Archive | October 2014

Expertise and method

I’ve been reading more into different areas which could be worth exploring in my research, as I start thinking in more depth about a theoretical framework. In the past couple of weeks I’ve taken a break from re-visiting what I’ve read already and took a look at two more concepts – complexity theory and expertise.

Complexity theory

I’ve only read one piece on complexity theory, Comunian’s Rethinking the Creative City (2011). She uses complexity theory to look at the connection between urban space and the systems of local cultural production and consumption. Comunian emphasises the importance of micro interactions and networks between creative practitioners, the cultural sector and the cultural infrastructure of a city. Like me, she argues that not enough attention is given to the nature of interactions between creative workers. While complexity theory may have some uses for this, there are many challenges with multi-level interpretation of data, and the theory overall doesn’t quite seem to ‘fit’ with measuring micro level human interaction. I won’t proceed any further with my exploration into complexity theory, but this piece was particularly useful in raising important questions about methodology, which I will talk about again later.


In searching for literature around expertise and the creative industries I came across Tulloch’s Performing Culture (1999). Tulloch talks about the tensions between the everyday and expertise, and argues that the distinctions between the two are blurred. I see paralells in this between what I’ve been reading about technology and labour, notably Melissa Gregg’s work on performing professionalism. Tulloch acknowledges some of the performance theory I’m going to look at such as Goffman and Butler, however the ideas of Ien Ang (1996) and Terry Threadgold’s (1997) emphasis on reflexive storytelling and performance are the basis for his approach. He looks at several aspects of performing culture and performing expertise – from academics to theatre performers – to support his argument that both everyday and expert knowledge are stories that are told and performed, and that academic ‘expertise’ in the field of cultural studies should be questioned. He argues that people actively construct their own identities and tell their own stories by utilising a combination of lay and expert knowledge.

A lot of the book was concerned with contributing to an understanding of media production and consumption. Nowadays there is little or no separation between production and consumption thanks to social media and mobile technology, so for the blurring of distinctions which Tulloch often refers to in relation to agency/structure, high/popular culture and expertise/everyday, production/consumption can be added to that list.  ‘Expertise’ in itself is not explored in any great depth; it’s assumed that the performers, producers and academics possess the ‘expert’ knowledge. Again, distinctions here (particularly in the creative industries), could be blurred and may be worth exploring in my research. For example, if someone says they’re an ‘expert’ of a particular field on their Twitter bio, what entitles them to say that?

Though I found much of the book will not be useful for me because it deals a lot with media production, it reminded me of much of the core media theory which I am going to revisit, such as the work of Raymond Williams and de Saussre, because starting from the core theory will be valuable in helping me to define my theoretical framework.

Prince (2010) has looked at expertise in the UK creative industries and how it came to prominence within government assemblages. He mentions how new technologies have enabled marginalised groups to engage with and influence government assemblages. It’s a good starting point for the concept of expert power within a certain structure. It would have been useful to tease out the experts’ perception of their own expertise in the interviews, and the author acknowledges that further work should be carried out in this area. I will continue to look at literature around expertise, because the link between performance, performativity and expertise is worth looking at for my research.

Prince’s discussion was strictly within the context of government assemblages and it would be useful to explore this concept within other structures outside of government.


Assemblages are also talked about in something else I’ve been reading around methodologies – The Double Social Life of Methods by Law, Ruppert and Savage (2011). The piece is a thoughtful discussion about how research methods are both constituted by, and constitute, the social world they research. The authors argue that current methods do not allow us to discover new realities or try new methodological assemblages. The application of complexity theory to creative industries systems is an example of this. Even though this was worth trying and some insights were provided, the method was incompatible in many ways. This concern of ill-fitting methodologies was raised when I went to the Researching Social Media conference last year – how the nature of social media doesn’t lend itself to being researched using traditional research methods, and new ways need to be explored. For me the method will be a part of my literature survey, because I will be looking to adapt or create a method for this research and as argued by Law et al, this requires some thinking about what methods actually do and the assumptions embedded within them.

I’m going to concentrate on reading further within the themes discussed in this post, because whilst some of what I’ve read may not be useful, it has signposted me to topics and debates which could be more relevant to my research than areas such as capital, which I’ve already spent a lot of time on.

Literature part 1 – social media

Over the past year I’ve been reading various things in the build up to beginning my PhD. I’ve mostly been picking up books and journal articles of interest and scribbling thoughts down in a notebook, and now I’m trying to go back through these notes and digest again what I read and whether it would be of any use.

What I’ve read so far spans several areas I may well cover in the PhD: social media, capital, identity, creative workers, labour, and the creative industries.

I’m going to summarise my thoughts on the area I’ve read the most about so far – social media.

Social media and the self

I’ve posted previously about Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011), the book that really drove my interest in how people use social media. Turkle raises some valid concerns about people’s fixation with mobile technology and social media, and how people are more interested in their phones than the person in front of them. However, much of what she presented was anecdotal, and with American teenagers and families. It was noticing this ‘gap’ that made me want to pursue this area further.

What is really important to avoid though is technological determinism, something that Baym (2010) and Balick (2013), among others, warn against. Technological determinism assumes that technology is doing something to people, when in fact, it’s people who shape technology. My research is a counter to technological determinism – I’m looking at the reasons why people use it, and how they use social media (mainly Twitter).

I mention Baym and Balick above, whose books I have also read in my pre-PhD warm up. Most recently I read Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age (2010) which I’ve heard she is now revising for a second edition. This is welcome news, because the book is now quite outdated in terms of the technology and social media sites talked about. Despite that, Baym offers a useful discussion on utopian and dystopian views of the Internet and its uses. She also argues that the users’ context is important when talking about how people use social media, and that rather than placing ‘offline’ and ‘online’ interaction in opposition to each other, they should be viewed as components in a “mixed modality” (p.51) way of communicating. She often refers to online or digital communication as “mediated communication” – another term i should probably add to my literature search keywords. Baym’s open-minded, nuanced approach to looking at online communication is more useful than the completely utopian and dystopian approaches. However, she doesn’t talk much about Twitter in this book (she may in the next), and as she concedes, much more research is still required in this area.

In a departure from my media and cultural studies background, Aaron Balick (2013) is a psychotherapist, and takes a psychodynamic approach to social media use. I went to see his talk at Social Media Week London last year and I also talked about his book in an earlier post on this blog, and though it stems from a different discipline, I think it’s important for me to acknowledge this work, because he draws on the work of Turkle and Baym quite frequently. He looks at social media use in relation to our own identity and how we see ourselves, and that’s when talk of the id, Ego and Self kick in. This book led me to consider identity and performativity, and some work has been done on this in the social media space.

Social media and identity

Murthy (2012) has looked at Twitter in relation to identity. He comes from a sociological standpoint, referring often to Goffman’s (1981) interactionist approach to understanding online communication. The article is effectively a literature review and a discussion of how Goffman’s theories can be applied to Twitter – but the framework isn’t actually used in any substantial research on Twitter and serves more as a starting point for sociologists more than anything else. Again, this approach is useful for me to know about and may be worth revisiting.

Rui and Stefanone (2012) also refer to Goffman in their approach to identity and self-presentation online. Their study is quantitative and involves a cross-cultural comparison of how culture influences self-presentation online. They argue that users are actively aware of their audience, and are strategic in their approach to how they present themselves in order to seek approval. These tensions can affect how people present themselves on social media sites; they term it “protective self-presentation to maintain positive images” (p.114). The problem with quantitative research is that it will always miss the actual context of the user, and I feel in this area of research that while large-scale data has value, it’s equally important to talk to users and tease out their own motivations, rationale and perception of their social media use.

Cover (2012) uses Judith Butler’s theories of performative identity, and argues that, like Baym, what we put online should not be considered completely separate from our interactions offline, however the coherence of online identity can be disrupted by what others say about us. The establishment of an online profile is a performative act in itself, but the rigid sections and the architecture of social networking sites mean that “playing out an identity” (p.181) can be difficult. The use of Butler’s theories of performative identity could be useful, but Cover does point out that the Butler (and Foucauldian) understandings of subjecthood – the notions of private/public are problematised in the context of social media, which is something I need to consider and look into further. Whilst providing some good examples of how Butler’s theories of performativity can be applied to social media identity online, there are some assumptions made by Cover, such as that the maintenance of multiple online profiles is an ever-growing task of managing identity – or labour – yet it’s not fully known yet what kind of labour is taking place here and again, the personal context is missing. Some people might like maintaining 20 different profiles and tailoring them for each audience; others may not.

I’ve looked into other traditional theories of identity too, such as the work of Peter Burke and Jan Stets, but I feel a discussion about these should be in a separate post about the wider theoretical frameworks that I’ve explored, which includes capital.

Social media and capital

Capital is another aspect I’m planning to address in the PhD, specifically the role of Twitter usage in the accumulation of capital. At the very early stages of my proposal I was fixed on social capital and that’s were most of my reading so far lies. However, I plan to look at other forms of capital, because what makes one form of capital more relevant for this research than another?

There is a growing body of work on social media use and social capital. A study on the relationship between Facebook use and accumulation of social capital by Ellison, Steinfeld and Lampe (2007) found a causal relationship between the two – the most frequent users of Facebook tended to have higher levels of social capital. However, this study, and many others in this area are empirical and on college students in the USA, and do not tell us enough about the relationship between social media use and capital. Wellman, Haase, Witte and Hampton (2010) did not look at social media but the use of a particular website, and also found a causal relationship between interaction online and participation in ‘offline’ community groups.

There are two problems with the studies mentioned above – they are outdated (which all studies in this area will become), and they treat online and offline interaction as completely separate acts, that one may influence the other. I don’t believe this is the case anymore. As I talked about at the very beginning of this blog post, technology, and social media, do not cause anything. It’s the users that make it what it is. I still have a lot more literature to look at in this area, not only in relation to social capital but also other forms of capital.

PhD – questions about questions

My PhD is underway and in the first session of the PGCert after induction week we were asked to consider research questions. As part of my application for funding I already had a research question, but the discussions during the PGCert have led me to reconsider what I’m looking at and the ‘objects of study’.

For my research I aim to use Birmingham as the ‘case study’ to look at the nature of social media use among creative workers who are based in the city. I chose Birmingham because:

However, does the fact that it is a city of particular interest for cultural policy makers may mean that there is already a plethora of literature around Birmingham’s creative and cultural industries? Is it more sensible to focus on another city? This is where further exploration of the literature, specifically about Birmingham, will help. From what I’ve looked at so far, Birmingham’s creative economy has received some attention in the field: Kate Oakley used the city as a case study in 2004, and more recently Andres and Chapain (2013) and Lee, Hesmondalgh, Oakley and Nisbett (2014) have used Birmingham as an example or case study when looking at cultural policy making, but retrospectively. It suggests that there is ‘room’ for my project in the literature around Birmingham, and that it can offer a different perspective on the creative industries in the city.

Using Birmingham as my case study city for looking at social media use also calls into question the focus on geographical place, and the role of social media in this. I’ve recently finished reading Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age (2010) in which she outlines how the spatial and temporal dimensions of our communications online are distorted, not only through social networking sites but email and message boards. So with this in mind, is focusing on a specific city, and a specific group of people in relation to their social media use, relevant?

My followers on Twitter are from all over the world and from a variety of occupations and backgrounds. And I imagine the same could be said for my prospective research participants. So is it worth looking at their networks with a strictly Birmingham focus? It would be short-sighted to completely dismiss any connections who are not from within a ‘B’ postcode (and in Twitter it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish that anyway). However, as mentioned before, Birmingham has a distinct social media scene where many of those involved know each other and communicate regularly on Twitter – what I want to know is why they do this, what role does Twitter play in their lives, and how else do they negotiate their connections within their industry? What does Twitter mean to them, and can knowing that add to what we know about creative industries?

So while social media does cross boundaries in time and space and this is something I need to consider, the case of Birmingham is unique in that from my own experience, those involved in the ‘social media scene’ tend to use it to communicate with each other (I must stress that won’t be the only function). Some work has suggested that people’s main use of social media is to communicate with people they already know well (Baym 2010; Turkle, 2011; Balick, 2013), but it is still imperative that those people’s connections outside of Birmingham are not ignored, because they could lead to other networks of interest.

I had doubts about my object of study because I wondered whether using only Birmingham as a case study city would be enough, but for the purpose of addressing the research question, Birmingham is important. Now I need to find out whether any other cities are ‘doing a Birmingham’. London seems an obvious candidate with the advent of its own social media cafe, but more exploration is needed before I decide whether to add any other case study cities.

Another thing I need to address is that of definitions and terminology – specifically:

  • Creative Industries – which creative industries? Which type of creative workers? In my funding application I used the DCMS definition of creative industries, which is currently under consultation. What does this mean for my approach?
  • Social Media – some studies have used the term ‘Social Networking Sites’ when talking about social media, I need to define early on what terminology I am going to use, and define it clearly.

Again, a further exploration of the literature will help with the above points.