The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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Photo by Tracy Le Blanc on Pexels.com

1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)

Researching the downsizing claim: “every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did”

A recent book looks at downsizing and the author says everyone who does it is pleased with the outcome:

“It scares people to think of moving into a smaller space, but every single person I interviewed who has made the transition says they are so happy they did,” Koones says. “Time and again, people used the word ‘liberated’ to describe their move to a smaller space, with homes requiring far less time and money to maintain.”

Who are the people downsizing?

“It’s not just empty nesters anymore,” she adds. “Younger people too are in couples where they’re both working, they’re having children later, they want to be active and they don’t want to be doing maintenance on the weekends. They don’t want to be tied down to mowing lawns and doing all the other chores that come with living in a big house.”

Living more sustainably and saving on energy costs is also part of the attraction of downsizing, Koones says.

So is aging in place. There are people of all ages looking for features like a master bedroom on the main floor, or barrier-free showers.

I would be interested to see academic studies of this shift as it could help answer some questions regarding downsizing and the choices people make regarding homes. Here are some of the questions:

1. How widespread is downsizing? My guess is that it is a pretty small movement. In a related question, how do individual decisions to downsize work at a broader level? These choices could influence families, neighborhoods, communities, builders, and others.

2. How much do the people who are downsizing share in common? There are multiple possible reasons for downsizing – economic reasons (including saving on energy costs), wanting less space to maintain, environmental imperatives, prizing location over a home – and it would be interesting to look at more prevalent factors. A similar question: what drives people to downsize (when Americans as a whole are pushed toward larger homes)? Or, is there a particular cultural ethos about downsizing that can be persuasive for some and not others?

3. What are satisfaction rates after downsizing? Are downsizers 100% satisfied or somewhat satisfied and what downsides do they report? Do they stay in smaller homes for the long-term?

4. How exactly should we define downsizing? It looks like this book primarily focuses on single-family homes. Others might see a move away from a single-family home and its property to an apartment, condo, or townhome as downsizing or accomplishing some of the same goals even if the difference in square feet is not that much. Is choosing to live in a multigenerational home a form of downsizing if households are combined and there is reduction of square feet per person? An involuntary move to a care facility might be technically downsizing but it does not carry the same agency.

Gendered McMansions, Part 4: figuring out the role of gender

Thus far, I have discussed how the size and architecture of McMansions, the large kitchen and living spaces, and the emphasis on raising children in the suburbs interacts with gender. How might researchers examine the gender dynamics of McMansions? A few ideas:

  1. How many McMansion owners are women and how many are men? (This could require a master list of McMansions in a location or across a broader geography.)
  2. When choosing a home and where to live, are men or women more likely to select a McMansion? Related: when asked to compare McMansions and their features to other kinds of homes, how do men and women compare in what traits they prefer? (A series of experiments with sets of choices could reveal differences.)
  3. Which gender spends more time in different parts of the McMansion? Studies have looked at use patterns in homes; why not break it down further by gender within McMansions? Are family rooms, basements, and garages used more by men and kitchens and nearby living spaces used more by women? Does a “man cave” truly exist or is it more of a luxury item? (Use observation or some kind of recording device to track movement in the home.)
  4. When people see McMansions (either driving/walking/biking by or on screen), who do they imagine lives there (men or women, in addition to a whole other sets of questions about race/ethnicity, social class, age, education, personal tastes, etc.)? Looking at the exterior (and maybe parts of the interior), what gender do they associate with the different aspects (and how does this compare to other homes)? (More experiments.)
  5. Do McMansions simply carry on the gender stereotypes of other single-family homes and suburban locations or they challenge some aspect of this developed and experienced knowledge about gender and homes? (Need comparative work between different styles of single-family homes.)

Perhaps all of this might be of best use to builders, developers, real estate agents, and marketers who could profit off this information. On the other hand, there are many Americans who live in McMansions (and who will do so in the future or have done so in the past). Have these homes, the hours spent in them, the ways the design, size, and connotations shaped social interactions had an impact on individuals, families, and communities as well as our understandings of gender?

 

Sociology = studying facts and interpretations of those facts

David Brooks hits on a lesson I teach in my Social Research class: studying sociology involves both looking for empirical patterns (facts) and the interpretations of patterns, real or not (meanings). Here is how Brooks puts it:

An event is really two things. It’s the event itself and then it’s the process by which we make meaning of the event. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

In my class, this discussion comes about through reading the 2002 piece by Roth and Mehta titled “The Rashomon Effect: Combining Positivist and Interpretivist Approaches in the Analysis of Contested Events.” The authors argue research needs to look at what actually happened (the school shootings under study here) as well as how people in the community understood what happened (which may or may not have aligned with what actually happened but had important consequences for local social life). Both aspects might be interesting to study on their own – here is a phenomenon or here is what people make of this – but together researchers can get a full human experience where facts and meanings interact.

Brooks writes this in the context of the media. A good example of how this would be applied is the matter of journalists looking to spot trends. There are new empirical patterns to spot and point out. New social phenomena develop often (and figuring out where they come from can be a whole different complex matter). At the same time, we want to know what these trends mean. If psychologist Jean Twenge says there are troubling patterns as the result of smartphone use among teenagers and young adults, we can examine the empirical data – is smartphone use connected to other outcomes? – and what we think about all of this – is it good that this might be connected to increased loneliness?

More broadly, Brooks is hinting at the realm of sociology of culture where culture can be defined as patterns of meaning-making. The ways in which societies, groups, and individuals make meaning of their own actions and the social world around them is very important.

Brilliance vs. perseverance in academic writing and work

What does it take to publish academic research? Here is a recent reminder of a truism I have heard again and again and experienced myself:

Brilliance (or something close to it) is, I’d say, about 3 percent of creating a publishable article or monograph. The other 97 percent is patience and the stamina to be able to work, over and over, on something for which the end might not be in sight for a while.

This would be similar to two pieces of helpful advice I received within the first few weeks of starting a sociology Ph.D. program:

-Treat your academic work like a job: have regular hours, goals, and progress.

-Be a chipper and not a binger. Short and continuous efforts lead to better work than last-minute, long sessions to meet a deadline.

Or, we could turn to quotes or stories about Thomas Edison’s work and trying over and over again.

To me, all of this makes more and more sense as you work on research projects. The various stages of academic work – conceiving a viable idea, tracking down data and evidence, scouring the existing literature, analyzing the data, considering the implications, submitting for publication and then going through the review process – can each require a large amount of work and require time to ponder and address. Rushing to meet deadlines can be helpful for structuring time but it does not free up the same kind of mental space to ponder the question at hand. Finding the creative edge in academic work often requires more time, not less.

All of this requires working against an American cultural setting where (1) fast work and efficiency is often prized and (2) creative work is viewed as the result of individual genius. There may be grains of truth in each of these regarding academic research but they can also work against the need to persevere. For example, passing along the above information to undergraduate students can be difficult because their academic modes have prized these two qualities: be individually smart and meet relatively short deadlines. And how much is this perpetuated by college projects that may last 10 weeks at most?

All of this academic patience and stamina takes time to develop and likely exists in various degrees and expressions among academics. But, I imagine it would be hard to get far without at least some of it.

Just how many scientific studies are fraudulent?

I’m not sure whether these figures are high or low regarding how many scientific studies contain midconduct:

Although deception in science is rare, it’s probably more common than many people think. Surveys show that roughly 2 percent of researchers admit to behavior that would constitute misconduct—the big three sins are fabrication of data, fraud, and plagiarism (other forms can include many other actions, including failure to get ethics approval for studies that involve humans). And that’s just those who admit to it—a recent analysis found evidence of problematic figures and images in nearly 4 percent of studies with those graphics, a figure that had quadrupled since 2000.

Here is part of the abstract from the first study cited above (the 2% figure):

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.

Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.

I hope some of the efforts by researchers to address this – through a variety of means – are successful.

Take a look at the rest of the article as well: just as individual scholars feel a lot of pressure to commit fraud, big schools have a lot of money on the line with certain researchers and may not want to admit possible issues.

Will citing the Kindle location, and not the page number, become the norm?

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise contains an interesting bibliographic twist: he sometimes cites Kindle locations, not page numbers. Here is an example: footnote 42 in Chapter 8.

McGrayne, The Theory That Would Not Die, Kindle location 46.

Silver doesn’t do this for every book though he does sometimes say a book is the Kindle edition if he is giving the full citation. Is Silver on to a new trend? Will readers and scholars want Kindle locations?

I think we’re probably a long ways from this becoming standard. The problem is that it requires having all of your books in Kindle form. Ebooks are popular but I’m not sure how far people are willing to go to replace all of their older books with Kindle editions. (Particularly if you are dealing with more esoteric published material.) I could see this happening more for new books which are more likely to be purchased in Kindle form. Or perhaps we are headed for a world where everyone has Kindle access to all major books (a subscription service? An expanded Project Gutenberg?) on their phone, tablet, or computer and looking up a Kindle location becomes really easy.

Perhaps this won’t really matter until I see it in a student research paper…

Report calls for more study of how “kids navigate social networks”

A new report suggests we don’t know much about how kids use social networks and thus, we need more research:

A recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Kids Online: A new research agenda for understanding social networking forums, has identified that we don’t actually know enough about how pre-teens use online social networking. The researchers, Dr. Sarah Grime and Dr. Deborah Fields, have done a good job in helping us recognize that younger children are engaged in a range of different ways with online social networks, but that our knowledge and understanding of what that means and how it impacts on their lives is pretty much underdone. GeekDads, of course, will have thoughts about how and why our children are playing and engaging with technology and networks in the ways they do, but this doesn’t give the people who make the rules and set the policy agendas the big picture that they need.

Essentially, Kids Online is a research report that calls for more research into children’s use of social networks. But the report does demonstrate very clearly why this is required. And at the rate that technology is changing and advancing, we need to work cleverly if we are to have the type of data and analysis that we need as parents to guide our decision making around technology and our children. We are all out there trying our best to facilitate healthy, dynamic, educational and exciting experiences for our children when it comes to tech, but there are not enough people exploring what that looks like. As the report says:

“Research on Internet use in the home has consistently demonstrated that family dynamics play a crucial role in children’s and parents’ activities and experiences online. We need further research on the role of parental limits, rules, and restrictions on children’s social networking as well as how families, siblings, peers, and schools influence children’s online social networking.”

I would go further: we need more research of how people of all ages navigate social networks. This doesn’t mean just looking at what activities users participate in online, how often they update information, or how many or what kinds of friends they have. These pieces of information give an outline of social network site usage. However, we need more comprehensive views how exactly social interaction online works, develops, and interacts in feedback loops with the offline and online worlds.

Let me give an example. Suppose an eleven year old joins Facebook. What happens then? Sure, they gain friends and develop a profile but how does this change and develop over the first days, weeks, and months? How does the eleven year old describe the process of social interaction? How do their friends, online and offline, describe this interaction? Where do they learn how to act and not act on Facebook? Do the social networks online overlap completely with offline networks and if so or if not, how does this affect the offline network? How does the eleven year old start seeing all social interaction differently? Does it change their interaction patterns for years to come or can they somewhat compartmentalize the Facebook experience?

This sort of research would take a lot of time and would be difficult to do with large groups. To do it well, a researcher would have two options: an ethnographic approach or to gain access to the keys to someone’s Facebook account to be able to observe everything that happens. Of course, Facebook itself could provide this information…

NYT lays out three options for how personal religious faith could influence sociological work

At the end of a column looking at this summer’s public debate over research findings from sociologist Mark Regnerus, the writer suggests there are three ways personal religious faith could influence a sociologist’s work:

So if there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers.

First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure.

Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history.

Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.

Option one presented here seems to be the one that would probably be most acceptable to the broader scientific community. Lots of researchers have personal interests that help guide them to particular areas of study but then we tend to assume (or hope), a la Weber’s arguments about value-free sociology, that the findings will not necessarily be influenced by these personal interests. At the same time, some might argue that completely separating personal life and research results may be a modernist dream.

I suspect options two and three wouldn’t get as much broad support.

It would also be interesting to see how this would play out if we weren’t talking about personal religious beliefs but other personal beliefs. For example, Jonathan Haidt has been looking at politics within social psychology and thinking about how these personal (and more collective) beliefs might influence a whole field.

Losing something in the research process with such easy access to information

A retired academic laments that the thrill of the research hunt has diminished with easy access to information and data:

It’s a long stretch, but it seems to me that “ease of access” and the quite miraculous enquiry-request-delivery systems now available to the scholar have had an effect on research. The turn to theory – attention to textuality rather than physical things such as books, manuscripts, letters and paraphernalia of various kinds – has, I think, coincided with big changes in method. Discovery has been replaced by critical discourse and by dialectic.

Fieldwork was, typically, solitary. Lonely sometimes. The new styles at the professional end of the subject are collective – if sometimes less than collegial. The conference is now central to the profession, particularly the conference at which everyone is a speaker, a colloquiast and a verbal “participant”.

One can see something similar at the undergraduate level. I suspect that in my subject (English), some undergraduates are nowadays doing their three years without feeling ever obliged to go the library. Gutenberg, iBook, Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Google and the preowned, dirt-cheap texts on AbeBooks have rendered the library nothing more than emergency back-up and a warm place to work, using wi-fito access extramural materials. The seminar (the undergraduate equivalent of the conference), not the one-on-one tutorial or the know-it-all lecture, is the central feature of the teaching programme.

There may be something to this. Discovering new sources, objects, and data that no one has examined before in out-of-way places is certainly exciting. However, I wonder if the research hunt hasn’t simply shifted. As this academic argues, it is not hard to find information these days. But today, the hunt is more in what story to tell or how to interpret the accessible data. As I tell my students, anyone with some computer skills can do a search, find a dataset, and download it within a few minutes. This does not mean that the everyone can understand how to work with the data and interpret it. (The same would apply to non-numeric/qualitative data that could be quickly found, such as analyzing online interactions or profiles.) Clearing a way through the flood of information is no easy task and can have its own kind of charm.

Perhaps the problem is that students and academics today feel like having the quick access to information already takes care of a large part of their research. Simply go to Google, type in some terms, look at the first few results, and there isn’t much left to do – it is all magic, after all. Perhaps the searching for information that one used to do wasn’t really about getting the information but rather about the amount of time it required as this led to more profitable thinking, reflection, and writing time.