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Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research Mark Jackson Department of Social Sciences Latrobe University Bendigo PO Box 199 Bendigo Victoria 3550 Summary The rapid growth in the Internet and its use by socio-environmental movements provides new opportunities for social research and new challenges for until now face- to-face research techniques. This paper outlines the application of computer-mediated communication in a participant observation study of Local Employment and Trading Systems (LETS) in Australia and New Zealand. The methodological implications of the space-time compression inherent in the medium, and its possibilities and limitations are explored as are assumptions about the `de- gendering' of the medium. The approach raises numerous issues of methodology and ultimately epistemology and presents many possibilities for the expansion of research vectors and impacts. Introduction Over a decade ago, Kerr and Hiltz (1982:173) projected that computer-mediated communication (CMC) had the potential to offer breakthrough methodological 1 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research opportunities for research. Since those relatively early days, computer conferences and listservers have become popular as discussion fora for academics and non-academics. The last 5 years has seen a phenomenal growth in computer networks including those catering for the communication needs of peace, social justice and environmental activists, a trend highlighted by Lyon (1988) and Falk (1995) (http://www.scu.edu.au/ausweb95/papers/sociology/falk) Many of these specialised computer conferences are maintained on private computer networks which are members of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) - `a world-wide body dedicated to providing low-cost global communications service for people and organisations working for social justice and the environment'; its slogan - `think globally, dial locally' (Pegasus promotional pamphlet). Australia's APC node is known as Pegasus although many countries, both rich and poor, have their own node. Unlike conferences on the Usenet network, APC conferences cater more for the open communication needs of organisations such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace, or host discussions on more broad-ranging socio- environmental issues such as public transport. These and other CMC fora constitute a potentially vast data resource for academics undertaking research into social justice, environmental and related issues. Notwithstanding these developments, the utilisation of CMC as a social research tool has yet to be demonstrated. Many social scientists certainly utilise listservers (automatic subscriber email lists such as Geograph) to provide peer-to-peer communication. The natural sciences in particular have enthusiastically adopted CMC for publication by electronic mail (Taubes 1993). However the social sciences' engagement with computer technology, (other than for analytical purposes (e.g. see Qualitative Sociology 1991)) has largely been to discuss its social impacts (an eclectic range would include Cooley 1980, Jones 1990, Lyon 1988 and Poster 1990), rather than develop the technology itself as a research tool. In this paper I explore the application of CMC in qualitative social research. Thorough literature searches unearthed a single research note on a participant observation study of the email activities of staff of a computer company (Workman 1992) whilst a recent overview of qualitative research (Maykut and Morehouse 1994) neither lists CMC as a suggested research media nor source document. This paper explores such usage and its implications, and the possibilities and problems of computer-mediated participant observation as encountered in my doctoral research into Local Employment and Trading Systems (LETS). Whilst I use the Internet for other purposes (for example remotely accessing library catalogues or discovering and retrieving documents through the World- Wide-Web), this paper focuses primarily upon my computer- mediated observations and interactions with LETS activists around the world. The paper commences with a description of LETS and the relevant CMC resources followed by a comment upon the interplay between the project and the research subject. 2 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: I then briefly outline the core elements of participant observation and action research that we may more easily follow the changes which CMC can bring to these methods. After I have explored some of the more positive changes CMC brings to these methods I focus upon its limitations before concluding with a brief epistemological reflection. LETS, lets.oz and econ-lets - an example of the use of CMC in research I am using participant observation in APC computer conferences and other CMC media in a study of LETS. The research involves, amongst other things, identifying what and who constitutes a LETSystem and how well it meets its broadly self-identified goals of sustainable development. Surveys and an active participant observation on local, state and national levels, provide crucial insights into how the idea works on personal and community levels. Computer-mediated participant observation is being used to help establish the aspirations and ideologies of LETS activists and the progress of the movement in other parts of Australia and the world. LETSystems are voluntary community exchanges, designed to facilitate trading without the need for national currencies. They are an attempt to create local or community currencies. Members who join a LETS are allocated an account upon which transactions are recorded in points. They have the ability to go into debit from the start and no interest is accrued or paid on account balances. Members' names and their offerings are placed on a list of skills and goods. By providing these two sets of information, trading is simply facilitated. It is important for the purposes of this paper to emphasise that LETS is a local social movement of global proportions. Each of the hundreds of systems around the world is established independently as an attempted local solution to locally perceived problems of unemployment and the lack of money. Their generally isolated and parochial outlook sharply contrasts with some of their global connections. Implicit in the ideology of each system is a stressing of the value of local resources - however many systems use globally resourced computer software and hardware, primarily for accounting and database purposes. Each system stresses the importance of accessing local information to utilise local resources - however many systems are plugged into a global communications network using internationally sourced technology and globally networked telephone and satellite systems. During most weeks LETS activists around the world, including the Canadian founder Michael Linton, generate pages of theoretical and practical information on LETS. In early 1989 Pegasus Networks established lets.oz for Australian LETS discussion. This complemented the existing lets.canada and was later joined by lets.uk. In late 1994 a non-APC media was added, a UK based listserver named econ- lets. This forum is 3 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research currently the most active discussion site (mid 1995). Despite their regional foci the conferences are open to participants from all nations. Discussions range from private impassioned arguments though public theoretical debates, to questions which seek experienced people to enlighten a particular problem of LETS practice. The importance and influence of the medium to my research The immense number and volume of conversations I can access via these fora opens the possibility for diverse research approaches. Over the four years of my participation I have watched people, and electronic fora, come and go. I have also observed the persistence and power relations of various participants. My own involvement in these relations must also be considered. At this point in the research however I am most keen to focus upon the content rather than the form of the interactions. It is the reflections, the theoretical arguments, the trading figures, the posed problems, the definitions, the geographical spread of LETS activity, which I find most relevant to my study. The texts provide me with facts and background information as well as material which can be analysed through discourse analysis, content analysis or other qualitative methods as appropriate. Analysis of the social interactions, and of the effects of the medium, may be appropriate for a study which wishes to focus upon social relations and the medium itself; it is however worth reiterating that this study aims to utilise the medium - albeit in a self-reflexive manner (hence this paper) - rather than focus upon the medium itself. As a researcher and interested LETS participant I read daily and contribute occasionally to these fora, depending upon their activity. My participation commenced some twelve months prior to the decision to undertake the research. Initial inquiries were usually of the `help me' nature, requesting more seasoned practitioners to help with specific problems my local LETSystem was experiencing. Some of the theoretical debates about the nature of LETS have contributed central concepts to the structure of the research. Not only was my research context informed by these discussions. A few rudimentary inquiries in various CMC fora, both academic and non-academic, furnished information on the extent of LETS activity, and of other research being undertaken into LETS. My research proposal, once completed, was posted into lets.oz. Within days, inquiries, suggestions and encouraging comments arrived from other academics, lay people and LETS activists around the globe. Prior to the advent of such technology it would more than likely have been towards the end of my thesis before I could know of similar research being conducted elsewhere, relying as it would upon publication or my personal attendance at a relevant conference. 4 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: Activity within these fora ebbs and flows, depending upon accessibility, individual's and regional circumstances, and perhaps the internal politics of the discussions which occur. I am kept informed of government policies in countries where LETS is active and am confident that the medium is keeping me more up-to-date with the global extent of LETS activity. I am also aware of the theoretical and policy developments of key LETS activists. A major methodological challenge lies in managing and interpreting this continuing `data' stream within the time and resource constraints of the project. Cataloguing, analysis and filing of topics and responses is a constant and often pressing task. As a researcher who is committed to an interactive style of social inquiry I occasionally respond to topics, particularly if it falls within my sphere of growing knowledge of LETS practice and government policy. My participation on `the net' has shown a distinct progression from naive inquirer to experienced contributor and researcher. Where does this `participation' and/or `action' fall within the quiver of qualitative methodologies? This internationalised and depersonalised version of participant observation not only shapes my research, but obviously is influencing and shaping the subject of research itself in a much broader and more rapid way than before possible. These issues and their space/time connotations are posing interesting methodological questions. How does this mode of inquiry, of action, differ from face-to-face participant observation? What are the possibilities that it offers? In order to further these queries a brief review of the core concepts of participant observation and action research is first necessary. Qualitative research methods - participant observation and action research. Implicit in the method of participant observation is a physical immersion of the body in the research and the need for negotiation to gain entry to `the field' of research (Smith 1988). This research posture has been termed `indwelling', a stance which requires the researcher to interact, to `be at one with the persons under investigation' and to reflect (Maykut and Morehouse 1994:25). At the risk of stating the obvious it is worth dissecting this further. The body of the researcher is physically immersed in the medium of research (e.g. the social group, the street, the pub) and, by definition, is physically and temporally constrained by the body. For example the body cannot be in two places at once. Bodily characteristics also place constraints upon movement within the social landscape. For example entry to the research site and to the trust of the research subjects will be affected by, amongst other things, class, sex, speech and dress. At the same time the sentient body offers an array of `sensing equipment' to be utilised. Lofland and Lofland describe `classic participant observation' as involving `the 5 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research interweaving of looking and listening....of watching and asking' (quoted in Ely 1991:42). The act of indwelling offers the body as the research tool. The human-as- instrument (Maykut and Morehouse 1994:26) not only looks and listens, but also feels, smells, touches and intuits the nuances of human behaviour, the smells, the movements etc. of the human subject; a task that can only be appreciated through the complexities of the human observer (Maykut and Morehouse 1994:27). Vexing questions in participant observation are `How far do I go in my participation?' and `When do I withdraw?'. Action research brings these questions to the very centre of research philosophy and usually involves the `research subjects' in a consciously collaborative effort (e.g. Whyte 1991). This strategy is largely applied in educational, industry and management environments. Indeed, for the employee who undertakes action research as part of their own work situation it is not necessary to contemplate the question `when do I withdraw'? A further conscious feature of action research is its activity cycle of: plan--act-- observe--reflect--plan (Winter 1987:43). Like participant observation it involves an embodied position which requires negotiation. I am very much experiencing a blurring of the distinction between these two methods in this mixed environment of LETS research and communication. It is, undoubtedly, a function of my committed and interactive research style. However there are some fundamental differences of such `disembodied' practice which are unquestionably due to the nature of the medium itself. Central to this is the space/time compression that CMC makes communicatively real. The style is a far cry from classic studies such as William Foote Whyte's Street Corner Society (1955). CMC brings a new space/time twist to this traditionally face-to-face and, hitherto, place/body- specific activity. The next section of the paper explores the implications of CMC for these methods. Many of the observations made here were flagged by Kerr and Hiltz (1982) in their general commentary about the future of CMC. New geographies and styles of research Three levels of CMC impinge upon this research: communications between LETS activists, between researchers and the activists and between the researchers themselves. In all of these relationships the most obvious liberatory difference is that a researcher based in one place can virtually instantaneously study a movement that is occurring in many places simultaneously, as well as get potentially instant feedback from one's geographically dispersed research peers. Computer-mediated participant observation circumvents problems of space/time synchronicity, so characteristic of the embodied researcher. As Kerr and Hiltz put it, `computerised communication increases the opportunity to "be in the centre of the action" without regard to geography' (1982:114). Such ease of communication is 6 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: unprecedented and itself presents opportunities for a whole new geography Falk (1995) (http://www.scu.edu.au/ausweb95/papers/sociology/falk); Brunn and Leinbach 1991). O'Brien (1992) has even gone so far as to forebode the `end of geography' for the financial world. So too are there potentially new research landscapes for the academic. As newsprint constituted a new political geography - the nation state (Anderson 1983) - so did the smaller scale `newsletter' delimit geographies of research and academic communication. CMC broadens these geographies both spatially and temporally (e.g. Taubes 1993). Similarly the potential `research subjects' have a faster and broader medium within which to communicate, reconstituting the meaning and practice of community Falk (1995) (http://www.scu.edu.au/ausweb95/papers/sociology/falk). The new connections are already apparent in my research where researchers and research subjects communicate in a reconstituted landscape. This not only offers new opportunities for research but the possibility of a much greater two-way flow of information, a democratising challenge to the usual modes of `objective' research albeit an option many may choose not to adopt (Clarke 1993). These different facets of an emerging technology present problems and opportunities which are blurred in the grey areas of social adaptation to rapid technological change. Blurring divides? The rapidity and ease with which exchanges can take place means participant observation can have a far greater impact upon the research subject. The spatial and temporal immediacy, and the rapidity and clarity of the written word in the medium (Kerr and Hiltz 1982:118-120) gives greater force to interactions between the researcher and researched. Contributions may not necessarily be either theoretical nor exhortative but, as in my experience, may simply arise from field observations. In acting as an international researcher I am also acting as a conduit between different places (which may not be connected to the net), transfering knowledge more rapidly than other means. By comparison academic journals (albeit the `currency' of academic promotion) - with their relatively high cover price, limited circulation and rigorous refereeing process - are a poor tool for propagating findings back to the research subject. The 'hard' conference circuit is an equally expensive and limited means when one can access and instantaneously participate in the same electronic communication networks as one's research subjects. I and others are at once keynote speakers, attentive listeners; less often noisy rabble and rarely, dozing professors. By way of example, my participation in lets.oz was particularly active during field work in New Zealand in the latter half of 1993. During this time Australian LETSystems were being seriously confronted by a radical change in Department of Social Security (DSS) 7 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research policy brought about by the Department's increasing awareness of the high participation in LETS of DSS beneficiaries. This national policy change seriously threatened the continued local growth of LETS in Australia. Being in New Zealand I was aware of the apparently favourable policy stance of their Department of Social Welfare. The technology allowed me to be aware of the situation in Australia whilst travelling, and to convey my contributions and my knowledge of the New Zealand situation back to Australia. At the same time it was my position as an embodied researcher in New Zealand which privileged me to access lets.oz through New Zealand university networks. I was thus enabled to actively participate in a vigorous discussion about DSS policy and the formulation of a unified LETS submission to present to DSS. No other forum would have served the purposes that CMC provided in this case. Clearly the researcher is presented with the possibility of a genuine two way exchange, threatening to turn the `participant observation' into an inadvertent version of `action research'. When engaging in such a `live' research medium I find the position of not communicating my findings and insights to my research subjects (who are my peers in many respects) indefensible. Having such an attitude, and putting in so much time to the necessary tasks of engaging, responding, cataloguing etc., raises several questions. First is the issue of publishing in `respectable' academic journals. These of course remain `quality' (albeit `dated', at least in terms of modern communication mediums) sources of information and constitute vital `community currencies' for academic promotion. However in relation to disseminating research to a target audience rapidly and widely, publishing potentially becomes a question of `why bother?'. Of course the imperatives of publishing are ignored at the peril of one's career options. Secondly, and arising out this issue, is the risk I undertake in placing my material in such a public and manipulable medium. Obviously opportunities exist for the more electronically tentative and career conscious colleagues who may be `lurking' in the virtual shadows. As I cheerily engage in this ephemeral electronic world they may well be studiously writing up papers for publication in the `real' world based upon insights gleaned from my own electronically expressed ideas. This may not necessarily be plagiarism but may simply be a case of `...seeing further by standing on the shoulders...' - of an electronic and unacknowledged variety. I am also toying with the idea of undertaking a relatively open thesis writing process by placing draft chapters upon my World Wide Web `home page', making it accessible to inquirers at any time. Obviously this is a move which will require substantial thought in relation to these issues. A further challenge of using CMC for research is that the immediacy of information makes research possible at a much earlier stage of development of the potential research subject. It is possible to know of small community events and initiatives occurring on the other side of the world, events and initiatives which may not even reach the local media, let alone national or international media, or academic journals. What may have 8 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: been a single minor community innovation in an isolated location can, by virtue of a rapid and rhyzomic communication medium, much more quickly become a global movement. What is locally important becomes globally spread (still with a local priority), and only knowable as a globally occurring local event through the medium of computer communications. Thus CMC gives social movements the potential to have greater fluidity and volatility. These present further complications for research. For example LETS is, from all appearances, a rapidly growing global phenomenon. However it is entirely possible that the whole movement could decline within the life of the study. Instead of being a theoretical and forward looking piece of research, the thesis could just as easily become an historical document before it is even written. The inherent volatility of LETS is made even more so as local systems are influenced by the instantaneous transmission of information about events across the world. Before reflecting upon other issues a comment upon a minor methodological benefit is warranted. The interactions of CMC participant observation are contained in computer text files. The 'collective group memory' of the participants is thus accurately retained for later analysis (Kerr and Hiltz 1982:171), readily retrievable for analysis in qualitative analytical packages such as The Ethnograph or Nud.Ist. The removal of the body? The truncation of the various senses implicit in the `human-as-instrument' is definitely a limitation. For example, to be limited to a ;-) in place of a wry smile certainly limits one's social perceptors when detecting irony. It is not easy to determine the mood of those responsible for the written word on your screen, hence misinterpreted communications can rapidly escalate into `flames' without recourse to other more reasonable means of communication. The art of placation is severely limited by the rapidly written electronic word. Firing off a sharp retort is far easier when a couple of key strokes completes the irretrievable mailing process. Compare this to the relatively laborious task of putting pen to paper, whiting out, stuffing the envelope, getting the stamp and then physically placing the completed letter in the mailbox. An exchange of salvoes is a much more rapid affair and could quite literally occur in minutes, rather than weeks. A further example from New Zealand highlights these points. I was reporting on an informal basis to lets.oz about the general circumstances of LETS in New Zealand. The differences between system operation in New Zealand raised the ire of some activists in Canada, the UK and Australia. At times I took the negative responses personally. These feelings no doubt expedited the decline in my participation as a `flames' (criticism) and 'whispers' (private email 'asides' outside of the main conference) encouraged me to 9 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research become somewhat of a 'lurker', someone who reads but does not contribute. Clearly not all of one's senses or feelings are truncated by engaging in CMC. My 'lurking' episode, which has only recently ended, was partly due to a computer breakdown and my financial inability to complete the necessary repairs and upgrades. This of course raises the question. Who can and does access the medium? Clearly the issue of access is a function of many factors - education, gender, wealth - but as the lack of an APC node in New Zealand demonstrates, these issues can occur at scales greater than the individual; hence geographical gaps in the medium. Blurring the divide of `otherness'? It is widely assumed that issues of `otherness', such as sex, are effaced by CMC. For instance Kerr and Hiltz suggest that entry to groups communicating in the medium is easier due to exclusion of such markers as sex, race and physical appearance (1982:115). Mark Poster, on a more theoretical level, contends that identityless computer communication upsets `...the power relations, both economic and gendered, that govern synchronous speech. Factors such as institutional status, personal charisma, rhetorical skills, gender, and race - all of which may influence the way an utterance is received - have little effect in computer conferences. Equality of participation is thereby encouraged' (1990:122). The impersonal face of CMC certainly appears to efface bodily characteristics which can present significant obstacles to participant observation. Potentially the researcher can 'listen' without being seen, without upsetting the internal politics of the communications proceeding, without having their employment status, sex or race questioned. If however they do decide to enter the discourse, the utterance and reception of contributions may be less affected by these issues. One case which appears to affirm Poster's `identityless communication' observation occurred during a particularly fractious lets.oz discussion in late 1993. `Gert' was a LETS activist whose practices were considered dubious by many other LETS workers. For all intents and purposes it appeared that this `flame war' was directed at this `man'. A point came in the discussion where `Gert' appeared to be arguing about women's issues from a woman's point of view. Eventually the comment arose `I didnt (sic) even know Gert was a woman - sorry Gert'. Later conversations from people who lived in the same district as Gert confirmed that `she' was indeed a man, it was simply the language which was ambiguous. Paradoxically this `apology' demonstrates the importance people place upon gender during communication. Whilst the sex of Gert may have appeared irrelevant whilst it 10 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: remained unknown, it would be erroneous to conclude that race, gender, poverty etc. do not have an influence upon communication. Clearly they have an effect upon who is accessing the medium if not, as Poster contends, the communications themselves. Much feminist literature would contest such superficial assumptions, ignoring as they do that the communicating bodies are indeed, inter alia, gendered. All of these are elements which affect access and reception and utterance of the discourse itself (for instance see Rose 1993). Chua (1995) (http://www.scu.edu.au/ausweb95/papers/sociology/chua). comments upon the maleness of cyberspace (as do Kerr and Hiltz (1982)) but also identifies opportunities for new female spaces to be claimed within the virtual worlds. The creation of such a space was attempted by women LETS activists in mid-1993. Indeed, the discussion in lets.women showed signs of expanding the technical and ideological LETS discourse towards more personal issues and their effect upon one's activism. However activity on lets.women was short-lived and the conference is now defunct. If I were to leave my observations of LETS to this virtual world I might thus conclude that women's roles in LETS is limited. However the public/private, male/female duality seems to reflect quite healthily in an Internet/place or virtual/manifest sense. when one participates `face-to-face' in LETS trading and committee work it becomes apparent that the vast majority of traders and LETS management members are women. I have personally met many committees and CMC participants in the places where they live as well as at hard conferences. A very small minority of women who numerically dominate these situations are represented on the `net'. It is clear that women prefer to be achieving their LETS work on the ground, in real places, rather than engaging in high-tech theorising across cyber spaces. This is not to say that no women participate on the net, but as one woman (who I know personally) recently commented after an enlivened discussion: `NOW ALL I CAN COMPLAIN ABOUT IS THE GENDER BIAS!!!'. In fact this woman is a key negotiator with DSS, a fact which demonstrates (at least in this social movement) that those who utilise the medium also participate - indeed are key players - in policy formulation and government lobbying. Conclusions Many more issues need to be explored about the potentials and impacts of CMC on research in general. This paper has only addressed a narrow area of methodology. Although the utility of CMC is becoming apparent to many more people, it is typically highly educated male professionals (Kerr and Hiltz 1982:173) who have a distinct propensity for 'playing' and communicating by computer. Nevertheless I have put forward arguments for, and demonstrated a productive use of, the medium for social research. Such use must be tempered however by an awareness of its limitations. 11 Global participant observation from the Australian periphery: space/time compression and its implications for qualitative research LETS is first and foremost a face-to-face trading system and it would be a fatal mistake for this study, and most other social research projects, to rely solely upon computer-mediated participant observation for its data. Use of the medium must be informed by an external awareness of who is using the medium, for what purposes and to what effect. Whilst the medium might efface gender and other characteristics within the communications themselves, they are fundamental in constituting and constraining access, and thus shape the demographic of the medium's users, as well as the styles of discussions being played out. Researchers of CMC such as Kerr and Hiltz (1982:166-168) and Myers (1987) may use the medium solely as their data source. However it is vitally important that researchers who are simply using CMC as a research tool keep in mind that CMC does not entrance nor entrain everybody. CMC is simply one source, which like any qualitative research should be subjected to corroboration (or `triangulation') with other sources. Equally it would be mistaken, in this research, to ignore the conversations occurring in the medium. To do so would be to omit a crucial vector for understanding the LETS movement and the latest happenings in this dynamic and globally spread local movement. I have also shown that CMC presents possibilities for a more balanced interaction between researcher and the researched. These however suggest broader significance for the cultural edifices of knowledge and research. The potential democratisation of research by CMC (Clarke 1993) has implications for the production of knowledge itself and the notion of subject/object in research. As Poster puts it, `...the scientist qua subject...(can)...no longer be regarded as epistemologically distinct from the object being studied...' (1990:144). Poster's observation concurs with similar contemporary criticisms of knowledge construction (e.g. Capra 1982, Keller 1982). The ability of CMC to facilitate increased interaction between researcher and researched lends substantive force to these theoretical challenges which have been made upon the notion of 'objective' research. The spatial and temporal constraints which previously existed, which maintained a semblance of a hierarchical knowledge production, are potentially dissolved for those academics who wish to engage in discourse with computer conference participants. Conferences which are no longer constrained by place or time open up the possibility for academics to communicate the processes and fruits of their research to a much broader array of people than those attending university campuses or reading academic journals. 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