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A PhD in Social Psychology: The Datafication of the Citizen

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Thursday, 29 Aug 2019, 15:01

We continue our series of blogs on the experience of doing a PhD in social psychology. Emma Brice is working on a PhD on ‘The Datafication of the Citizen’. She notes that citizens are becoming increasingly datafied by institutions (corporations and the government). In order to investigate this phenomenon, she will be looking at how individuals, experts, corporations and the UK government talk about data privacy. In this week’s social psychology blog, she discusses a methodological issue.

Last month I attended the mini conference at the OU to talk about what I have learnt this year. I am in my second year (part-time) and this was a good opportunity to present my work so far and meet with other PhD students. The conference was focused on methodological issues, so I spoke about a few stumbling blocks I encountered regarding my focus groups.

My research concerns data privacy. Recent technological developments have increased the amount of personal data that we make available to corporations, the government and other institutions daily, and I am interested in this intense datafication of citizens. As a part of my research I had decided to conduct focus groups to investigate how frequent internet users talk about their privacy. A frequent internet user, for the purpose of my study, is an individual who accesses the internet multiple times daily through different devices. Initially I felt confident about this as I had conducted focus groups before. However, I then realised that according to a recent poll over 90% of the population of the United Kingdom is classified a frequent internet user. How could eight or nine focus groups  possibly represent 90% of the population??

I had impressive goals when I started my research about understanding how ideas about privacy have altered, but now I felt daunted by the task. How could I represent every age, gender, race, upbringing, occupation etc. in my focus groups? It is difficult when you’re speaking to sixty people to say that you are representing the varied population of the entire country. After speaking with my supervisors and other researchers I realised that the answer is that qualitative research  is not about being representative of everyone. I needed to acknowledge as a part of my methodology that, although I have structured my focus groups to be as varied as I can, they are by no means meant to capture a complete cross section of the population. The real value of this qualitative approach is the richness of data rather than  the range or volume of the accounts that are collected. I designed my focus groups  to help me ensure that, as far as possible, I achieved variability in the accounts. This variability is what will enable me to conduct a thorough analysis and hopefully do justice to the people who have taken the time to speak with me.

I have learnt in this past year that that, while it was unnerving to hit a few ‘bumps’, they served to make me feel surer of the validity of my approach. Every research project is imperfect – the important thing is to be aware of its limitations. If I acknowledge and explain in my work why I have made the methodological decisions I have made, then this becomes a feature of the research rather than a flaw. People are always asking me why I am doing my PhD and I have never had a good answer except to say that I am fascinated by my subject and I realise I mustn’t lose sight of that. I have learnt to be kind to myself and give myself the time I would allow others if they were having to face the same task. I imagine all new researchers have lofty goals when we start on this journey but perhaps, we should be all be happy to enjoy our subject and be a brick in the wall that the next person can build upon. 

This week’s blog continues a series from PhD students in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Emma Brice is studying for a PhD in social psychology. You can read more about the School’s social psychology group, CuSP, here http://fass.open.ac.uk/research/groups/cusp

 You can watch a short video about the Level 3 Social Psychology module DD317 here https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1258641

You might also be interested in the Open Learn short course DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0

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