Research Methods for Digital Work and Organisation

By Christine Hine

Cover for 

Research Methods for Digital Work and Organization

Wednesday 1st December marks the launch event for the recently published edited collection Research Methods for Digital Work and Organization co-edited by Surrey Sociology’s Christine Hine in collaboration with Gillian Symon from Royal Holloway, University of London and Katrina Pritchard from Swansea University. This collection had its inception at a workshop funded by Surrey’s Institute for Advanced Studies back in 2017 organized by the three editors. Back then, we knew that digital work was a significant and growing phenomenon. Platforms such as Mechanical Turk, Taskrabbit and the like were allowing people to sell their labour in new ways, digital communications allowed people to work at a distance and were changing the shape and experience of organizations, and new forms of organization were emerging as people collaborated in crowd-sourced ventures such as software development and online encyclopedias. As researchers these phenomena were intriguing, yet challenging to capture with conventional research methods. In 2017 we started to bring together researchers who had developed ways to explore digital work and organization, whether by building new tools or repurposing existing methods, with a view to producing a resource to inform and support researchers in this field and to stimulate their research imaginations.

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic the shift to digital forms of work has accelerated and the significance of developing methods to understand it is greater than ever. It is as yet unclear just how many of the changes in working practices and locations will stick post-pandemic (and it is important to remember that not all work can be digital and that inequalities in access to digital work may both reflect and exacerbate wider societal inequalities). What is clear is that we need to continue to do research to examine the experience of digital work, to explore its opportunities and challenges and to understand what happens when people come up against the powerful digital platforms that structure much of the experience of digital work.

The book comprises 16 chapters commissioned from researchers who take a variety of different perspectives on work and on research methods. We spanned multiple disciplines across the social and informational sciences and recruited an international cast of researchers spanning Europe, USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Australia. We aimed to encourage authors to write from direct experience, showcasing not just the methods but also highlighting the insights those methods enabled them to uncover and exploring the challenges and limitations as well as the strengths. The result is a collection that tours through many different forms that “data” about digital work can take. Not all methods for studying digital work are what we might recognize as digital methods and some approaches in the book consider how we can study digital work as it is embedded in everyday lives and contexts from an offline perspective. Ethnographers Bailey et al, Gromme and Coletta investigate the experience  and the day to day practices that make up digital work and authoethnographers place themselves at the heart of the action (Badger takes on the role of delivery rider and Hine acts as digital volunteer).

Digital work, however, can of course be observed in digital contexts as much as in offline settings and such approaches form a significant part of the book. Working digitally leaves traces that can be repurposed for research purposes, either by developing dedicated tools or through more ready-to-hand approaches as Jemielniak and Stasik argue. Traces of work are also found within digital documents themselves, as Whelan explores in an analysis of tracked changes within a document. Researchers who analyse digital traces of work have to navigate a complex ethical territory through data that are more or less public, and range from fully identifiable to completely anonymous. Some of the methods included in the collection take an active or critical role in relation to the phenomena studied. Savage and colleagues conduct action work to enable workers on crowd-sourcing platforms to better understand and optimize their earning while Rogers takes a critical view on the conditions of visibility and the criteria for success that prevail on digital platforms. Across the collection researchers utilize an array of skills that both exploit and expand on the everyday competences we use to navigate a digital world and also showcase the benefits of multi-method research and team-working that draws on diverse skillsets. We hope that the collection will inspire future researchers in developing their own innovative and reflexive research practices, as we continue to grapple with the ever-changing digital landscapes of work and organization.