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Post #1052

Seeing the world

For the new faces; hello! I’m Georgina, and I spent the summer with BERG, conducting a social and economic history of the so-called ‘Silicon Roundabout’ community cluster around the Old Street area. The project itself is tying up, and we’ll be launching the stories document in January 2010. It’s been a summer of research and analysis.

How analysis works

At Reboot earlier this year, Matt talked about macroscopes: instruments that show where you are in the big context. That was an unexpected resonance for me: in making sense of my material, I’ve used my own analytical macroscope to see the social world and how the details of the microinstances shape the macroculture.

To begin, this is my macroscope – analysis is personal to the researcher and specific to the research context. There’s a lot of super-smart writing and consideration of different ways to do it, but no set definite procedure. My doctoral work – between 2003 and 2008 – was on technology communities in the adult entertainment industry, and in the course of that research, this is what I learned about the process of analysis:

  • Analysis isn’t a boxed-off process. Understanding how it all fits together doesn’t happen only at the end, sitting at a desk with the fieldnotes, interview transcripts and other material. It’s ongoing, from the opening research question to the fieldwork to the storytelling. It includes the codified and also the tacit – the hunches and ideas that hit in the downtime when three concepts tessellate together (often at either midnight or 6am).

  • Analysis is iterative. Because worlds are complex and full of stuff, the early stages of observation simply document (‘There are trade events’) rather than give definitive answers (‘There are trade events because…‘). But there are sparks in the descriptions – instances which are interesting because they happen frequently, or very rarely; because although they come unprompted from different places, they refer to a related thing (‘Community’, ‘network’, ‘family’, ‘Men’s club’, ‘incestuous’).

    Sparks can also be the interesting and the unexpected. They cluster together to light up the research question, illuminating what to find out more about: Is there a widespread sense of community? Do trade events create or maintain communities? Do communities affect innovative activities?. Sparks show the dark contrast too: Who is not in the community and why? If trade events are so important, who doesn’t go? And the loop goes around.

    But analysis is cautious. There are a lot of sparks, and there’s a danger in seeing patterns where there’s only random noise, or weighting one spark over others too much too early.

Analysis grows into themes

Analysis identifies abstract themes. Sparks represent ideas and concepts; given that, they can be collected into emergent categories that represent actual phenomena. And because sparks are complex and contain multitudes they can belong to many different themes; for instance, in my doctoral research, the ‘community’ sparks fitted into both the ‘We Are A Community‘ theme (collecting structures which create and maintain the social network of the industry) and ‘Technology How?‘ (collecting the ways technologies are built using input from the network).

Eventually, repeated events occur, routines are the same, the material becomes saturated and new sparks are infrequent. Throughout my research, the ‘Wild West’ story about the history of the industry came up again and again.

Analysis gives flesh to the themes by triangulating material from different sources against each other. The categories are filled out with finer and finer details. I found the boundaries and limits of the ‘We Are A Community‘ theme by asking questions until I was scraping at the edges: Who was in the community? How did they join? Where and when was the community maintained? How were communications created? Who wasn’t in the community? Where in physical/virtual space did the community ever converge?


In the end, analysis leads to storytelling. Each theme is a sheet of coloured acetate with a pattern on, beautiful and individual in its own right – but when they’re layered over each other, a picture emerges. Fitting the themes together tells the story of which answers the original question, and any others which have emerged along the way.

Like the analysis, storytelling is specific to the context: for the research on pornography, the story started at the macrolevel of industry and spun down into the microworld of people. For Old Street, and the upcoming January stories document, there are a number of ways to choose the adventure.

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