Friday, December 29, 2006

The Madness to My Method

Research Proposal
Carnival Collectivities: Blogging and the Formation of Online Feminist Networks


Although it may be putting the cart before the horse, I thought that it would be appropriate to share the methodology that I am using for this project. I welcome feedback and look forward to discussing my research plan in more detail.

Introduction

I am applying for the Reality Grant offered by the Feminist Fantasy Foundation to fund my M.A. thesis in the Women’s Studies Program at the George Washington University. In my M.A. thesis, I will be researching how feminist networks are created online through blogging. Specifically, I will focus on blog carnivals as a site of community building. To explore feminist blog carnivals, I will rely primarily on the theories of Benedict Anderson, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Erving Goffman. Utilizing these theories, my project will consider the following questions:
• What is a blog? What is a feminist blog? How do self-identified feminist bloggers define their feminism?
• How do blogs compare with other forms of feminist writing?
• How do feminist communities develop online? Specifically, how do blogs and blog carnivals play a role in the development of feminist networks?
• How is feminist activism conducted in the blogosphere? Specifically, how do blog carnivals contribute to activist efforts?
• How does the digital divide effect who is able to participate in online communities? What issues of access, such as technological skill level, literacy, or financial ability, shape who is able to participate in the blogosphere? How are these issues of access intersect with other identities, such as race, class, gender, location, ability, or age?
My research will incorporate my participation in the feminist blogosphere. I plan to maintain my own blog about my research project, A Blog Without a Bicycle. I will host a feminist carnival as well; I will publish the 26th edition of the Carnival of Feminists on my blog on November 1, 2006. These activities will allow me to better understand the feminist blogosphere(s) through my experiences participating in these online communities as a blogger and carnival host. Further, I will interview self-identified feminist bloggers to learn more about how the members of these communities perceive their collectivity. My interactions in the feminist blogosphere(s) will provide me with the opportunity to solicit feedback on my analysis from the individuals who compose these communities, which will help to insure that my final report on feminist blog carnivals is accurate and representative of the diverse group of individuals who participate in these communities.
Once I have completed my project, I will distribute my research through my blog and the academic infrastructure provided by the George Washington University for making M.A. theses available in their library system. I will also pursue publication of articles based on my research in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals and later revise my thesis so that it will be able to be published as a trade-press book. By sharing my research in various venues, I will be able to share what I learn about the feminist blogosphere(s) in both academic and popular arenas and Carnival Collectivities: The Formation of Online Feminist Networks will have the potential to benefit multiple audiences.

The Feminist Blogosphere(s): Personal and Political

From Blogs to Blog Carnivals

The influence of popular culture is difficult to avoid in an age of a fast-paced, global media and most individuals who have access to this fast media focused culture have heard of the internet phenomena of blogging whether or not they have actually visited such a website. The ephemeral and immediate qualities of the internet make it difficult, however, to trace the development of novel trends and emergent technological forms online. Therefore, despite the fact that many individuals are familiar with this internet genre, there is no authoritative definition of what constitutes a blog. There does seem to be, however, a general consensus among internet users about what is expected to appear on websites labeled as such in terms of both form and content.
Blogs first began to appear online in the late 1990s and originally functioned as lists of hyperlinks designed to be helpful to other tech-savvy users who were surfing the internet at a time before HTML browsers or high powered search engines were available (1). As Rebecca Blood writes, these early blogs could best be described as, “links with commentary, updated frequently (2).” Over time, these lists became a way of sharing the cataloger’s personal interests with others and individual blogs evolved into unique, eclectic websites containing both personal and political content. By 1997 the term “weblog,” for which blog is shorthand, had been coined to describe these websites and by 1999 blogging software had become widely available, as websites devoted to providing templates for blog creation and clearinghouse listings of blogs proliferated (3). With these tools, greater numbers of internet users were made aware of blogs and were able to create their own; online self-publishing flourished. In fact, blogs became so popular that mainstream media sources and private corporations recognized the necessity of incorporating them into their more traditional methods of reporting and advertising.
Today, there is general agreement about what qualifies a website as a blog. Formally, the major characteristics of a blog are that it is “a reverse-chronologically ordered, source/author- and –time-stamped, text-based linguistic stream (4),” or “a website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in reverse chronological order (5).” The position of recent posts appearing before less recent posts reflects the fast-paced atmosphere of the internet and the way that the demand for updated material influences the form of new internet media.
In terms of content, readers expect blogs to be “online journals that can be viewed by the public viewing the Internet (6)” where bloggers share their “opinions, thoughts and interests (7).” On a blog, an individual or a team of individuals regularly publishes posts about a specific topic from a wide variety of perspectives and concerns. An element of autobiography influences the themes of these posts, as bloggers refer to events in their online and offline lives and focus on subjects that are significant to them. In addition to biographically driven content, blogs often include hyperlinks to other websites, graphics, and streamed audio or video. New instantiations of blogs that are not primarily textual are being developed; these recent versions of the blog include photoblogs, vlogs, and audioblogs. Photoblogs are composed mainly of images, vlogs (videoblogs) contain videos that are often introspective monologues, and audioblogs capitalize on recording software developed for digital music players. As new technologies emerge, additional incarnations of the blog can be expected to appear in the blogosphere, or online blogging world (8). Like many other internet forms, blogs create alternatives to mainstream media.
Some bloggers distinguish between “filter-style weblogs (9)” that closely follow the original hyperlink list format of early blogs and “blog-style weblogs (10)” that provide intimate insights into an individual’s life through journal-like postings. While this distinction obscures the ways in which many blogs vacillate between these two styles over time, it does provide a potential (yet partial) explanation for the development of blog carnivals, which began to appear in the early 2000s. In their basic function, blog carnivals seem to serve the same purpose as blogs, specifically a filter-style weblogs; they both provide current lists of links to websites of interest. While filter-style weblogs may include the hyperlinks of a variety of types of websites, blog carnivals primarily link to blog articles. Wikipedia.com (11) highlights the differences between these two forms its definition of a blog carnival:
A blog article that contains links to other articles covering a specific topic. Most blog carnivals are hosted by a
rotating list of frequent contributors to the carnival, and serve to both generate new posts by contributors and
highlight new bloggers posting matter in that subject area (13).
Like filter-style weblogs, blog carnivals provide topical reading lists of internet sources; unlike filter-style weblogs, blog carnivals are geared towards providing a current cartography of the blogosphere. Blog carnivals unite bloggers who share common interests, encourage bloggers to pursue certain themes in their writing, increase traffic to the host’s blog, and promote the work of other bloggers. Blog carnivals create online communities by fostering collaboration and networking between individual bloggers.

The Feminist Blogosphere(s)

While some academic research has been done on blogging, this scholarship has largely focused on blogs as forms of life writing or new media. Less work has been done on the potential that blogs have to make social change and their roles in social movements. Even less research has been devoted to exploring the import of blog carnivals, which is likely because of the novelty of the form. Because many women are often underprivileged in technological fields and because the systems of oppression that exist in the offline world translate to the online world, it is important for feminist scholars to make sure that academic attention is given to these developing areas in terms of race, class, gender, and other issues of diversity. While being conscious of the digital divide, or the “much-cited problem in regards to inequities in online access and access to information technologies in general, (13)” and its implications, my project will explore the feminist blogosphere(s) and the ways that online feminist networks operate both online and offline. I will pay careful attention to how questions of access and how access relates to intersections of identity, such as race, class, gender, location, technological skill level, literacy, ability, or age. Hopefully, this research will reveal the positive potential blog carnivals have to promote social activism and feminist ideals while also pointing out the inequities of access to information technologies.

Theoretical Foundation

As previously stated, I will be using the works of Benedict Anderson, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Erving Goffman as the theoretical foundation of my analysis. Many feminist philosophers have illustrated the applicability of these theorists’ concepts to feminist scholarship, especially in studies of literature and identity performance (14). In terms of my project, Anderson, Bakhtin, and Goffman offer useful frameworks for assessing online communities, blog activism, and internet identity. Anderson provides a scaffold for understanding how blog carnivals form communities with his concept of “imagined…communities (15).” Bahktin’s study of the carnivalesque can be applied to such online feminist communities to understand their potential for disrupting hegemonic discourses. As communities are made of individuals and as feminist blog carnival communities are composed of individuals with a specific self-asserted identity, Goffman’s work on the performance of identity is helpful in assessing the presentation of feminist identities online. Feminist theorist Judith Butler’s writing on performativity will also inform my analysis and provide a basis for comparing online and offline identities by contrasting her conception of identity with that of Goffman; where Goffman sees personal choice in the performance of identity, Butler views an individual’s agency as more circumscribed by social constructs. Both of these perspectives on performativity are useful for analyzing an internet subject’s presentation of self-identity, as users have both choice in terms of revealing information about their identity and limitations in terms of what identities they can inhabit based on real-world conditions and experiences.

Method

My Blog

Carnival Collectivities: Blogging and the Formation of Online Feminist Networks focuses on how blog carnivals function to create feminist networks both in cyberspace and in the physical world. Before beginning my assessment of the feminist blogosphere(s), I will gain personal experience as a feminist blogger by starting my own blog. Using the free service provided by the popular blog hosting site Blogger.com (16), I will publish my own blog, A Blog Without a Bicycle. The focus of the content of the blog will be my research process. Keeping a blog will allow me to network with feminist bloggers and to elicit feedback on my project. It will play an important role in facilitating the process of conducting interviews as well. I am aware, however, that the digital divide will determine who is able to access my blog and I will have to take this into account as I conduct my research and draw conclusions from it.

Interviews

To gather information about the feminist blogosphere(s) and to test the accuracy of my analysis, I will be interviewing self-identified feminist bloggers. I will recruit participants to contribute to my project through my blog. Although I am not able to estimate the number of self-identified feminist bloggers who will read my blog and subsequently choose to participate in my project, I hope to interview a minimum of ten individuals. As previously stated, the digital divide will be a significant factor in determining which individuals have the ability to participate in my project. As a conscientious feminist researcher, I will be responsible for attempting to interview as diverse a group of bloggers as possible and seeking information about groups of individuals who I am not able to interview.
The interview process will proceed as outlined in the following steps:
1) Self-identified feminist bloggers will post a comment on A Blog Without a Bicycle after reading the informed consent form.
2) I will contact individuals who commented on A Blog Without a Bicycle and request an interview with them.
3) After providing an additional informed consent form, I will interview the volunteers.
4) If additional questions are raised throughout the course of my research, I will contact selected individuals again for follow-up.

Methodology

My Blog

With an awareness of my privilege and power as a researcher, I am aspiring to a high level of transparency in my research process. I will keep a blog, A Blog Without a Bicycle, which will detail the goals of my research and the methods that I am employing. Also, I will post interviews (with interviewee permission) and sections of my thesis (forthcoming) to A Blog Without a Bicycle so that participants can comment on my conclusions and provide any constructive criticism that they may have. As Shulamit Reinharz states in Feminist Methods in Social Research, “[s]elf-disclosure initiates ‘true dialogue’ by allowing participants to become ‘co-researchers (17).’” It is this “true dialogue” that I hope to produce in the interviews I conduct as a part of this project. By following the guidelines provided by Kathleen Blee and Verta Taylor in “Semi-Structured Interviewing in Social Movement Research,” I am making “efforts [that] seek to reduce the interpretive authority of researchers and expand those of participants in the analysis of social movements (18).” Although I will be engaging in participant-observation by keeping a blog and contributing to the feminist blogosphere, I know that the true experts in this area are feminist bloggers themselves. By giving feminist bloggers space to provide feedback through comments on my blog and through interviews, I hope to provide the most accurate analysis of feminist online networks. Because much of my reporting on the research I am conducting with involve my analysis of the information provided by individuals in interviews, I will be including an appendix of all of the interviews I conduct over the course of my research. As Reinharz highlights, “[t]ranscripts of the interviews…familiarize readers with the people who were studied and enable readers to ‘hear’ what the researcher heard (19).” These appendices will provide a site for readers of my research to evaluate my interpretations (and misinterpretations) and to draw their own conclusions.
Additionally, I will allow participants in my study to select how they will be identified in the reports of my research. Other feminist researchers have utilized the practice of allowing participants to choose their own pseudonyms (20), but in my research this choice addresses a particular concern about intellectual property. Although researchers often go to great lengths to protect the identities of their participants, doing so in this case would fail to credit feminist bloggers who are public figures in the blogosphere with their ideas. To avoid exploiting my participants while also respecting their privacy, I will be asking participants to indicate how they would like to be identified in reports of my research.
It is important to note that there are many challenges specific to internet research. As Lorna Hicks describes in “Internet Research,” securing data transmissions, obtaining informed consent, and dealing with malicious behavior are just some of the issues internet researchers face (21). In “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet,” Mark S. Frankel, Ph.D. and Sanyin Siang discuss some of the difficulties internet researchers face, including the debate about if material posted on the internet should be categorized as public or private and in which cases these designations are less clear (22). The concern that is most relevant to my research is that of assessing identity. Hicks describes, “the difficulty of confirming the adult status of online subjects and the ‘personhood’ of pseudonymous identities” (23) and Frankel and Siang assert that, “it is quite easy to mislead others about one’s geographical location, gender, or race (24).” Because there is no way for me to verify the identity of all of the participants in my research, I have made the decision to adopt a policy of “believing the interviewee (25).” Although contrary to the skepticism advocated in positivist approaches, I believe that a rule of not questioning the veracity of participants will enrich my research (26) as opposed to compromising it because of the trusting and mutually respectful relationships that such an attitude will allow me to develop with participants (27).

Interviews


The interviews that will be conducted in this project are based on the model of “open-ended interview research (28)” or “interview-guided research (29).” Specifically, I rely on the feminist methodology outlined by Blee and Taylor in “Semi-Structured Interviewing in Social Movement Research” as theoretical grounding of my interview methodology. In this article, Blee and Taylor describe the benefits of utilizing “semi-structured interview (30)” techniques in research on social movements. Blee and Taylor define a “semi-structured interview” as an interview in which “the interviewer relies on an interview guide that includes a consistent set of questions or topics, but the interviewer is allowed more flexibility to digress and to probe based on interactions during the interview (31).” By following this model, I will gain insight about topics I might not have pursued otherwise, as interviewees will guide me to the topics that are truly relevant to the feminist blogosphere(s) and that should be explored in my project. This technique will help to control for my privilege and power as a researcher. Further, it is an illustration of my attempt to alleviate miscommunications that may occur between interviewees and me, the interviewer, because of my standpoint (32).
As Blee and Taylor point out, “[s]emi-structured interviews are particularly useful for understanding social movement mobilization for the perspective of movement actors or audiences (33).” As I am investigating the formation of feminist networks online via blogging and blog carnivals, semi-structured interviewing will allow me to verify my speculations about these collectivities with members of these communities. By planning to conduct multiple interviews with a variety of bloggers and to follow-up with participants throughout the course of my research, I am implementing a feminist methodology based on a “model of collaboration (34).” The dialogic model of my interview-based research will provide participants multiple opportunities to correct and critique my work both during the interview process and throughout the development of my final report on the project.

Conclusion

As a M.A. candidate in Women’s Studies with a B.A. in English (Creative Writing), I have a strong background in the study of language and culture. Further, the social and behavioral research training that I received through the CITI program at the George Washington University has provided me with the research skills that I need to complete the interactive aspects of my research. I look forward to working with the Feminist Fantasy Foundation to complete my M.A. thesis, Carnival Collectivities: Blogging and the Formation of Online Feminist Networks, and to make scholarship in a previously unexplored area available both through my thesis and my blog.

Notes

1. Rak, “The Digital Queer,” 170-1.
2. Blood, “Introduction,” ix.
3. Rak, “The Digital Queer,” 170-1.
4. MacDougall, “Identity, Electronic Ethos, and Blogs,” 585.
5. Wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog.
6. Watt, “Blogging Busts Out for Women,” 7.
7. Wilson, “Women in the Blogosphere,” 51.
8. As new terms are developed as quickly as new technologies, I recommend the following sources for glossaries that provide excellent definitions of common internet vernacular: Wikipedia.com, http://larkfarm.com/wlm/roll_your_own.htm, and We’ve Got Blog. Detailed references to these sources are listed in the “Bibliography” section.
9. Blood, “Weblogs: A History and Perspective,” 12.
10. Ibid., 13.
11. Although Wikipedia.com would not be considered an academic source in most situations, because research on blog carnivals has not yet been widely produced, this collaborative web-based encyclopedia is, in fact, an authoritative source that reflects the current state of the blogosphere. Further, consulting alternate sources of knowledge that would not be considered in most academic settings is a feminist research method that recognizes multiple ways of knowing and resists privileging certain ways of knowing over others.
12. Wikipedia.com, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog_carnival.
13. Nakamura, Cybertypes, 2002.
14. Examples of feminist scholars who have utilized these theorists’ works in their own projects are Margaret Bettham (Anderson), Julia Kristeva (Bahktin), and Judith Butler (Goffman).
15. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.
16. Blogger.com, http://www.blogger.com.
17. Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, 33.
18. Blee and Taylor, “Semi-Structured Interviewing in Social Movement Research,” 113.
19. Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, 39.
20. Ibid., 20.
21. Hicks, Internet Research, Introduction.
22. Frankel and Siang, “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet,” 7.
23. Hicks, Internet Research, Introduction.
24. Frankel and Siang, “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet,” 4.
25. Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, 26.
26. Renzetti, “Confessions of a Reformed Positivist,” 133-5.
27. Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research, 18.
28. Ibid., 24.
29. Blee and Taylor, “Semi-Structured Interviewing in Social Movement Research,” 92.
30. Ibid.
31. Detailed discussions of feminist standpoint approaches can be found in the work of Donna Haraway or Sandra Harding.
32. Ibid.
33. Renzetti, “Confessions of a Reformed Positivist,” 134.

Bibliography

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky.

Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1984.

Beetham, Margaret. “Periodicals and new media: Women and imagined communities.”

Women’s Studies International Forum 29 (May-June 2006): 231-40.

Bennett, Natalie, organizer. The Carnival of Feminists.

http://feministcarnival.blogspot.com (accessed December 9, 2006).

Blood, Rebecca. “Introduction.” In We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs are Changing Our

Culture, edited by John Rodzvilla, ix-xii. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2002.

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and S. Staggenborg, 92-117. Minneapolis: U. Minnesota P, 2002.

Blogger.com. http://www.blogger.com (accessed November 17, 2006).

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:

Routledge, 1999.

Curtis, Elizabeth M. A Blog Without a Bicycle.

http://ablogwithoutabicycle.blogspot.com (accessed October 1, 2006).

Frankel, Mark S. and Sanyin Siang. “Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects
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(accessed October 9, 2006).

Goffman, Erving. Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday, 1959.

Gunderloy, Mike. “Roll Your Own.” Larkfarm.com.

http://larkfarm.com/wlm/roll_your_own.htm (accessed on December 10, 2006).

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49 no. 4 (December 2005): 575-99.

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Routledge, 2002.

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