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.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.
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