is a chilling prospect for all researchers, but especially so when research challenges powerful ideologies that effect rationale critique and potential positive social change.

Meet The Somalis ~ illustrated stories of Somalis in seven cities in Europe

You might have just seen Captain Phillips, the movie starring Tom Hanks as the real life Captain Phillips, commander of a Maerck shipping freighter hijacked by Somali pirates. The movie gives a wee glimpse into the life of Somali pirates, and the circumstances in their home country related to piracy. But, of course, to be Somali is something quite a bit larger.
Meet the Somalis tells the stories of 14 Somalis living the refugee or immigrant life in seven European cities. Based on interviews, “the illustrated stories focus on challenges faced by Somalis in their respective cities in Europe and issues raised in the Somalis in European Cities research, including education, housing, the media, employment, political participation, and identity. Meet the Somalis depicts experiences many of us will never know, like fleeing a warzone with your children or, worse, leaving your loved ones behind.”

Like most ethnographic research, the stories are not just windows to the experiences of others, but also mirrors reflecting our own values and the deep interconnections among all people, like the importance of family, well-being, and identity. The cartoon illustrations combined with interview excerpts build the narrative of experience as an immigrant and/or refugee connected to a war-torn homeland.

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard P. Feynman

In addition to being amusing, this little book is a great introduction to argumentation and more specifically the various common errors in logic. From hasty generalizations (see cartoon) to appeals to irrelevant authorities to straw man arguments, each is described with examples and a clever cartoon as illustration. Scholarship always involves making arguments and budding scholars might find this useful in honing their skills.

A classic is back ~ new edition of Miles & Huberman’s Qualitative Data Analysis

With Johnny Saldaña as a new third author to the ghosts of Matt Miles and Michael Huberman, a new edition of this classic text on qualitative data analysis is back. This 3rd edition stays true to Miles’ & Huberman’s original organization and ideas, but is significantly updated with the inclusion of more information on computer based analysis and specific approaches to qualitative research emerging over the past few decades. The new edition ends with a very good list of resources for qualitative researchers.

“Some laws of civilization”

For more Marshall Sahlins humour, see Waiting for Foucault, Still.

Some Laws of Civilization

First law of civilization: All airports are under construction.

Second law of civilization: I’m in the wrong line.

Third law of civilization: Snacks sealed in plastic bags cannot be opened, even using your teeth.

Fourth law of civilization: The human gene whose discovery is announced in the New York Times—there’s one every day, a gene du jour—is for some bad trait, like schizophrenia, kleptomania, or pneumonia. We have no good genes.

Fifth law of civilization: Failing corporate executives and politicians always resign to spend more time with their families.

the power of metaphors

We are, of course, aware of the power of metaphors, but we often simplistically believe that we choose the metaphors we use rather than them being embedded within metaphors that are so deep (and often simple) that we misunderstand their power and their hegemony. Lakoff and Johnson have provided an excellent analysis of this idea in Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff has contributed significantly to our understanding of the role of metaphors in public policy and discourse, often employed by the media and politicians.

In an editorial on the fiscal cliff, Lakoff illustrates the ways the fiscal cliff metaphor is constructed through other more deeply held metaphors. Here is an excerpt:

Let’s take a look at the metaphorical complexity of “fiscal cliff” and how the metaphors that comprise it fit together. The simplest, is the metaphor named MoreIsUp, which is a neural circuit linking two distinct brain regions, one for verticality and one for quantity. It is a high-level general metaphor widespread throughout the world, and occurs in a vast number of sentences like “turn the radio up,” “the temperature fell,” and so on.

The economy is seen as moving forward and either moving up, moving down or staying level, where verticality metaphorically indicates the value of economic indicators like the GDP or a stock market average. These are indicators of economic activity such as overall spending on goods and services or the sale of stocks. Why is economic activity conceptualized as motion? Because a common conceptual metaphor is being used: ActivityIsMotion, as in sentences like “The project is moving along smoothly,” “The remodeling is getting bogged down,” and so on. The common metaphor TheFutureIsAhead accounts for why the motion is “forward.”

In a diagram of changes over time in a stock market or the GDP, the metaphor used is ThePastIsLeft and TheFutureIsRight, which is why the diagram goes from left to right when the economy is conceptualized as moving “forward.”

When Ben Bernanke spoke of the “fiscal cliff,” he undoubtedly had in mind a graph of the economy moving along, left to right, on a slight incline and then suddenly dropping way down, which looks like a line drawing of a cliff from the side view. Such a graph has values built in via the metaphor GoodIsUp. Going down over the cliff is thus bad.

The administration has the goal of increasing GDP. Here common metaphors apply: SuccessIsUp and FailingIsFalling. Hence going over the fiscal cliff would be a serious failure for the administration and harm for the populace.

These metaphors fit together tightly in the usual graph of changes in economic activity over time, together with the metaphorical interpretation of the graph. From the neural perspective, these metaphors form a tightly integrated neural cascade — so tightly integrated and so natural that we barely notice them, if we notice them at all.

What is equally important about Lakoff’s illustration is that one metaphor, especially one built on more deeply cognitively embedded metaphors, cannot be easily replaced (if at all) by an alternate metaphor.

Street Ethnography

Street ethnography is an emerging research approach that focuses on public exterior spaces… sidewalks, parks, neighbourhood spaces. Both the ethnographer and the ethnographic participants are moving through these public spaces and so are engaged with each other in informal ways as both use these spaces in a fairly equal way. The tools for street ethnographers include neighbourhood walks, going along with ethnographic participants, and photography.

A good illustration of street ethnography is, Urban Fieldnotes, a mash-up of research and street style blogging. Blogger Brent Luvaas, a visual and cultural anthropologist & Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Drexel University, describes Urban Fieldnotes this way…

Urban Fieldnotes is a street style blog documenting fashion, style, and dress on the streets of Philadelphia and beyond. It is also a blog about street style blogging, an experiment in auto-ethnographic research and open-source fieldwork that is part of an ongoing project entitled “Street Style 2.0: New Media and the New Politics of Fashion.”

His research project is connected to the rise of street style fashion blogging as a form of amateur ethnography that challenges prevailing modes of expertise in the fashion world. Just to make sure you know this is research, he also says…

Your comments and suggestions are welcome, but please note that any comments posted to this blog may be used in future presentations and publications, both print and digital, by Brent Luvaas.

Street style blogs are plentiful, but perhaps one of the mostly widely read is The Sartorialist, but Luvaas provides a long list of street style blogs from around the globe. Others he might have included are Advanced Style, which focuses specifically on ‘older folks’ and Bill Cunningham’s work for the NY Times. And there are an increasing number of models come street style bloggers, like Hanneli Mustaparta and Christine Reehorst.

There isn’t much written about street ethnography, although R. Weppner’s 1977 Street ethnography: Selected studies of crime and drug use in natural settings is a good resource, if you can get your hands on it.

Some helpful references on writing & publishing

Allison, A., & Forngia, T. (1992). The grad student’s guide to getting published. New York: Prentice Hall.

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Associations (6th ed.). Washington, DC.

Becker, H. S., & Richards, P. (2007). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bridgewater, C. A., Bornstein, P. H., & Walkenbach, J. (1981). Ethical issues in the assignment of publication credit. American Psychologist, 36, 524-525.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (1986). Writing culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Frost, P. J., & Taylor, M. S. (Eds.). (1996). Rhythms of academic life: Personal accounts of careers in academia. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (1993). Writing research reports for publication: Recommendations for new authors. Remedial and Special Education, 14(3), 39-46.

Geertz, C. (1989). Works and lives: The anthropologist as writer. Boston: Polity Press.

Klingner, J. K., Scanlon, D. & Pressley, M. (2005). How to publish in scholarly journals. Educational Researcher, 34(8), 14-21.

Matkin, R. E., & Riggar, T. F. (1991). Persist and publish: Helpful hints for academic writing and publishing. Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press.

University of Chicago Press. (2003). The Chicago manual of style (15th ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strunk, W. J., & White, E. B. (2005). The elements of style (3rd. Ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. [NOTE: Treat yourself and get the edition illustrated by Maira Kalman.]

Truss, L. (2004). Eats, shoots and leaves: Why, commas really do make a difference! New York: Gotham.

Wolcott, H. F. (2008). Writing up qualitative research (3rd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.