Thursday, February 14, 2013

A review of a qualitative methods paper for studying public perception in the sociology of science (for a class on qualitative research methods)

             “Sociocultural Meanings of Nanotechnology: Research Methodologies” by William Sims Bainbridge is primarily a methods paper that presents an overview of the kind of qualitative research methodologies proposed for studying the sociocultural conditions of nanoscience/nanotechnology. I chose this paper because it discusses in detail the sort of qualitative methods I intend to use for my own research. As my own work focuses on high energy particle physics, the paper helps me define more concretely the boundaries of qualitative methods I can employ for my own research, especially as I am looking at developing different forms of interview questions and survey questionnaires, as well as mixed-methods content- analysis of reports, codes, publications. In addition, I want to analyze the overall knowledge dissemination and transmission industry involved in the production and reproduction of scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge inspired by it. Moreover, the specific areas of inquiry that this paper focuses on are close to the subject area of my own work.
             The paper outlines the use of mixed methods data collection and analysis to gauge the sociocultural perception and understanding of a selected segment of the more ‘scientifically literate’ public on developments in nanotechnology. The author argues for the necessity of doing so since interests in this area of scientific research have to draw its funding support and cognitive labor pool from the public, such as the increase of young people who are interested to be participant in this area of science, and the formulation of more favorable science and technology policies. However, I presume that the main target audience are policy makers, given that many of the examples used seem to be about culling information that could inform future policy-making, specially of science and technology research granting agencies.

             According to the author, data is collected from a wide variety of sources for the objective of constructing “the intellectual content” and institutional support for the emergence of “nanotechnology culture” (Bainbridge 2004, 285). The author of the paper is interested in understanding two competing definitions and claims on nanotechnology as coming from within the domain of scientific-technical work and science fiction.

             As this is a methods rather than a research finding paper, even the objects of research appear to be the methods under discussion, the author did not go into too much detail about the demarcation of the boundaries of the research subject, and the actors involved in his research. However, this might become a problem if one does not have a coherent narrative plan that drives the research, since it becomes less possible to interrogate the methodology employed more deeply in terms of their delimitations and breakpoints. Also, it becomes unclear as to what the exact research questions are since merely gesturing to the vague notion of public perception of nanotechnology and nanoscience does not provide a concrete delineation of issues around which that public perception is shaped. Moreover, the lack of clear objectives does not allow for the possibility of falsification of already existing assumptions or insights into what findings are pertinent which can then become steps for constructing and laying out strategies.

             The author begins his discussion by looking at the type of survey questionnaires that can be employed. The first are the Likert type items that allow the respondents to express their agreement or disagreement through a spectrum of five possibilities, with each of them weighted in predetermined increments.  Some of the questions were taken from ‘authoritative’ sources such as science reports or articles from certain scientific journals. At the same time, there are ‘control’ type questions that were constructed out of certain assumptions in the social sciences about the social behaviors of particular groups of people. The initial questions are structured to gauge the general awareness of the respondents, with some variations in the subjects and objects involved in the questionnaires such as in the gender, level of expertise, specific technological details, and the settings.  The questions were administered on the web to selected respondents by reputable agencies. There is also the grouping of questions according to ‘scales’ or ‘themes’ to allow for probabilistic comparisons. However, it is not too clear as to what are the criteria used for assigning weightage to each of the answers (Bainbridge 2003, 286), or the sort of progressive structure the accumulated questions can take for testing the cognitive maps of the respondents.

              Then,  there is also the ‘vignette experiment’ where the respondents are asked to provide judgment to some situational questions through a list of predetermined answers (288). The experimental vignettes require the stories to be controlled in three different ways: gender of the protagonists, expertise of the protagonist, and the motivation of the protagonist (289). However, I disagree with Bainbridge’s argument that a theoretical grounding is not necessary for a methods paper, since it is necessary to conduct a meta-analysis of the methods deployed and theory can possibly be the first approach towards that.  Moreover, one needs to have an established theory if one in order to have a foundation for grounding the causal inferences that one can then draw from data that has many other hidden, ideologically loaded variables.

               Bainbridge also advocates the analysis of web-linkages of the different hypertext linkages that tie websites that publicize themselves as nanotechnology relevant companies. He advocates the calculation of correlations or similarity measures used to map the network of linkages that these sites receive from the other websites, which he argues is less self-conscious than answers one may obtain from survey questions. The frequency calculations of the pingbacks and visits also become self-contained quantitative material that have a value of objectivity, at least in relative stance, in comparison to answers provided by respondents where the unobservable variables cannot be as easily controlled for. This can then be used as complement to looking at websites that recommend specific material objects relating to the nanotechnology knowledge practices, such as in terms of the books that receive the most hits and recommendations. While it is true that books would be the ones that most connect the world to the larger ‘lay’ public, one should also include, in the mix,  less traditional object forms such as films, documentaries,  popular articles, and even artistic interpretations, if the purpose is to look at how the public/popular culture respond to the primary, scientific content on nanotechnology. With the expansion of social media and altmetrics (impact assessment) as aggregates of media consumption behavior in the online world, it should not be too hard to obtain the numbers for statistical analysis and then to contextualize that within the more qualitative textual analysis of a selection of materials.

Bainbridge spent quite a bit of time expounding on the analysis of the numbers relating to keyword searches to demonstrate popular searches and ratios of certain attributive adjectives next to these keywords (such as good or bad), even though one has to very clearly delineate through the different possibilities.  
               However, I feel that there has to be a better contextualizing of these searches so that one can have a more insightful interpretation into the ontology of the searches, and even the sort of knowledge movements that brought about these kind of searches. Moreover, there is a missing link between the science-related reading habits of the general (or more targeted) public and the frequency of the keywords that occur, which I believe can go further at informing the motivation behind these keyword searches, including through online bookstores. However, I do agree with Bainbridge’s assessment regarding the usefulness of keyword searches within the specific and bounded spaces of specific grants database, for instance, since the connections will indeed be less spurious and one can then better assess the granting agency’s attitude towards nanotechnology by looking at the type of relevant projects for which the grants are awarded to.  At any rate, Bainbridge’s discussion of keyword counting among the different texts is not new since it has been part of the text-mining practices within the literary humanities. I find thinking about it for my own work as useful for tracing specific cognitive maps within the field I am looking at. However, I believe that I need to find a less simplistic way for presenting these data, as I would like to graph the frequency of their occurrences with conceptual developments that spur the usage and application of the key conceptual terms.

              Since my work for the class will not involve any actual textual analysis, even as I will be looking at a selection of science fictional works for my dissertation chapter on fictionalizing, conceptual modeling, and the public’s (and scientists’) relationship to the speculative-science work produced, I will say much about the textual analysis as a method proposed by this paper. Moreover, there is nothing particularly new about the concept, and Bainbridge seems to be focusing more on the broad rather than detailed analysis of a large selection of fictional works with direct and indirect relevance to nanotechnology. However, having a broad quantitative understanding of the sorts of science fiction that perform specific intellectual and conceptual functions within and outside the area of science I am focusing on is useful for providing the background and rationale to my choice of works for more detailed examination.
       In the qualitative methods proposed by this paper, one gets the impression that the qualitative data obtained through the paper are being organized and weighted in such a way that they could then be tabled and presented in a quantitative manner. Bainbridge choice of web-administered survey seem to emphasize the casting of a wide a net as possible to reach the targeted stakeholders, probably in the hope of obtaining a sufficiently big sample size. I would argue that the vignette style questioning could both take on a fixed-choice and open ended approach, at least in the case of the work I do, since I am interested in science-fictional modeling and prototyping of scientific theories/facts against real world situations and a series of possible futures. I will also be thinking through the survey method and web-trending of publications and narratives, though I will be focusing mainly on two specific databases: CDSWeb and arxiv.org, since the pre-print and other non-official forms of communication and knowledge dissemination are important in the practice of high energy physics (Mele 2004).

References Cited
Bainbridge, William Sims. "Sociocultural meanings of nanotechnology: research methodologies." Journal of Nanoparticle Research 6.2 (2004): 285-299.

Mele, Salvatore. "Open access publishing in high-energy physics." OCLC Systems & Services 25.1 (2009): 20-34.

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