There are rich examples of practice theory-informed research that addresses bundles of professional/organisational practices, leisure practices, or everyday practices related to, for example, pressing concerns such as sustainability. Yet considerations of the nexus of practices invite researchers to continue creatively investigating links that may cross over different sub-disciplinary literatures or methodological discussions. In this interview, Allison Hui talks with Bhavna Middha about how her research, on topics such as eating and community engagement, has engaged with varied everyday and governance practices through a grounding in Schatzki’s site ontology. Our discussion highlights how digital and online methods can be integrated as forms of co-production.

These forms both extend considerations around the ethics of digital research interactions and highlight spaces for re-thinking how Bourdieu’s claims, about the difference between the practices of researchers and those of practitioners, might be approached when practices have complex spatialities unbounded by distinctions of online/offline. 

Allison Hui: Your work has involved investigating the intersection of multiple practices – eating and cooking, but also communicative practices and institutional practices around the redesign of spaces and processes of change. How have considerations of intertwining of practices been woven into your work? 

Bhavna Middha: I should start by saying that Schatzki’s concept of site ontology (Schatzki 1991, 2002) has been the basic framework that I have used to keep all the ‘complexes or bundles’ of practices together. My PhD research explored the relationship between eating practices of students and the eating spaces at inner urban universities, and the objective or physical space of the universities helped provide an initial physical boundary around these practices. But bringing in space as relational helped to draw in view the various connected practices and material arrangements with other spatial and temporal dimensions.  

Recognising these spatial complexities, I wanted to diverge from some of ethnographic methods available to study practices and follow people’s daily activities across physical space and time, such as diaries (Flick 2014), go-along or walk along interviews (Kusenbach 2003) and photo elicitation (Sharma & Chapman 2011) to name a few. Thus, I included social media ethnography in my research. This included exploring publicly available sites as well as stimulating targeted Facebook data generation by creating a private Facebook page I named ‘Selfoodie’ for posts, pictures and conversations.  

With the proliferation of digital and social media and the myriad of food and eating practices being performed online, it seemed obvious to explore the online space in relation to our offline/non digital activities. I had previously used YouTube to study how cooking using pressure cookers was taught and learned online. The YouTube videos consisted of people posting recipes and directions of everyday meals and showing off their culinary skills. This led to an understanding of how cooking is strongly associated with the use of pressure cookers in many Indian households. Using this methodology of studying associated practices opened up a new way of exploring and following eating practices for me.  

While starting to generate data, as well as in the initial analysis, these practices, such as online communication, heating up food, building and design practices, and the University’s space management strategies, were found to be embedded in specific material locations with connections to be explored. 

The posts, photographs and conversations on the Facebook page provided the links and connections that students’ eating practices made and that shaped and were shaped by the University spaces. These included the spaces for eating provided on the campus, the material arrangements such as appliances and also temporal considerations such as lunch and break times, as well as class schedules.  This approach made apparent the tension between the University’s organisational practices and students’ eating practices, making it an important relationship to explore. For example, microwaves in lounges on campus, that were a meeting place for students, were provided at the behest of the student union and advertised on social media as such. These microwaves and lounges were seen to provide a space of capability to students to not only bring in their food but also be able to practice environmental sustainability (Middha 2020).  

However, in the redesigning of the campus the placement of microwaves and lounges was decided by architects and space/retail managers. This made clear that the opportunity to include eating as an important consideration, along with environmental sustainability or social equity, had been lost. For example, the separation and the consequent fracturing of retail spaces, lounges with microwaves and pop up spaces in the redesign indicated that eating together and socialising for students who used varied modes of eating (such as buying food, bringing in home cooked food) was not a consideration in the design and organisation of space. Co-production of knowledge with students may have included those considerations 

AH: These spatial and temporal dynamics are interesting and link to the blog’s third proposition that “Considerations of space, time and embodiment are essential aspects of practice theory methodologies.” I know that your research has also considered the way that practices might be anchored at different, mobile objects – as in the case of roaming food trucks. How has mobility been a consideration in your development of particular methodological strategies? 

BM: The primary purpose of the research was to step out of “spatially fixed containers” (Hannam, Sheller & Urry 2006) that some methods seem to be limited by, such as observations, and even interviews. The use of a ‘mobile method’ (Büscher, Urry & Witchger 2010) also followed from a desire to trace connections between different activities that led to eating on campus in varied ways, such as organising the ingredients, cooking or buying take away. Attending events and pop ups as part of ‘observations’ also provided the necessary tools to temporally and spatially trace the performance of certain practices on the campus.  

Tracing where and how the practitioners ate happened through Selfoodie Facebook page. As I briefly described above, this private Facebook page Selfoodie was set up solely for the purpose of data generation for the project. This ensured that the pictures and conversations on the page were visible only to the members of the group, and they could post their everyday meals wherever they were using their mobile phones and the Facebook app. While it started off as a static data generation method, the group and the page evolved to be dynamic and a variety of interactions ensued. So much so that recipes and suggestions for eateries, events and discounts on campus and the city were discussed and exchanged. The usual likes and comments on posts became frequent too. The interactive nature of the platform also gave me a chance to ask questions to participants in real time as and when posts were uploaded (Middha 2018). 

Two main insights emerged; first that eating practices can be anchored at spatially and temporally mobile objects, such as pop ups and eating events, second that certain challenges for sustainability, such as the use of packaged or discretionary foods, arise when eating practices are not anchored at any objective place or time.  

Interestingly, while space and time were central to the project, embodiment emerged as a challenge in this methodology. Having been associated with narcissism and emotions previously, food selfies as a methodology created issues in posting for participants. At the same time, using the group and the page as a way for participants to include new and useful activities in daily eating routines could be seen as embodiment, and a bodily conjunction of eating and online practices. 

AH: That’s interesting, but perhaps not unsurprising given discourses of digital interaction. Could you draw out further how a specific challenge like that relates to any broader challenges of using digital platforms and tools in your research? 

BM: Despite the proliferation of digital media, in my previous and current research, the levels and type of interaction varies from offline to online, as well as on different platforms, creating challenges in analysing the data. For example, while posting food selfies, participants were happy to post them on a private page but said they would never post online on their social media pages as it is considered unfashionable in their group. Similarly, research on community engagement platforms in Western Europe found that there is a difference in the quality of data collected from social media and dedicated digital platforms, while at the same time the response by citizens on these platforms may vary depending on institutional context (Bonsón, Royo & Ratkai 2015). Two thoughts arise from this, which are widely acknowledged in the digital literature. One, the internet and social media are tools that extend offline lives to online (Miller et al. 2016), which means that these shape and are shaped by everyday practices. Thus, these relationships are challenging to record, making for messy data generation. Second, changes in ICT cannot be solely used to bring about social change (Bonsón et al. 2012). 

Digital access and exclusion have become widely apparent as issues within digital and online research and ethnography. Reaching the hard-to-reach groups is as difficult or in some cases even more difficult because of these issues. Furthermore, as our research on digital community engagement is showing us, the challenge is to design and include both offline and online engagements contextually and according to the needs of the project and the community (McShane & Middha forthcoming). We also found that the tools and methods used for research via customised digital platforms and social media pages also varies and shapes how the community experiences and participates in community engagement processes. For example, for many residents, surveys as the main tool of engagement on customised digital platforms led to black boxing of results, leading residents to look for other form of engagement such as social media or town hall protests (McShane and Middha forthcoming). 

The biggest challenge, however, was and remains ethics. While Facebook (and other social media) ethnography is becoming quite common, discussions of the ethical considerations and implications are still at a very nascent stage. There is a very thin line between public posts and data that is specially created for research. This also extends to the platform providers. The data created on private pages is still accessible to the providers and may not be fully destroyed as is done in other data collection techniques. 

AH: What about the biggest opportunities? 

BM: In terms of opportunities, digital and social media open up a myriad of new ways of data generation and (co)production. First, as I found in my PhD research, the combination of visual and verbal/written text provides a hybrid way of communicating. This further situates the written word, while accepting that words and pictures can be analysed together. The pictures may have been representational, but they also formed a part of the participants’ practices, allowing me to analyse them as such. In fact, some participants took time to make those pictures presentable thus participating in mainstream food selfie practices. 

The second opening is the co-production of data, which becomes easier and immersive for the researcher. While this may suit only ethnography or qualitative research methods, it provides insight into practices in various ways. I regularly posted on Selfoodie to encourage participants to posts as well as to be a part of the co-production of data.  By being a part of the posting practices on Selfoodie, I realised how hard it is to post all the time, while it seems on social media, people are doing it all the time. This changed the way I looked at the phenomenon of food selfies (taking pictures of your food to post on social media), and I saw it as a laborious practice (and as connected to other visual practices, such as photography and visual arts), rather than just another social media ‘narcissistic’ practice. Furthermore, the rich active and real time data generation provided moments of social interaction and further data generation, which are not possible in static data generation tools and methods. 

AH: Considering the co-production of data as not just empowering of participants but as collaborative or potentially even coercive work is interesting and brings us to the politics of methods. Given part of your interest is in how food practices have related to sustainability and social change, how do you approach knowledge production within digital spaces as consequential for social change?  

BM: I think the digital has a role in enabling new relations between practices and strengthening or loosening existing relationships too, which are important aspects of creating social change in food practices. One of the ways new and existing relationships are shaped is through knowledge production. New ways of performing a practice or changing the meanings of a practice and its relationship to other practices and material arrangements happen in the digital space. For example, accessing information on retail outlets or food events happening on campus, sharing recipes and new ingredients, campaigning through social media for eating space sand appliances on campus all get facilitated in this digital space. Another aspect of social change are general understandings that may be a part of several practices offline and online and may shape how they relate to each other and the outcomes of the bundle of practices. Dispersal of general understandings through student posts on Facebook that show the importance of having an individual study space on campus with access to a microwave nearby for warming up food is one such example. 

In the case of digital ethnography knowledge co-production plays an important part. The co-production of knowledge in this research led to the co-production of a relational ethnographic space, which is based on the understanding that recognising and integrating various types of knowledge enriches what knowledge is by recognising it as multifaceted and ongoing (Polk 2015). For example, taking pictures for research purposes and discussions of their experiences adds to the way co-production is achieved (Filipe, Renedo & Marston 2017). In the case of my research, it also involved cogeneration of data in which the researcher is a participant and generates data together with the other participants. Thus, this method also presented a new way of collaboration between the participants and me, and between different methods used in my research. 

I see two main advantages of co-production that are present in literature as well, in terms of methods and creating social change. 

First, the research illustrates how using methods in cogeneration and co-production of knowledge can contribute to facilitating and enhancing mobile methods (Lijadi & van Schalkwyk 2015; Piacenti, Rivas & Garrett 2014; Pink et al. 2016). Second, co-production of knowledge generates a relational ethnographic space, that provides an alternative perspective to mainstream social research, by allowing a pluralistic view of the phenomenon studied. The ethnographic space produced through the interactions of the Selfoodie method and the researcher and participant practices together with the material arrangements also produced a site of intervention. Knowledge production and sometimes dispersal of general understandings are linked to such sites. 

AH: And finally, what are you most excited about in terms of pushing forward these considerations of methodologies that engage with digital platforms, temporality and spatiality?  

BM: One of my current projects is exploring digital community engagement at the local and state government level, as this is becoming a primary way of information dispersal, data generation and interaction by government agencies with the citizenry. The project is also exploring how knowledge production happens through the process of digital engagements between governments and citizens. The temporality and spatiality of these community engagement digital platforms has come to the fore primarily in the form of the difference in engagements, responses and the kind of knowledge produced, on different platforms such as the difference between social media and dedicated digital platforms used by local and state governments. These differences lead to further questions about institutional change and issues such as digital exclusion. 

In another project, research during COVID-19 has turned to digital ethnography as the main method of knowledge production, which gave us an opportunity for co-production of research. The participants were interviewed on digital platforms, but they sent the photographs pertaining to the conversations we had during the interview, with captions indicating how those photographs were crucial to their experience of living through COVID-19 and the lockdown. 

Yet another project is exploring how school kitchen and gardens could become or facilitate community engagement through digital spaces, and how the vigour and excitement of face to face interactions can be brought, not mirrored, to digital spaces anew. 

In conclusion, I see digital engagements as more than just a methodology. I see digital platforms as important spaces that encourage co-production of knowledge but they are also a part of that knowledge production process, for example facilitating dispersal of general understandings of bundles of practices being researched.  

Bhavna Middha

Research Fellow

Centre for Urban Research

RMIT

@bhavna_middha Twitter

https://www.rmit.edu.au/contact/staff-contacts/academic-staff/m/middha-dr-bhavna

Allison Hui

Lecturer

Department of Sociology

Lancaster University

@EverydayAllie Twitter

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/sociology/people/allison-hui

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