“What does it mean to be a citizen in a digital era?”—QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Jessica Baldwin-Philippi is working a paper called “Bringing Qualitative Methods and Action Research to Civic Innovation” focusing on how city governments adopt to and create new technologies of government. It will be presented at the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research in Seattle this summer.

The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with her about her research.

RKN: You work on how city governments engage in civic innovation. As you note in your abstract, this is not a common topic in political communication research, where more focus has been on political campaigns, social movements, and news media use of digital technologies. How would you say your work connects to core concerns of political communication research, then? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

Whether I’m researching campaigns or municipal governments, the central question that my work is concerned with is “What does it mean to be a citizen in a digital era? How ought we to be political in contemporary democratic society, and how are digital tools currently mediating our political/civic actions?” And those questions are quite traditional! From Michael Schudson to Lance Bennett to Phil Howard, and even more quantitative-based discussions, that question has been important to political communication. I just think we need a wider, understanding of what citizenship looks like now, because it doesn’t look the same as it did 10 years ago, and we need inductive work to investigate that question of what citizenship and civic action looks like and means today. In addition to merely taking these same questions to spaces of research beyond campaigns/social movements (as is often the difference between the disciplinary terms of policomm vs civic media), municipal/civic innovation is where a lot of the most interesting uses of digital media are occurring. This space therefore has the potential to more deeply explore–and even foster–new ways to engage citizens using digital tools, as well as study what that means for engagement on a broader scale.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it, in particular in terms of your use of action research—where else did you find theoretical and methodological inspirations?

I’ve always had a more qualitative side to me, and even when engaging in more “traditional” (though not for policom!) methods like participant observation and interviews, the idea of studying politics and digital media as something that was living—understanding texts and media tools as things that are both created and used and studying them as they are used—was important to me. Taking that a step farther, action-research is the way to really focus on tools as they are used “in the wild.”

Another part of this is that I think an important follow-up to the big question “What does citizenship look like today?” is “Well, how can we make that better–less transactive, more meaningful, reflective, and overall better?” Since coming to Emerson College, I’ve collaborated with Eric Gordon on many projects at the Engagement Game Lab, and he brings much more of a background in making or developing tools for engagement to my strengths. Additionally, we partner directly with the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, called MONUM. MONUM has been a leader in municipal innovation, and together, we’ve developed what we call a research-based approach to innovation that involves developing tools, researching them, iterating accordingly, and researching again. This is meant not only to open up new approaches to academic research, but to encourage local government to rigorously and meaningfully assess their tools.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on, for example, individual case studies can be generalized. Do you see your own work in this paper as pointing towards generalizable findings? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you think about the reach and validity of your work in different terms?

For me, the more important divide is between inductive/deductive, rather than qualitative, quantitative. In addition to excelling at depth, etc., qualitative research is important for its ability to get at inductive questions. In that case, it can certainly be generalizable, revealing broader, emergent concepts or happenings, which are really important for this moment in political communication and civic media research.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research on news sharing relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

Certainly! The process of designing, researching, iterating, researching, etc. is ripe for collaboration and multi-methodological inquiry. Studying questions concerning how citizens use new tools for civic engagement can certainly involve experimental methods, surveys, or analytics, as well as deeper questions that get at the “why” of some of these behaviors, and can tell us more about the intricacies of the tools themselves and civic engagement generally. In fact, one of the ongoing projects with one of the city’s tools, Citizens Connect, involves just this kind of collaboration between Dan O’Brien (a quantitative researcher), Eric Gordon, and myself (more qualitative researchers). Additionally, more inductive work provides deductive researchers with new variables and metrics to test moving forward.

Full abstract below.

Bringing Qualitative Methods and Action Research to Civic Innovation

By Jessica Baldwin-Philippi (Emerson College)

Paper for ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research, Seattle, May 2014

While the area of political communication has begun to more meaningfully engage in qualitative research in areas of political campaigns, social movements, and journalism studies, investigation into the innovative practices taking place within government institutions—especially the municipal level—have largely been overlooked. City governments are taking great strides to adopt and create new technologies that transform how they operate and how they govern. Increasingly, this work is citizen focused, with new tools offering to encourage feedback and deliberation in government decision-making. Development of new tools is rapidly increasing, with hack-a-thons and contests becoming regular practice in government outsourcing. There is no shortage of new tools; there is, however, a shortage of knowledge created from these tools. When a new app, website, or platform is used in a community, what are the social, political and civic outcomes? What are the implications these tools have for contemporary understandings of political participation and active citizenship?

While quantitative methods can answer parts of these questions very well (the amounts of particular actions or attitudes, for example), they do not equip us to discover new modes of participation that may be occurring within such new spaces, changes to relationships between citizens and governmental institutions, or nuances of how civic behavior can be modified in newly mediated environments. For these questions, inductive approaches that engage qualitative methodologies are necessary. Moreover, the emerging area of civic media will be best aided by research that not only investigates the ability of existing tools to produce deep, meaningful civic engagement, but that which contributes to the development of better, more productive tools. These dual research goals require not only qualitative methodologies, but an “action research” approach that intervenes in an existing community to solve a practical problem while also conducting research on this intervention as it unfolds (Hearn, Tacchi, Foth, & Lennie, 2009). In this paper, I will discuss an approach to conducting this type of work in conjunction with local government: Design Action Research with Government (DARG) (Baldwin-Philippi, Gordon, Jacob, & Osgood, 2013), and its implications for the field of political communication.

In addition to presenting the need for an approach like DARG in the specific context of government innovation, this paper will focus on both practical advice for conducting this type of research and theoretical discussions of its role within the discipline and its ability to build theory in the areas of civic engagement and citizenship. Additionally, it will focus on one case study involving the DARG approach as it relates to two tools, Citizens Connect (developed by the City of Boston), and its DARG-related iteration, StreetCred (Streetcred.us developed by the City of Boston and the Engagement Game Lab). Beyond simply focusing on the design of the research project, this paper will also highlight the ways that findings that can only be gleaned from an action research approach impact traditional theories of deep civic engagement and strong democracy(Barber, 1984; Zuckerman, 2013).