Last week we welcomed Dr Heidi Julien to the Centre for Social Informatics (CSI). Heidi is Professor and Chair of the Department of Library and Information Studies in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Buffalo in the US.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 17th May, Heidi gave a research seminar entitled Models and my discontents, the content of which prompted much discussion amongst the staff and research students within CSI.
Heidi set the scene by commenting that those of us who favour qualitative research approaches often view models with a degree of scepticism. This is largely because models are reductionist and cannot possibly represent the complexities or nuances that emerge from in-depth qualitative studies. (Added to this, we may suspect that colleagues hopeful of securing their academic legacy are engaging in strategic careerism as they strive to establish models that bear their name.)
Nevertheless, Heidi argued, models are valuable in our research. First, the perspectives that existing models offer often provide the starting point for new work. For example, they summarise theory development to date, they help us ‘organise’ our thinking, they point to variables that may be worth exploring in new research, they encourage us to be critical, they invite ‘complication’, and/or they open up new ideas. We can also deploy models to explain our own research findings, and to argue how our analyses have extended theory in the domain. Heidi illustrated these points by considering how her own research has been informed by various models of information behaviour including those developed by Wilson, Kulthau and McKenzie. She traced the treatment of affect in this prior work, pointing out that it has been understudied and/or marginalised.
The discussion that followed Heidi’s presentation provided an opportunity to extend the debate and raise a number of further questions about the deployment of models in our research. This covered a range of topics including; the inadequacy of models in representing certain factors/contexts, such as power in government; the extent to which researchers in one domain should feel confident about borrowing from another; the need to use (a) model(s) at all in doctoral work and whether or not PhD students should be expected to extend or produce models as outputs of their PhD theses; the importance of sharing models derived from empirical work with the data subjects who contributed to their development; and topologies of meaning – with a nod to Chomsky’s levels of adequacy.
We were very grateful to Heidi for including a visit to Edinburgh Napier on her itinerary, and for presenting such a thought-provoking seminar that engendered much debate amongst the audience both during and after her time with us.