'Please write as much as you can about what you do, what you talk about, what you eat and drink, what you buy or sell, what you are working on, the places you visit, the people you meet, the things you read, see and hear around you, how you are feeling and, of course, what you yourself think’
There’s no little irony in the fact that today, (12th May: ‘Mass Observation Day’) we are writing about Diary Methods for MethodsNews. This annual call for ‘day diaries’ to capture the everyday lives of people across the UK is a marker of the function of diary methods as a pillar of British social science. Put it in your diary.
However, despite (or perhaps because) of the familiarity of the diary and its strong associations with the written form, recent advances in diary methods remain under-explored within mainstream methods education, with the qualitative gaze trained instead upon the interview, focus group and observation for data collection. Many leading research methods textbooks make little, if any, reference to diary methods. Diary Methods and their regular, private, contemporaneous and time-structured records2 are due a revival.
The advent of social media and the associated rise of diaristic (chronological, sequential) media practices, coupled with the boom in mobile technologies and associated affordances for individuals recording their experiences through texts, photos, video, audio and movement have put diary methods at a digital frontier of qualitative research: the imbrication of digital culture in everyday life. Diary methods are uniquely placed for ‘capturing life as it is lived’3 and attending to unseen or sensitive subjects, creative practices, embodied experience. Diaries can also offer a way to access particular forms of hard-to-reach data that are simply not available through other methods. Creatively achieving the necessary match of modality and data can lead to rich insights, for example, using photo diaries to trace intimacies of space in the home4; using audio diaries to capture ‘Narratives of the Night’ in a sleep study5; or the Hull Floods Project6 which recruited a panel of 55 to keep a diary of how the floods affected their lives over a 12-18 month period. Diary studies can also effectively build upon activities people are already doing. An example is inviting activists with dementia who were already keeping appointment diaries to keep a more detailed record of their campaigning activities7. Social components can be introduced through online writing in the form of diary circles8 to add support in the process of change and reflection. In these examples, the fit between the research aims and objectives, make diary methods a compelling mode for capturing experience.
There are, of course, challenges to deploying diary methods, and as with any method, it should not be undertaken lightly. Whilst it may appear an attractive method in terms of cost and time resource, with suggestions of fully-formed data generated by participants, there are significant challenges and practical issues to be negotiated and considered. Diary accounts can take several forms9. Maintaining participation across a study can be a challenge; respondent fatigue is probably one of the best known limitations of this method, however, just as new technologies have mobilised new modes of data capture, new ways for engaging and sustaining participation have also developed. The use of incentives, diary-writing holidays, researcher progress checks, rewards and writing studios are some of the approaches researchers use to successfully negotiate these issues.
Future Directions Using digital technologies to make diaries, or elicit reports, necessitates a critical engagement with intersections between social research methods and more technical disciplines focussed on user experience and accessibility. There is a need to recognise digital divides and how the uneven distribution of ‘ubiquitous’ technologies can disable, rather than enable participation. Ruptures in connectivity, access to hardware, usability and accessibility, particularly for those who use assistive technologies such as voice-recognition and screen-readers bear consideration. For some people, more traditional audio or ‘pen and paper’ based diaries will continue to remain the most accessible approach, for others, visual approaches may work better. Flexibility in application is essential. In all cases, attending creatively to the requirements of all participants (not just those we expect) and keeping approaches under revision will be central to ensuring appropriate methods.
1 The Mass Observation project: www.massobs.org.uk.
2 Alaszewski, A. (2006) Using Diaries for Social Research. London: Sage Publications.
3 Bolger, N., Davis, A. & Rafaeli, E. (2003) Diary methods: Capturing life as it is lived. Annual Review of Psychology 54(1), 579- 616.
4 Morrison, C.A. (2012) Heterosexuality and home: Intimacies of space and spaces of touch. Emotion, Space and Society 5(1), 10–18.
5 Hislop, J., Arber, S., Meadows, R., & Venn, S. (2005) Narratives of the night: The use of audio diaries in researching sleep. Sociological Research Online 10(4).
6 http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/lec/sites/cswm/ hullfloodsproject/home.php
7 Bartlett, R. (2012) Modifying the diary interview method to research the lives of people with dementia. Qualitative Health Research, 22(12), 1717-26.
8 Pedagogy of Methodological Learning, Researcher Learning Journeys http://pedagogy.ncrm.ac.uk
9 Bartlett, R. & Milligan, C. (2015) What is Diary Method? London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Submitted by Sarah Lewthwaite & Ruth Bartlett, University of Southampton on Monday, 5th June 2017