In this post I discuss some of our dilemmas in designing youth-centred research about celebrity using offline and online methods.
The project team will start fieldwork in schools this month. In our first stage of data collection we will explore how young people collectively talk about celebrities and celebrity culture. We are interested in how our participants find out about celebrities, how they make sense of the stories they hear about them and how they relate these to their own lives.
‘Celebrity’ is a complicated cultural construct and has been variously defined, as Turner points out in his 2004 book ‘Understanding Celebrity’. As we prepare our focus group materials, we are both interested in the various ways that they define ‘celebrity’ and mindful of huge range of celebrities that the young people taking part in our project people might engage with. Indeed celebrities span many different areas of public life, from the sporting stars of the Olympics and Premier League to contestants on X Factor, the Apprentice and Strictly Come Dancing, as well as more ‘local’ celebrities and those from more global celebrity spaces such as Bollywood. We want to see whether there are any patterns in the ways that young people define celebrity and talk about different celebrities: what they think is good or bad about particular celebrities, the value they ascribe to particular forms of celebrity, and how these ideas are negotiated collectively. This means that we would like to be able to compare data across the different groups and schools. We also want to ensure that our research is youth-centred. The kinds of celebrities we might hear about, engage with or be steered to by interests within textual analysis of celebrity could be very different to those who feel relevant to the young people in our focus groups, which will be conducted in schools in both rural and urban areas in England.
Indeed, even as we have collected feedback from young people in our own networks we have been surprised by the variation around which celebrities are seen as significant, with even very high profile celebrities sometimes dismissed as irrelevant or ‘too old’. This poses a challenge for us in our focus group design: using stimuli such as magazines or tabloid pictures of celebrities can productively encourage discussion and facilitate comparison across the school sites, but could also lead the conversations in particular directions – to particular celebrities. We plan to start from the perspective of the participants to hear the celebrities they are aware of and interested in. We will combine this with the use of a rolling powerpoint presentation with a vast array of images of celebrities in the background, which can be used as a potential stimuli, but will not necessarily be the main focus of the discussion.
After our focus groups, we will invite our participants to join private online forums to continue our conversations about celebrities. There is great value in combining group and individual interviews with young people and online methods that attend to how celebrity is made sense of through social networking sites and online platforms. In the wake of Web 2.0 technology, celebrity culture extends beyond television and magazine texts to a range of online formats. For young people in particular, such technologies increasingly form an embedded part of their everyday lives. As Imogen Tyler argues in her 2011 chapter ‘Pramface girls’ about researching audience and participant engagement in ‘youth oriented’ reality TV shows, ‘social networking sites play a pivotal role in the production, circulation and reception’ of reality TV and celebrity culture, where online discussions ‘offer a fascinating insight into how televisual characterisations become animated in struggles over identity and value’.
We are interested in how discourses of celebrities change over time, and want to explore the rhetorical and discursive strategies used by young people in discussions about celebrity and aspiration. We considered taking our online methods into the social networking spaces that young people already use: Facebook, Youtube, Tumblr and Blackberry Messenger are all potential sites where some young people discuss their views on celebrities. Conducting online ethnography in these spaces could enable access to what Discursive Psychologists such as Wiggins and Potter refer to as the ‘naturalistic’ talk of everyday interactions. Observations of discussions of celebrities on existing social networks could produce data about how and when discussions about celebrities occur online. In contrast, a specific online forum shares more with a focus group, in which participants engage in ‘topic talk’ (Speer, 2005, p.193) that is specifically elicited by the researchers.
These methods would produce quite different forms of data, and require different approaches to the negotiation of informed consent, particularly pertinent when working with young people including those under 16. An online forum could be understood to involve a quite explicit, ongoing negotiation of consent as participants are required to log in each time they comment. Observing interactions on existing social networks over a prolonged period requires alternative strategies to ensure that young people are informed and continue to consent to their participation in the project, in the context of what Michael Bullock calls an era of ‘“opt in” surveillance where users are encouraged to share their personal activities, information and thoughts with their peers and even people they have no connection to’ (2009: 28 in Tyler 2011). In addition, different groups of young people engage with a variety of different sites – so while some young people would conduct many of their conversations on Tumblr or Pinterest, others might use Facebook, Twitter or BBM.
As researchers we rely in large part on the generosity of our participants, which means that we need to be mindful of the work we are asking them to undertake when they get involved in our research. The requirement to log in to a specific online forum might mean that only certain participants are willing to take part, which will have an impact on the kinds of discussions available for us to analyse. In contrast, observing existing interactions online arguably requires less work from participants.
Despite these methodological challenges, we decided to use online forums rather than observing our participants’ existing online networks. We wanted to provoke discussion on particular topics with a specific group of participants in a private online space, but also hope that the young people will take a lead and prompt discussions of their own accord and based on their own interests. We also wanted to create an anonymous space in which we could feed back our initial findings to participants and involve them in the process of analysis. Thus online forums seemed to fit well with our research strategy and ethical commitments. However, the analysis of celebrity talk in existing online and offline spaces would also be a fascinating area for further study.
In our focus groups, we will talk with our participants in order to design an online space that makes sense to them, developing useful functions and a code of conduct for the forums. For example, will the site need to be compatible with smart phones? Can we arrange to have the site unblocked at school so that participants without access to the internet at home can participate? These are methodological issues that we will need to revisit and evaluate over the course of the project, in discussion with the participants. Technology changes quickly and young people are best placed to guide our research design to make sure that we can develop a discussion space that is safe and sustains their interest.
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