Scoping a Dissertation: A Tech and Narrative Lab Story

Scoping a Dissertation: A Tech and Narrative Lab Story

By Eddie López

Bringing things down to size.

In the policy space, we always seem have this question of scope. Indeed, at times, it can be belaboring, yet it’s there for good reason! If a policy is too niche or limited, there comes the risk of unfair advantage or missing the broader, target population. If the policy is too broad, there comes the risk of impacting the population in an insufficient, or negligible manner. Thus, we aim to be somewhere in the middle – a properly sized policy for an effective and efficient result.

As a PRGS student, we are offered first-hand practice in this with our own dissertation – a chance to decide our own topic, our own process, our own scope, our own research, and to contribute to the literature at large. It’s a crucial step towards showing maturation in the research field (i.e., as a doctorate), and today, I want to show you some of the steps I took as I began scoping and designing my dissertation research.

work in progress

The idea.

Have you ever gotten burnt out from Instagram? Or, has Instagram ever influenced your emotions in a significantly negative way (i.e., made you sad, angry, paranoid, etc.)? For me, this definitely seemed the case, and after talking to a lot of my friends, it seemed like we shared similar experiences. People worried about things like image, had fear of missing out (FOMO), felt disconnection, etc. Of note, I am not by any means trying to demonize social media. I think platforms, such as Instagram, have indeed provided positive upsides! They allow people to stay in touch with close friends, connect with people they may have not otherwise connected with, keep up with the news, and many other things. However, I personally was drawn to this idea of the negative experience. Why does it seem that amongst myself, my friends, and even the literature, that different social media platforms can have such significant, negative effects on their users? A related and slightly different question: is there a way that we could mitigate or reduce some of these effects? Is there a policy angle to all of this? 

This is what provided the initial spark for pursuing questions like this. Moreover, when looking at the state of our federal social media regulation, the idea of looking into a policy-based, social media solution also seemed quite timely. From here, this is where a lot of the scoping and research design came into play. I needed to set things to the right scale.

more work in progress

Finding a platform.

Something I learned fairly quickly is that the term “social media” actually has a lot of varying definitions. Thus, before I even began talking through social media types, or effects, or policy, I figured it best to have an anchoring definition. Ultimately, that came from a 2015 paper by Carr and Hayes titled “Social Media: Defining, Developing, and Divining.” That definition is as follows:

“Social media are Internet-based channels that allow users to opportunistically interact and selectively present, either in real-time or asynchronously, with both broad and narrow audiences who derive value from user-generated content and the perception of interactions with others.”

While helpful to have a standing definition, I soon realized that this definition did more to encapsulate what social media was than what it wasn’t. Consequently, it provided me a border for the area I might wish to think through, but not necessarily the tools to minimize my space of interest. I realized to scope the size of my research down, I might need to go to other tools beyond definitions. Instead, I used grounding questions similar to what you see in Table 1.

Table 1: Questions and reasoning.

QuestionsReasoning for question
What is the program timeline for finishing your research? You need to ensure you have adequate sources to meet your deadline (i.e., time, money, etc.).
What social media platforms may be the most relevant to the questions you are trying to ask?Encompassing all of social media may be too large of a space to adequately address.
What types of research analysis (i.e., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed) are you comfortable and adequate in doing? If all, do you have a preference?Proper data analysis is needed to support and convey your results. Following your data analysis preference may allow for a more fruitful or stronger analysis.
What kind of data is available for your chosen social media platform?To know if the data you can access is adequate to your research design and questions.
Do you have an initial framework or concept that you want to explore in your research?To better inform the above questions, such as data you may want, the type of platform or method you may wish to follow, etc.

Through this process, I ultimately ended up scoping my social media question to just the Instagram platform. For convenience, I have formatted the answers similarly to that of Table 1.

Table 2: Questions and answers.

What is the program timeline for finishing your research? Choosing just Instagram allows me to better focus my efforts. Consequently, this helps me achieve my program’s timeline.
What social media platforms may be the most relevant to the questions you are trying to ask?The questions I am asking revolve around how social media platform’s affect their users. In focusing on just Instagram, this allows me to dive into a singular platform’s effects, while also avoiding the need to normalize differing, social media platform’s user interfaces (i.e., Twitter and Instagram, while both social media platforms, function differently due to their user interface). Additionally, with the current events that have occurred around Instagram (i.e., the Instagram internal research leaks, Instagram being found a contributor by a British coroner in the death of a teenage girl, etc.), there is definitely a political relevance to researching that platform. 
What types of research analysis (i.e., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed) are you comfortable and adequate in doing? If all, do you have a preference?I am comfortable in doing any of the three forms of analysis, yet lean more towards qualitative or mixed.
What kind of data is available for your chosen social media platform?Instagram, unlike platforms such as Twitter, is not a default, public facing platform. Thus, data will predominantly need to be collected outside of a publicly available format.
Do you have an initial framework or concept that you want to explore in your research?I think (and this is a hunch) that negative, social media platform effects on Instagram stem from an area of intimacy and connection, which ultimately ties back to mental health. Resultingly, the questions that I need to ask may be better suited in an interview style, or ethnographic approach. This informs my research analysis design to being either qualitative or mixed. It also does not interfere with the perceived data type I will need to collect (i.e., needing to go outside of a publicly available dataset).

Finding the right population.

With a platform in hand, the next step became finding the right population. Initially, I considered doing teenagers as they are a particularly vulnerable population group. However, after considering the timeline, as well as the research logistics for running a study with teenagers (i.e., Human Subject Protection requirements), I decided to scope my research around young adults. Specifically, I chose 18–22-year-olds as they are the youngest adult population, and potentially the most impressionable by the platform. Moreover, with 18-24-year-olds making up a significant part of the United States’ Instagram user base (25.5% according to NapoleanCat), I felt it added relevance to choosing this population group.

Finding a framework.

As mentioned previously, part of me is interested in these negative user effects as they relate to intimacy and connection. I believe that there may be a disconnect between how users may be seeking connection, and how users experience that connection. Specifically, I think this is relevant to younger age groups, as they are still maturing and figuring out who they are as people and as human beings. One of the many ways in which we do that, of course, is through connections with people. It is in finding out who our friends are. 

With this in mind, the task became how to bolster this idea. Is there any field or research area that we can use as a basis for this? This returned me to a lot of the reading I had done, as well as to reading I hadn’t done. Ultimately, after reviewing the literature in areas such as mental health, social media studies, and sociology, it was actually one of my board members that helped me pinpoint my answer. Our answer was anthropology, and in scoping that down further, we arrived at the literature on young adult identity formation. 

The final narrative.

So where does this all go from here? As with many things in my life, the answer for that was “the whiteboard.” It needed to be all mapped out… and that is what is actually shown in the photos. Those pictures of the whiteboard are the beginning of how I started forming a narrative. They helped me articulate what I was trying to ask, as well as where I wanted to go. That narrative, though, may be a blog post for another day.

Closing thoughts.

I am unsure if any of you readers are also Ph.D. students, but regardless, I guess the closing thought I have for y’all is on narrative. ALWAYS know your narrative, and take whatever steps necessary (i.e., scoping, reading, reflection, etc.) to shape and understand it. At the end of the day, your narrative is what is going to allow others to understand you. Sometimes, it may be the thing that allows you to understand yourself… or where you want to go.

It is exceedingly valuable, both in research and in life. 

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