Disposing of the bodies: The problem with “data”

[We need to] take a much greater responsibility for our capabilities as humans and especially when ‘disposing’ of those bodies and things that we all too conveniently designate as our ‘others’. Taylor and Ivinson

I have been grappling with a problem with my data for some time now. I have been avoiding facing it because I knew what it would say.


Behind the social web, I’ve been flipping it around, looking for angles, teasing out small bits. No good. Regular thematic analysis led to pedestrian outcomes.

This realisation was quite disheartening for me because I was so certain that using the raw and immediate utterances I collected from my informants via their Facebook feed would give me something new. It didn’t – when looked at through a traditional qualitative lens.

To try and solve the problem I have been on a [deep breath] rhizomatic [I can’t believe I wrote that] journey of discovery. I had no clue where to look, so I just read what other people were reading, tried to join dots and basically followed my nose. I clicked through to citations and references, got distracted and read something else, provoked conversations on the interwebs, and went back to the drawing board again and again.

Here I am again, trying to provoke a response to my latest idea (which I personally think is the best).

So here goes:

Do you see how I have been calling it “my data”? Well it’s not. It’s my informants voices [well words], which they entrusted to me. They granted me the privilege of access to their private Facebook newsfeeds for a whole year in order to try and find out how their first year at university could be improved (before you ask, and I know you will, here are the ethics).

In my naivety, I thought I could generalise their experiences and find something different, but generalisations only ever tell us what we already know. They are simply a reflection of society. In fact, the bigger we go, the more general we become. Basically, Big Data just reflects what society is, not what it could be. I would hazard a hypothesis that the seductive nature of “big data” might also reinforce societal inequality rather than address it. For example, an algorithm mines Twitter for stuff for examples of x. The algorithm defines x. People go “Wow! Did you know we x???”. Nothing happens.

Though these algorithms can pretty accurately predict stuff like the probability of arrest, we can’t assume guilt. So apart from doing pretty sophisticated polling, there isn’t much Big Data can actually ethically do. Sorry. I do know people are trying. I’m just saying, don’t get too seduced by Big Data if you are trying to do more than simply represent. If you are looking for “new” Big Data has limitations.

Consider the Micro Data. There is value in the case study and the small scale qualitative study because they remind us of difference, especially that within difference. As qualitative researchers, we need to spend less effort worrying about how to get a broader understanding of a problem and spend more time on the individuals. Instead of continually justifying, advocate. Don’t compare yourself to frequentest quants. BE DIFFERENT. Don’t worry when people say your sample is too small. Advocate for a small sample.

I have spent too much time disposing of the bodies.

Each of those 25 students has a story to tell and I haven’t told it. As they broadcast their experiences on Facebook they were writing as inquiry. They were trying to work out how to become university students. And I had the arrogance to think that I was the only one doing writing as inquiry in this project!


Photo courtesy of Helen Kara (@DrHelenKara)

My informants and I were entangled. They allowed their Facebook walls to break down barriers between the researcher and the researched. They extended me the same trust they gave their high school teachers to have a duty of care. They invited me into their lives and trusted that I wouldn’t tread where I was not welcome. They showed me the notes they were passing in lectures as well as their take on how the content was delivered. I was privvy to their anxiety as they tried to make word counts and understand concepts. I was included in their joyfulness as they handed in assignments, nervousness as they walked into and out of exams, and excitement for holidays. I felt for them when computer systems crashed.

The main thing I enjoyed about my study was that I got an intimate picture of first year university. Some of it rang true from my experiences, some of it was new. All of it was a good yarn, swears and all. When I realised HOW raw the stories were I spent a long time working out how to protect the students from their own words. Worried that they would one day be ashamed of them. I felt bad about holding them. Wondered if they could read them they would still give consent.

But I can also send them copies of the finished product before sending out for publication. I can still tell their stories without using their words if there really is an issue.

I have a responsibility to these students to tell their stories because they trusted me with them. Their words are not “my data” they are stories of becoming and belong to the people that shared them. But they are also out there, recorded on a device, waiting to be told because that is the agreement we had.

Maybe as I rethink, these first year students’ stories of becoming can stay messy. Maybe I can write some assemblage [yes I said it] “fiction” to try and show how the materials entangled us all together.

I’m not sure yet, but now I know all this I can’t give up. I’m back at the drawing board determined now to work it out.


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