A fleet of research possibilities and a scattering of updates

Tomorrow is my first day of my 3rd year as a Masters student in the MLC program at Georgetown University. I’m taking the slowwww route through higher ed, as happens when you work full-time, have two kids and are an only child who lost her mother along the way.

This semester I will [finally] take the class I’ve been borrowing pieces from for the past two years: Ethnography of Communication. I’ve decided to use this opportunity do an ethnography of DC taxi drivers. My husband is a DC taxi driver, so in essence this research will build on years of daily conversations. I find that the representation of DC taxi drivers in the news never quite approximates what I’ve seen, and that is my real motivation for the project. I have a couple of enthusiastic collaborators: my husband and a friend whose husband is also a DC taxi driver and who has been a vocal advocate for DC taxi drivers.

I am really eager to get back into linguistics study. I’ve been learning powerful sociolinguistic methods to recognize and interpret patterning in discourse, but it is a challenge not to fall into the age old habit of studying aboutness or topicality, which is much less patterned and powerful.

I have been fortunate enough to combine some of my new qualitative methods with my more quantitative work on some of the reports I’ve completed over the summer. I’m using the open ended responses that we usually don’t fully exploit in order to tell more detailed stories in our survey reports. But balancing quantitative and qualitative methods is very difficult, as I’ve mentioned before, because the power punch of good narrative blows away the quiet power of high quality, representative statistical analysis. Reporting qualitative findings has to be done very carefully.

Over the summer I had the wonderful opportunity to apply my sociolinguistics education to a medical setting. Last May, while my mom was on life support, we were touched by a medical error when my mom was mistakenly declared brain dead. Because she was an organ donor, her life support was not withdrawn before the error was recognized. But the fallout from the error was tremendous. The problem arose because two of her doctors were consulting by phone about their patients, and each thought they were talking about a different patient. In collaboration with one of the doctors involved, I’ve learned a great amount about medical errors and looked at the role of linguistics in bringing awareness to potential errors of miscommunication in conversation. This project was different from other research I’ve done, because it did not involve conducting new research, but rather rereading foundational research and focusing on conversational structure.

In this case, my recommendations were for an awareness of existing conversational structures, rather than an imposition of a new order or procedure. My recommendations, developed in conjunction with Dr Heidi Hamilton, the chair of our linguistics department and medical communication expert, were to be aware of conversational transition points, to focus on the patient identifiers used, and to avoid reaching back or ahead to other patients while discussing a single patient. Each patient discussion must be treated as a separate conversation. Conversation is one of the largest sources of medical error and must be approached carefully is critically important. My mom’s doctor and I hope to make a Grand Rounds presentation out of this effort.

On a personal level, this summer has been one of great transitions. I like to joke that the next time my mom passes away I’ll be better equipped to handle it all. I have learned quite a bit about real estate and estate law and estate sales and more. And about grieving, of course. Having just cleaned through my mom’s house last week, I am beginning this new school year more physically, mentally and emotionally tired than I have ever felt. A close friend of mine has recently finished an extended series of chemo and radiation, and she told me that she is reveling in her strength as it returns. I am also reveling in my own strength, as it returns. I may not be ready for the semester or the new school year, but I am ready for the first day of class tomorrow. And I’m hopeful. For the semester, for the research ahead, for my family, and for myself. I’m grateful for the guidance of my newest guardian angel and the inspiration of great research.

A snapshot from a lunchtime walk

In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “By your stumbling the world is perfected”


Could our attitude toward marketing determine our field’s future?

In our office, we call it the “cocktail party question:” What do you do for a living? For those of us who work in the area of survey research, this can be a particularly difficult question to answer. Not only do people rarely know much about our work, but they rarely have a great deal of interest in it. I like to think of myself as a survey methodologist, but it is easier in social situations to discuss the focus of my research than my passion for methodology. I work at the American Institute of Physics, so I describe my work as “studying people who study physics.” Usually this description is greeted with an uncomfortable laugh, and the conversation progresses elsewhere. Score!

But the wider lack of understanding of survey research can have larger implications than simply awkward social situations. It can also cause tension with clients who don’t understand our work, our process, or where and how we add expertise to the process. Toward this end, I once wrote a guide for working with clients that separated out each stage in the survey process and detailed what expertise the researcher brings to the stage and what expertise we need from the client. I hoped that it would be a way of both separating and affirming the roles of client and researcher and advertising our firm and our field. I have not ye had the opportunity to use this piece, because of the nature of my current projects, but I’d be happy to share it with anyone who is interested in using or adapting it.

I think about that piece often as I see more talk about big data and social media analysis. Data seems to be everywhere and free, and I wonder what affect this buzz will have on a body of research consumers who might not have respected the role of the researchers from the get-go. We worried when Survey Monkey and other automated survey tools came along, but the current bevvy of tools and attitudes could have an exponentially larger impact on our practice.

Survey researchers often thumb their nose at advertising, despite the heavy methodological overlap. Oftentimes there is a knee-jerk reaction against marketing speak. Not only do survey methodologists often thumb their/our noses at the goal and importance of advertising, but they/we often thumb their/our nose at what appears to be evidence of less rigorous methodology. This has led us to a ridiculous point where data and analyses have evolved quickly with the demand and heavy use of advertising and market researchers and evolved strikingly little in more traditional survey areas, like polling and educational research. Much of the rhetoric about social media analysis, text analysis, social network analysis and big data is directed at the marketing and advertising crowd. Translating it to a wider research context and communicating it to a field that is often not eager to adapt to it can be difficult. And yet the exchange of ideas between the sister fields has never been more crucial to our mutual survival and relevance.

One of the goals of this blog has been to approach the changing landscape of research from a methodologically sound, interdisciplinary perspective that doesn’t suffer from the artificial walls and divisions. As I’ve worked on the blog, my own research methodology has evolved considerably. I’m relying more heavily on mixed methods and trying to use and integrate different tools into my work. I’ve learned quite a bit from researchers with a wide variety of backgrounds, and I often feel like I’m belted into a car with the windows down, hurtling down the highways of progress at top speed and trying to control the airflow. And then I often glimpse other survey researchers out the window, driving slowly, sensibly along the access road alongside the highway. I wonder if my mentors feel the change of landscape as viscerally as I do. I wonder how to carry forward the anchors and quality controls that led to such high quality research in the survey realm. I wonder about the future. And the present. About who’s driving, and who in what car is talking to who? Using what gps?

Mostly I wonder: could our negative attitude toward advertising and market research drive us right into obscurity? Are we too quick to misjudge the magnitude of the changes afoot?


This post is meant to be provocative, and I hope it inspires some good conversation.