Saturday, November 04, 2006

Reading :: Interactive Qualitative Analysis

Originally posted: Sat, 04 Nov 2006 10:02:30

Interactive Qualitative Analysis: A Systems Method for Qualitative Research

by Norvell Northcutt, Danny McCoy

We've seen a lot of research methods and methodologies recently that involve collecting and analyzing data along with research participants. Participatory design, action research, and contextual design are three examples. The latter, in fact, borrows much from TQM methods such as the K-J Method and affinity diagrams. Interactive Qualitative Analysis draws from the same well, outlining a systematic qualitative approach to collaborative data analysis that leverages those TQM methods and strives for true mutual participation in data analysis.

Written by two researchers associated with the School of Education here at the University of Texas, the book describes Interactive Qualitative Analysis (IQA) in detail. IQA is based in systems theory and dialectics (p.xxii). In fact, they approvingly quote Engels' laws of dialectics in their description of IQA (p.14). In fact, they get quite carried away with dialectics throughout, making the same sorts of overreaching claims about is that Engels likes to make: "This ebb and flow is the result of the dialectical nature of both history and reality itself" (p.102). (They also use the dialectical ground to take some potshots at postmodernists, although they make conciliatory noises as well.)

Essentially, IQA is a phenomenological approach in which focus groups produce affinity diagrams describing a shared phenomenon, an affinity that involves both open and axial coding. This coding leads to interview protocols, which in turn guide individual interviews. The interviews and affinities then lead to mindmaps, or systems diagrams that describe the phenomenon.

The authors illustrate IQA by applying it to an IQA course -- an extremely confusing example, because it's very difficult to tell when the authors are talking about IQA and when they are describing what students said about IQA. Really, this was a bad move for the authors to make, and they compound the problem with too many stories, transcripts, and lists. They also compound it with distracting and generally unsuccessful attempts at humor. (One footnote reads: "The interviewer was, of course, one of the authors, but he could easily have been the other one" (p.423).)

That's really too bad, because IQA is in many ways an intriguing approach that complements the other approaches I mention above. Although it does not appear to support observational work (being primarily phenomenological), it does pose some interesting possibilities for those who do phenomenological work, particularly in its adoption of TQM techniques and its stance in favor of co-analysis with participants. The use of mindmaps is also intriguing, although the authors appear to overrely on them and equate them with mental models (always dicey when you're talking about more than one person).

In summary, IQA is a really interesting and potentially useful method for qualitative analysis carried out with the participants. It's more focused on rigor than contextual design is, but it's also far less modest in its claims and far less observational. If I were to use it, it would be either for strictly defined phenomenological work or as a component of a more integrated study, and my claims would be considerably more hedged than the ones the authors present in their examples.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Reading :: Free Culture

Originally posted: Wed, 01 Nov 2006 19:59:23

Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity

by Lawrence Lessig

In 2002, Lawrence Lessig argued before the US Supreme Court that the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act should be declared unconstitutional. He lost the legal argument. This book, essentially, is his response: a policy argument that attempts to rectify his loss of the legal argument.

So what's the argument? Lessig describes the problem: Copyright, which originated as a strongly limited right to one's own work over a relatively short period, has been progressively extended in a number of ways. Most obviously, Congress has enacted a series of rolling extensions that, as long as they continue, will result in de facto permanent copyright. But copyright has also been extended in other dimensions, due to changes in distribution systems (video, radio, electronic). Additional restrictions have been built into software, and the act of circumventing copyright protection itself has been made illegal. Lessig argues that these changes, in total, mean that an increasing amount of our cultural heritage is being taken off the table and commoditized -- and worse, works that cannot be commoditized, that will not pay for themselves (e.g., less popular Laurel and Hardy films), are decaying for lack of funds to covert them to more permanent media. One big problem is that there's no central registry for copyright holders, so it's sometimes impossible to determine who holds the copyright and thus impossible to get permission to use their work.

Lessig responds with a suggestion for a compromise: make copyright a fixed 50-year term, then extend it via a nominal fee (say, $1 a year) that involves registering the copyright holder.

I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. But as a policy issue, several things occur to me. I'm no legal scholar or policy expert, but I suspect copyright has not evolved enough to keep up with various sorts of changes in how works are designed and produced, and I further suspect that Lessig's proposal only exacerbates these problems:

  • When copyright was conceived, works were primarily authored by individuals. Now they're authored by teams, and important parts of what make them unique or salable are not added by the copyright holder at all. For instance, acts like Def Leppard and the Cars would not have been nearly as attractive without producer Mutt Lange, who strongly contributed to their sound. Lange is not the copyright holder, but he strongly impacted their work.
  • Similarly, individual works often enact larger properties. The obvious example is Mickey Mouse: a new Mickey Mouse property is in a sense just a brick in a larger edifice that stretches back to Steamboat Willie. (Jason Craft describes these edifices as "fiction networks," using comic books and the Star Wars universe as examples.) An enormous amount of work goes into building and maintaining these edifices, with later works impacting the interpretation of earlier ones. That work is distributed across time, space, and disciplines, and frequently functions as an organic whole. So: if Mickey Mouse is still being developed, can he go out of copyright? If you make your own Mickey Mouse T-shirt, are we talking about the character (who is under continual development), or just screen grabs from out-of-copyright works?
  • Works enjoy much broader distribution across a much larger set of media.
  • Two related operating assumptions of the book are that our cultural heritage is precious and that reuse is an essential creative act. I wonder about both of these. We have, to put it bluntly, created an enormous amount of garbage in the last century, and I'm not sure that it's a bad thing that those Laurel and Hardy films are moldering in their cans. Nor am I convinced that reuse is so essential to further creativity.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Lessig's solution to the copyright problem is not especially workable. Copyright is a bureaucratic problem, and creating another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a massive centralized database is not an especially elegant solution.

Anyway, the book is fascinating and, as you can tell, thought-provoking.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Reading :: The Search

Originally posted: Mon, 30 Oct 2006 10:10:24

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

by John Battelle

This book is pretty light reading, but also quite interesting. Although the book is mainly about Google, Battelle starts far pre-Google to discuss search algorithms, Internet startups, and ad pricing structures, and he manages to do all of this quite compellingly. If you've wondered just how Google gets those results, this book provides a pretty good lay introduction. And if you are not quite sure how Google makes money off of a free service, you should definitely take a look.

On the other hand, this sort of book has a very short shelf life. Battelle's speculative chapter about the future of search seems alternately dated and oversold, and his afterword barely mentions the groundwork that Google had already laid for moving into office software for small businesses. But what he does discuss gives us an idea of how Google will continue to strategize, particularly in the small business market. Check it out if you'd like to get a quick understanding of search and what it means.

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