Guest Post#16: Prof Rachel Thomson, Dr Sara Bragg and Dr Liam Berriman: Time, technology and documentation

In today’s guest post Rachel Thomson, Sara Bragg and Liam Berriman (University of Sussex) encourage us to reconsider the idea of archiving data as the end point of a study. Drawing on material from their new book Researching Everyday Childhoods: Time, Technology and Documentation in a Digital Age they argue that technological transformations have opened up new possibilities for the placing of archiving in the research process. Working with research participants, the team have co-produced the publically accessible archive Everyday Childhoods; a process that has enabled them to explore what it means to become data.

Rachel, Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies and Co-Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab, has undertaken a number of qualitative longitudinal and cross generational projects. Sara, Associate Researcher at the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth, has research interests in young people, participation, gender, sexuality, media, education, and creative research methods and creative learning. Liam, Lecturer in Digital Humanities & Social Science in the Department of Social Work, has conducted research on children’s relationships with digital media and technology as part of their everyday lives, the technologisation of toys in childhood, and the co-production of research using digital methods.

 Time, technology and documentation

There is a tradition within qualitative longitudinal research of returning to earlier studies building on the places, people or data sets of earlier research. In some disciplines this kind of iterative practice is well established, for example the long term ethnography in anthropology where generations of scholars ‘pass the mantle’ of responsibility for tracking the historical evolution of a community. Within sociology we talk of ‘revisits’ that can take the form of re-engaging with the methods/data or sites of earlier studies and earlier research selves if revisiting our own work. These kinds of reflexive contemplations have the potential to historicise social research practice, helping us to see how our research questions, methods and technologies are part and parcel of the knowledge economies that we as researchers are part of, and how these change over time. In general terms, designing time into a research process has enormous potential for making things visible in new ways, including the contingent modes of production of social research.

So paradoxically, by holding certain things constant, temporal methods have the capacity to help us notice change. For example following the same participant over time reveals all kinds of transformations but also a consolidation of something that in retrospect we understand as always having been there. Repeating a method over time has a similar analytic dividend providing a bridge to consider relations of sameness and mutability, difference and repetition. Generations within a family, institution or a society can also be thought of through the same prism – enabling us to tease apart biographical and historical time, life stages (such as early career, or young adulthood) and contexts (post- Brexit austerity). Designing generations into social research increases the power and the complexity of any investigation.

Our new book Researching Everyday Childhoods is a culmination of several threads of methodological development in the field of qualitative longitudinal research. The project focuses on children and young people and what it is like to live and grow in a culture that is saturated by digital technology. It is also a book about what it means for researchers to operate in the same environment, recognising how our practice is transformed by new tools and changing relationships of expertise and authority. The book is a mediation on a shift from analog to digital knowledge that encompasses all of the actors involved: the researchers, the participants, the funders, the audiences, the publishers, the data.  This is achieved by anchoring the empirical project to our own pasts – the seven year old children in the study are the yet to be born babies in our earlier intergenerational study of new motherhood. The researchers following them have known their families for almost a decade and this ‘back-story’ forms part of the relationship and data shadow for their cases. We have also adapted methods first trialled in the motherhood study: a day in a life, object based conversations and ‘recursive interviews’ where fragments of data and analysis from the research relationship are represented and responded to in the present.

Yet the study also brings in the new in a deliberate way. New participants in the form of a panel of teenagers, and new researchers bringing fresh perspectives, research questions and skills into the team. Importantly the project has sought to address the limits of our earlier research.

This includes the idea of starting rather than ending with the archive. Where previously we had promised confidentiality and anonymity as a condition of the research, in this project we invited participants to work collaboratively with us to co-produce a publically accessible archive. The practice of ‘curation’ is as important to us as ‘data generation’ and we are aware that professional social researchers no longer have a monopoly over such knowledge practices and the resulting knowledge relations. Working in collaboration with the Mass Observation Archive and our participant families we have created a new multi-media collection as well as an open access online interface – something that has involved us entering the archive itself, exploring what it means to become data, to be available for unknown audiences and unforeseen modes of secondary analysis. Thinking through what is the same and what might be different, we move more deeply into an era of digital data in which notions of indelibility, anonymity and trust change their character. We cannot confidently make promises about a future that we are yet to apprehend. We can however engage in the analytic and ethical labour necessary to ensure that we are thinking together in a way that is transparent, reflexive and accountable. Our book Researching Everyday Childhoods: Time, Technology and Documentation in a Digital Age does just that. We are pleased that it is also open access, meaning that along with the public archive it may be used as a resource for teaching and collaboration.


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