Dr Sara Bragg

A recent University of Brighton initiative, the Research Leadership Programme, involves participants shadowing a ‘research leader’ from a different institution for a day. I went to meet Matt Arnold, head of research at Face Group in London; its website describes it as ‘a global strategic insight agency’ delivering ‘socially intelligent research by combining qualitative insight, real-time data and smart thinking’.

I expected the Fatboy beanbags in the reception area on my arrival, but I was more surprised to be shown into a starkly-lit basement, where Matt and a colleague were huddled over a conference call with a client. I gained a clear impression of the speed and pace of the corporate world, observing Matt helping colleagues work out the logistics of designing and delivering research in different countries and even continents within the space of a few days. I wondered how compatible such long hours would be with ‘work-life balance’, and how far this is a young (single/childfree?) person’s world…

I was equally fascinated by their research methods, and here there were immediate similarities with ‘innovative’ social science approaches. For instance, Face Group has developed an app that prompts research participants to generate data such as a diary, photos, film, notes. As in the social sciences, ‘traditional’ focus groups are increasingly seen as limited, capturing conscious, post-hoc rationalised reconstructions of behaviour rather than contextualised feelings and actions in the moment.

Face Group also has its own ‘social media listening’ service, distinguished by a sophisticated natural language processing capacity that can help identify different kinds of consumer and what they are ‘saying’ across social media platforms. Having recently experimented with using free social media analysis packages such as Node XL to understand teachers’ professional learning networks, I am only too aware of their limitation and the desirability of more powerful tools such as these.

Similarly, ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-research’ are increasingly popular and widespread terms. Face Group can lay claim to some ownership of the concept, having developed specific, multi-layered, recursive research processes under this rubric. For instance, developing new personal care products might bring together the client with the ad agency, design agency, R&D and experts from Face Group’s own ‘black book’ (such as, a hairdresser with their own exclusive product range, fashion specialists, a sous-chef who understands smell and taste). Consumers would be carefully recruited – completing questionnaires, auditions and set tasks – to ensure they were articulate, sociable and represented ‘100%’ of different target audiences. Over the course of an intensive five-day programme, experts would give presentations; consumers provide information about themselves, how they think, what they do, their lifestyle and attitudes; diverse teams would be assembled; new product ideas would be developed with R&D keeping ‘in the parameters of what is realistic’ and using creative techniques where participants build on each others’ ideas; an artist would be on hand to capture the affective texture of the day… culminating in outcomes matching the objectives set out at the beginning.

Or to give another example, a project to develop new smart technologies involved intensive mini-ethnographies, spending a few hours with research participants at work and at home, to understand their needs and technological dilemmas in situ. Diverse findings were then grouped and condensed into vivid ‘vignettes’ when presenting findings to the client. At a procedural level, again, there are many resonances with social science methods, right down to the presence of visual artists at conferences. Certainly, the Face 2 Face project in which I have been involved has been discussing similar approaches.

Social science is often concerned with marginalized social groups, who (being poorer) are necessarily of less interest from a marketing point of view. Our audiences may also be less keen on our findings, however well-grounded, than a client seeking knowledge of a market: in education, for example, politicians consistently ignore evidence about the negative consequences of ability-labelling and streaming practices. Education researchers often speak in terms of loftier goals such as ‘social justice’. Could this be broken down into achievable goals and steps and a programme for delivering it developed through co-research? What is the place of data analysis – would a social scientist make very different use of the kinds of data gathered by market research? At a conference of the Centre for Research into Economic and Social Change (CRESC) I attended some years ago, some fascinating papers were doing just that with survey data from the 1950s. It would be very interesting to develop further dialogues about these issues across sectors, data, and interests.

February 20th, 2015

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Dr Sara Bragg offers her reflections on:

The Child Internet Safety Conference

In early July, I attended the Child Internet Safety conference in London. This was the second in what is billed as an annual event, with a strong industry presence in terms of sponsorship, exhibitors and speakers, and a packed audience that included local / central government and education providers (www.childinternetsafety.co.uk). Other contributors included Ofsted and various child protection specialists associated with the UK Council on Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS).

In a recent analysis of UK e-safety policy documents [i], Andrew Hope argues that four main themes undermine critical, informed debate about child e-safety issues: how kids online are discursively constructed (e.g. without differentiating between different kinds and ages of children); the muting of young people’s voices; constructing e-safety as the responsibility of individuals; and the ‘diagnostic inflation’ of risks. I wanted to see how far his arguments would pertain here.

The first speaker was John Carr, billed as a ‘UK Government Advisor on Online Child Safety’ (and not the only one here with an OBE: there seem to be a fair number of government gongs available for this line of work). He began by stressing that ‘children are not a homogenous group’, that 17, 11 and 3 year olds should all be carefully distinguished. This seemed promising, almost as if he had read Hope’s article himself.

Almost immediately thereafter, however, he went on to argue that ‘for some youngsters, the consequences of getting their [global digital] footprint wrong can be long lasting and catastrophic’. This is because employers are ‘routinely looking at the internet’ before appointing candidates. ‘It is unfair but it happens’. Jobs are so hard to find, imagine if you didn’t get invited to a job because of something you did online. For instance, he knows a girl who made papier-mache models of human body parts for a school project and was photographed pulling a ghoulish face whilst carrying them. ‘You might draw an inappropriate and inaccurate conclusion’. Or what about the ‘crime’ of ‘sexting’, for which a young person might get ‘five years on the sex offenders’ register’? Police in the US, he told us, have prosecuted ‘hundreds if not thousands’ of young people because of such images. ‘A lot of kids don’t know that stuff like this is illegal’.

Soon after came a representative from the organization Beat Bullying, who charged ‘industry’ of ‘failing to act’ on cyberbullying, which BB is campaigning to make a criminal offence.

It’s hard to know where to begin in response to this. How convincing is an appeal to young people as future high-flying employees in a context of recession and rising youth unemployment? – If you are in line for the kind of job envisaged here, you might also have the digital nous to clear up your online reputation first, even if it means paying one of the growing phalanx of companies offering to do just that.

As for Carr’s – entirely speculative – example of a problematic image, what conclusions, exactly, might one draw from it? That here was a teenage cannibal or murderer on the loose? Really? At what point might we start to arraign the idiocy of such putative interpretations (or even, the maliciousness of asserting them as viable ones)? Do young people have to carry responsibility not only for whatever they post but for the stupidity of all and any viewers too?

The emphasis on risk is problematic for several reasons. It is inconsistent, as Amy Hasinoff [ii] highlights in a recent article that elegantly contrasts the ‘scare’ discourse around kids and sexting with many mainstream magazines for adult readerships that advocate it as a positive way to ‘spice up your love life’.  It is adult-centric, failing to engage with what young people define as risky or why they might even need and enjoy risk (and, for instance, continue sexting even if they know it is illegal).

Despite the expressed desire to protect young people, it shades into something unpleasantly punitive and occasionally lascivious, policing young people’s behaviours and – as with Beat Bullying’s position – dividing them rather too neatly into victims (to be shielded), and bullies (to be criminalized). In this way it comes across less as an assertion of children’s rights than a backlash against them, as Allison and Adrian James have argued [iii].

Finally the ‘solutions’ to risk are privatized, individualized, and largely adult-led; a matter of understanding and selecting privacy settings, for example, which then makes the parameters of the debate about whether technology companies, schools or parents should take responsibility for leading on them.  The conference programme’s cover image shows a middle-class white boy playing on a laptop, encircled by shields, suggesting that the best we can manage is to save the world one ‘worthy’ child at a time. This is misdirected, lacking a nuanced sense of the broader social context. As LSE’s Sonia Livingstone pointed out, more privileged kids are generally having more constructive online experiences.  In Denmark 75% of children use tablets daily in schools and have no greater incidence of risk. On the other hand, the kids who are at risk online tend also to be at risk offline too; but these are also the very social groups that as a society we seem to find it harder to care about.

Focusing unduly on an abstract figure of the at-risk child is politically toothless, if not an active diversion. It may well prevent us articulating and developing more collective positions and campaigns around, for instance, the way major corporations are mining all our online lives for profitable data.

Equally significantly, however, by not engaging substantively with young people’s perspectives we may be missing out on sources of more fundamental challenge to the online safety agenda. In her research[iv], danah boyd argues that many young people consider their online lives as public by default, private by design. In other words, their understanding of the boundaries of public and private appears radically at odds with many adults’ – and certainly with the technological ‘fixes’ promised by companies exhibiting at the conference.

Several contributors referred to children as ‘digital natives’. Of course, as others commented, there is a danger in assuming too readily that children know all they need to about the technologies and how they work. Nonetheless, there is surely good reason to think that young people could indeed tell us a lot about how and why they use and manage their online worlds. Instead of positing solutions led exclusively by adults (whether parents, teachers or technology creators), perhaps we could imagine inviting young people to participate in these debates as our collaborators, our guides, even as our teachers?


This post originally appeared on the Education Research in the School of Education, University of Brighton blog and can be accessed here: http://edres.info/2014/09/11/452/ 


[i] Schoolchildren, governmentality and national e-safety policy discourse, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2013.871237

[ii] Hasinoff, A. A. (2013). Sexting as media production: Rethinking social media and sexuality. New Media & Society, 15(4), 449-465. doi: 10.1177/1461444812459171

[iii] James, A., & James, A. (2008). Changing childhood in the UK:  reconstructing discourses of “risk” and “protection”. In A. James & A. James (Eds.), European childhoods: cultures, politics and childhoods in Europe (pp. 105-128). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[iv] boyd, d. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

November 19th, 2014

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