Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Facebook as a Tool for Research

Gill Mooney is a doctoral researcher, studying at the University of Leeds. Her research interests are currently focused on social class and social media. She completed her undergraduate degree as a mature student in sociology at the University of Hull, and prior to this was employed as a project co-ordinator for a young people’s sexual health charity in Hull. @gillmooney

My research is concerned with the ways in which we know, understand and produce social class in the digital environment of the social networking site (SNS), Facebook. The research will provide valuable insights into how social networking is changing the ways we may relate to one another both online and offline, as well as the effect it might be having on broader understandings of social class.

Facebook is the topic of the research, the site in which parts of it take place, and a tool for facilitating its logistics and practicalities. I am using it for recruitment, communication with research participants, and using content collected from Facebook as stimulus for discussion in focus groups and interviews. This combination of online and offline methods and approaches requires reflexivity to run smoothly, but maintaining a link between online and offline is essential for providing data that represents the relationship between those two spheres in terms of how individuals perceive and produce social class, and the broader effects that may have.

I specified Facebook as the means through which I would recruit participants, partly because I would know that they were definitely likely to be regular Facebook users, and have a reasonable understanding of how the platform functions, but also because I want to keep as much of the research as possible within the psychic environment of Facebook, to help participants stay focused on discussing things that happen there, and keeping the research framed within Facebook. I began by asking members of a general interest Facebook group of which I’m a member to share the call for participants on their own accounts. There are considerable ethical implications in using Facebook in this manner, especially when using my personal account for recruitment. It could result in a pool of participants who are connected to me personally in some direct or indirect way, which has the potential to compromise the integrity of the research or cause tension in my personal relationships. Precautions were put in place to avoid these kinds of conflict, mainly through checking possible connections to potential participants.

I set up a Facebook account in the name of the research, specifically for the purpose of handling communication and logistics with participants, again as part of wishing to keep all elements of the research within Facebook as far as possible. Participants add the account as a friend, and then I can use the messages tool to stay in touch with participants, arrange focus group and interview sessions, and send them links to consent forms and other information.
This has proven to be an effective means of staying in touch, and it means I can provide information quickly and easily in a medium that is both convenient for the participants and within the environment that I’m researching.

Stimulus for discussion
There was some concern that during the focus group sessions it would be easy for the discussion to deviate away from Facebook, and that it might be difficult to even begin talking about it in a face-to-face encounter, with others. In response I devised a ‘dummy’ Facebook newsfeed page as a way to stimulate discussion, and maintain focus on Facebook. By using this page, I can guide discussion by referring to it and asking the groups to comment on different elements within it, framing my questions around it to stay on track. Class is a difficult topic to discuss, everyone understands it differently and has had different experiences of it, so rather directly addressing it, I am able to talk about self-representation more generally in terms of Facebook and explore how class shows itself there. The content for this dummy page comes from the pages of people in my own friendship network who volunteered, and is subject to a very rigorous consent and anonymisation process.

For the interviews, participants’ own shared content is used. They provide consent for me to select some items they have shared, and then it’s used as a means to stimulate discussion, serving a similar purpose as the dummy page.

Using Facebook as a tool for research requires significant planning and reflexivity throughout the whole research process, but can offer benefits in terms of having access to large networks of individuals for recruitment purposes, as well as an easy and convenient way to stay in touch with participants. The difficulties in planning are related to the considerable ethical implications of using content shared by participants, and ensuring informed consent is in place at all times.

Facebook is a crucial site for research that seeks to understand contemporary society, as its use grows and it becomes further embedded in the lives of its users. Developing well thought out approaches to this kind of work is essential for maximising the research potential of the platform, and for making sure that research is carried out with integrity.


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