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ASU anthropologists design method for studying groups on social media

September 12, 2017

The study of modern culture may start with your next post, but analyzing these online materials requires new research methods

It’s official: Anthropology has gone high tech. From online museum exhibits to digital repositories and even the use of satellites to survey archaeological sites, there’s a 21st-century twist on nearly every facet of this evolving field.

That includes ethnography, the study of cultures. Though ethnographers have historically observed their subjects in person, the fact that we now live so much of our lives online means these scientists also have a growing interest in the virtual human experience.

The challenge, as discovered by one team at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is that while there are many standard methods for conducting traditional research, there are currently none to help guide the scientific study of online texts such as blogs and social-media posts.

In a pioneering effort, the team designed a study tracking blogs to better understand how people support each other in weight-loss efforts online. Along the way, they ended up addressing complex challenges such as how search results can generate a representative sample of a group, or how scientists can best respect subjects’ online lives and identities — which may be very similar or vastly different from their physical ones.

We sat down with the team members — students Liza Kurtz, Melissa Beresford and Monet Niesluchowski; postdoctoral scholar Sarah Trainer; and Professors Amber Wutich and Alexandra Brewis Slade — to discuss the unique implications and requirements for this type of study, and how the relatively unexplored digital space is ripe with potential for insights into humankind.

Q: What inspired you to look into online ethnography?

Amber Wutich: The Center for Global Health has been doing research on fat stigma — the negative treatment endured by people with large bodies — for many years. We knew that people were talking about and experiencing fat stigma in important ways online, and we needed new methods to track and interpret how fat stigma develops and impacts people, over time, online.

Liza Kurtz: I think we were all struck by how much more present digital social platforms are in our lives than they were 10 or even five years ago. We knew these online experiences were becoming embedded in our own everyday lives, and we wanted to know how this integration might affect something very personal and very physical, but also laden with social meaning.

"You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history."

— Liza Kurtz, global health graduate student

Q: Could you explain your study a bit more? What were your goals?

Alexandra Brewis Slade: From the four-year ethnographic study Obesity Solutions conducted with weight-loss patients at Mayo Clinic, we knew how emotionally challenging weight loss can be. We wondered if online communities, where the body is not physically present in every interaction, might be a place where people were able to try to lose weight and feel better about it.

Sarah Trainer: It turned out that virtual weight-loss attempts were just as emotionally fraught for people as in-person ones, and most people documented long-term personal failures at it. Beyond this fact, though, the project also allowed us to work through some new, complex challenges about how you actually collect and analyze data from the stories of bloggers.

Melissa Beresford: For example, when gathering a representative group to “study,” we found that search engines’ results — based on predictions of what users want to see — kept us from getting an unbiased sample. Our solution was to systematically gather search results from top search engines and then compile that information with results from DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t optimize results.

We also ran up against ethical concerns related to protecting blogger privacy, intellectual property and identity, which we addressed by setting up strict parameters on what sources we gathered from and how we cited blogger material.

Trainer: This was one of the hardest parts of the study to manage, because we found ourselves entering completely new territory. Social-science protocols around these kinds of issues are being redrawn as we speak.

Monet Niesluchowski: The volume of materials you can draw from for this research is huge. You have to carefully decide, and justify, what to exclude and include. Plus, the materials change — a blog can sit around in cyberspace for years or be deleted at any moment by its author. It was so different compared to my experiences doing ethnographic interviews in the field, where the challenge is mostly to make sure you have enough people to include in your study.

Q: Why is it important to create standards for this type of online ethnographic research?

Wutich: Increasingly, people are living their lives online. Major decisions about dating, purchases, travel and so forth are filtered through online interactions. “Big data” methods are important, but ethnographic methods help us understand and interpret cultural data in ways other methods can’t. Anthropologists like us need to update our research methods to ensure that they can capture and help us interpret that data.

Kurtz: In other areas of anthropology and ethnography, there is a certain tool kit of broadly accepted research methods that have been shown to produce thoughtful, robust results. In our most recent publication, focused on the methods in particular, our goal was to further the conversation around online ethnography and hopefully start moving towards a similar tool kit specific to digital spaces.

screen shot of publishing a public postPublic vs. private forums require different research approaches.

Q: After finishing the study, do you think that any eventual standards will be rigid, or will flexible adaptation be the name of the game, much like social media itself?

Beresford: There must be somewhat flexible standards for online research, because there are so many different types of online environments. Conducting research on Twitter posts, where everything said is in a public forum, is very different than conducting research in a private Facebook group, where people expect some sort of privacy. Blogs are particularly tricky because some people may be posting to the public, while other people may start a blog for their own private reflection.

Kurtz: Rigorous research methods are always a worthwhile goal, but the research methods are ultimately dictated by the question a researcher is asking, so a certain flexibility is called for. Hopefully online research strategies continue to develop so researchers have a broader array of tools at their disposal, but there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all answer.

Q: What kinds of questions will online ethnographic study be uniquely able to answer?

Wutich: Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?

Kurtz: We are increasingly interested in ethnographies that explore the relative anonymity of the internet, and how people may be willing to digitally present themselves in ways they would never consider in real life. Weight loss is just one example. But this work will also shed new light on old concepts, like how people build personas through group affiliations, or how communities create group identity from shared history and events.

Q: Do you think that this is the future of ethnography, as more people around the world create digital presences?

Beresford: I don’t think that online research will ever replace in-person research efforts, with real people, but it can complement it. The purpose of ethnographic research is to gain a holistic view of a culture. And our online lives are just one aspect of our overall existence.

Kurtz: I certainly think that online ethnography will be an increasingly important part of understanding people’s lived experiences and societies’ collective meanings. We’re already seeing how important the digital sphere is, from very personal endeavors such as weight loss to large-scale political movements in the United States. You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history.

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


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Floyd Abrams: Country desperately needs to be thinking about free speech

September 12, 2017

Prominent First Amendment lawyer kicks off yearlong ASU lecture series about intellectual diversity on college campuses

Free speech, one of the most basic rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens, has become a hot-button issue with phrases like “fake news” and “safe space” entering the national lexicon, and arguments raging over what is and is not acceptable conversation for the public square.

Lawyer and author Floyd Abrams — who over the course of a career spanning more than half a century has argued and won many significant Supreme Court First Amendment cases that protected freedom of speech, including the Pentagon Papers case — took the stage Tuesday night to speak on why now, more than ever, free speech must be protected.

“It’s worth thinking about why we protect some speech,” Abrams said, alluding to what many have viewed to be intolerant rhetoric in recent weeks and months. He cited former Supreme Court Associate Justice Hugo Black, who said, “The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the government commands.”

The fact that the speech of some may make others uncomfortable is the price Americans pay for the protection of their own speech.

Abrams' talk at the Arizona PBS Studios on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus kicked off the 2017–18 lecture series “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society,” a series created by the recently launched School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) in hopes of encouraging a more productive dialogue in an increasingly heated arena.

In the last year on college campuses, conflicting views about what exactly is protected by the First Amendment have resulted in schisms ranging from fierce debates to outright violence, as was the case when two students were carted off, bloodied and in handcuffs, after coming to blows over alt-right white nationalist Richard Spencer’s visit to Auburn University.

At the same time, a number of universities and colleges, bowing to student pressure and likely hoping to avoid similar incidents, joined a long list of institutions disinviting high-profile speakers perceived as potentially incendiary — among them, divisive British political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, rapper Action Bronson and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter.

But, said ASU Professor and SCETL Founding Director Paul Carrese, allowing for argument and civil dialogue between parties who disagree is “what universities are all about.”

“This year’s (lecture series) theme rose out of an immediate question facing universities and colleges about speakers on campus sparking protests and even violence, and being disinvited or shutting down the campus,” Carrese said.

“The larger issue is, what is a university or college’s mission? … We thought our mission was not to provide a specific answer but that the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership could be a national space to have the debate about that.”

At Tuesday night’s event — co-sponsored by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law — Abrams was introduced by Associate Professor of Journalism Joseph Russomanno, who said there may be no one else who has worked so hard to uphold the First Amendment as Abrams.

After being welcomed to the stage, Abrams expressed his pleasure at being the first to speak in such “a series of lectures at time when the country desperately needs to be thinking about free speech and intellectual diversity.”

He then recounted with dismay recent testimony he gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which he found it “almost too easy” to list a number of recent incidents involving the misinterpretation or suppression of free speech on college campuses.

In regards to a lawsuit filed just last week against Michigan State University for refusing to provide a space for Spencer to speak, Abrams said, “His views I consider to be ugly in nature, and I am not at all alone in thinking that.”

However, free speech protects even potentially incendiary speakers invited to speak on campuses.

“Discrimination on the basis of message and content cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment,” he said. “That being so, speech must be permitted and campuses must take adequate precautions to prevent violence.”

First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams speaks at ASU

First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams (right), who represented The New York Times in the landmark Pentagon Papers Supreme Court case, discusses free speech on campus with ASU Associate Professor Joe Russomanno on Tuesday in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Abrams’ encouragement of the audience to consider the rationale behind free-speech laws echoes SCETL’s goal to involve and educate the university and community at large about civil discourse and fundamental American values and principles.

According to Carrese, if universities lead the way on free speech and the serious, responsible and open exchange of ideas on campus, they can set an example of what it means to be an educated, active citizen for the community beyond the campus.

SCETL is working with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix to develop a master’s degree focused on classical, liberal education. The school also recently facilitated the acquisition of a first printing of the Federalist Papers, of which only 500 exist. There are plans to collaborate with ASU Gammage on a public exhibition of the document when the Broadway production of “Hamilton” comes to Tempe this winter. (Alexander Hamilton was one of three writers of the Federalist papers. His co-writers were John Jay and James Madison.)

The lecture series and other upcoming panels and events hosted by SCETL — all free and open to the public — are being filmed by Arizona PBS, which will use the content to produce a four-part series that will air next year. The content will also be made into a book, separately.

Next up in the lecture series is a debate between former U.S. Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Tom Daschle (D-SD), titled “Disagreement and Civil Dialogue on American Politics and Civic Culture.” It is scheduled for 5 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Katzin Concert Hall on the Tempe campus.

“[They have] agreed to share the stage and have a dialogue about why it’s important to keep discussing and arguing with people who hold divergent views from your own,” Carrese said. “That’s what universities are all about.”

Find more events here.

Top photo: First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, who represented The New York Times in the landmark Pentagon Papers Supreme Court case, discusses free speech on campus before 200 people at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Tuesday. The talk is part in the "Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society" lecture series, sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, the Cronkite School and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657