Surrounded by nebulae

Last week I attended a pan-London meeting of researcher developers. My opposite numbers, so to say. It is actually one of my favourite meetings. There I heard a colleague saying that researcher development is not a profession for life. “We have come from different places and we are on our ways to different places”, she concluded. This remark was meant to be a positive one, and I did understand the point she was making. Nevertheless, my heart literally ached a little when I heard that, and I have been pondering since about where that pain came from.

I took on my role at my current institution five years ago. Besides how the role has evolved, the way I see it is that I wear two hats. When I wear the researcher developer hat, I help students grow into researchers themselves. When I wear the researcher hat, I contribute to the scholarship of researcher development while also carrying on with my usual research in digital sociology. This three-way split of identity has been posing challenges, and I have been asked by different colleagues if I am going to ditch the researcher developer hat anytime soon.

Perhaps that is a strategic thing to do, as a recent anonymous article in the Guardian seems to suggest, and last week’s meeting got me wondering whether I am being unwise. Then I recalled this following quote that a PhD student shared with me last year. The words were from her son.

The process of forming a new idea — be it a dissertation, a book, a work of art — is similar to the process by which a star is formed. In the beginning, it is just a cloud of particles — a nebula — floating in space. Slowly, over time, these particles are drawn by gravity toward the centre, coalescing into a more solid form — the first semblance of the star, of something new. As these particles continue to amass, the energy of the centre of the nebula builds and builds until finally, after crossing a critical point — after absorbing a critical amount of information — the cloud ignites and the new star — the new idea — is born.

I am eyewitnessing the births of stars everyday. In a courtside seat, no less. I guess that’s the privilege I can’t quite give up.


Researchers’ complicated relationship with data

RT @rasmus_kleis No, your findings did not “emerge” from your data. Frogs emerge from ponds. Findings are arrived at through analysis of data. In the first case, the frog does the work, in the second, you do the work. (8 November 2017)

Immediately hearted it, but then there is also this one below, reminding me that we cannot try too hard either.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything you’d like.” (Ronald Coase, n.d.)

I guess we are all flirting somewhere in between.

Computer says so.

In Mr Monk Goes to the Ballgame, the murderer lures his target to a deserted industrial park by manipulating the GPS in their car the previous night – because he knew they would be unsuspecting of the instructions from that little machine.

I have just had one such moment myself. My Calendar indicated I had a Committee meeting this afternoon, so I planned my day around it accordingly. When I arrived at the venue, there were already people in the room, but they were not the usual faces. I asked them why they were there. Oh so authoritatively. It took me longer than it should to realise it was I who barged into their meeting. I just never doubted the Calendar.

After thinking about the Monk episode, I also remembered a casual list that I was compiling for students on a related topic. Related in my mind, at least.

Sliding on the participant-observer continuum

Denmark awaits Seoul’s extradition request for Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (The Guardian, 2 January 2017)

So the presidential scandal in Korea is far from dying down. On the contrary, it’s like peeling an onion; there is always more and it stinks.

Yesterday Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of the woman at the centre of the scandal, was arrested in Denmark. It has been alleged that Chung herself has also been heavily involved in the wrongdoing. What is particularly interesting about this latest development is that this arrest was made possible by a Korea journalist tipping Danish police off Chung’s whereabouts. The journalist belongs to a cable station called JTBC. The station has been playing a crucial role so far, including this latest exclusive. JTBC’s news reporting division, led by the iconic journalist Sohn Suk-hee, has therefore been lauded by many as doing what politicians and law enforcers should have been doing but failed to.

Then an op-ed came out today. Written by a director in a media consulting firm, the piece has triggered a heated debate about whether it is appropriate for journalists to intervene. The author categorically argues the JTBC journalist shouldn’t have, citing Rachel Smolkin’s 2006 article on the topic. It’s like the criticism levelled at Kevin Carter and his famous photograph of a vulture and a child, but only inversely.

‘When to step in (if at all)’ is an age-old dilemma and not limited to journalism. I too discuss it extensively with our doctoral researchers, so I am adding this case to my metaphorical scrapbook. One I turn to most frequently in class is the following passage from Kenneth Good’s Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomami (1991: 102-103):

I stood there, my heart pounding. I had no doubt I could scare these kids away. They were half-afraid of me anyway, and if I picked up a stick and gave a good loud, threatening yell, they’d scatter like the wind. On the other hand, I was an anthropologist, not a policeman. I wasn’t supposed to take sides and make value judgements and direct their behaviour. This kind of thing went on. If a woman left her village and showed up somewhere else unattached, chances were she’d be raped. She knew it, they knew it. It was expected behaviour. What was I supposed to do, I thought, try to inject my own standards of morality? I hadn’t come down here to change these people or because I thought I’d love everything they did; I’d come to study them.

The author of the op-ed is of course entitled to his concern for the integrity of the field he cares about. I think, however, he has missed the point that ‘observer’ and ‘participant’ are not two dichotomous states. To draw on Junker (1960), it is a continuum along which we all slide back and forth, guided by our professional moral compass.

Grey matters (pun intended)

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak about research integrity (as outlined in Singapore Statement, 2010; Universities UK Concordat, 2012) to a cohort of first-year doctoral researchers in the School of Arts. One message I wanted to get across was that RI is not to throw in some nice, Boy-Scouty words such as honesty and respect, and that it is something very close to our everyday life as a researcher.

20160119_side_mirrorPhoto by Carol Blyberg (smilla4) under CC A-NC 2.0

Considering the little choices that we make at every turn of a research project, nothing is black and white. There are instead a lot of grey areas with shifting boundaries (or ‘multiple boundaries’ as one of the discussants put it during the seminar), and you will just need to draw a line somewhere – a line that is acceptable in your context but more importantly you are comfortable with.

So, as brain exercises (hence the pun), I presented some hypothetical dilemmas to the participants. I don’t mean dilemmas that are as dramatic as those in the famous Justice lecture series but rather small and mundane ones. I then asked the participants where their lines would be and how they had come to their decisions.

Those exercises generated rich and vibrant discussions in the classroom. I was quite pleased with how the session went, and now I keep having more ideas that I could have used. So I thought I’d build up a list here – for my own resource but perhaps also for anyone looking for essay prompts or something.

CFP: Interdisciplinary Discussion on Visual Methods

The RC33 9th International Conference on Social Science Methodology

11th – 16th September 2016, Leicester, UK

Session organiser: Dr Yenn Lee, SOAS, University of London

This session is for researchers using ‘visual methods’ – in the broadest definition of the term – in their work. Visual methods have long been practised in different disciplines, and with the development of digital technologies their place has been further highlighted in recent years.

However, recognising the need for a further effort to synthesise fragmented practices, the session aims to bring together visual anthropologists and sociologists, cartographers in human geography, and multimodal analysts in digital communications, to name a few. The unique contribution of this session is that it will provide a forum where participants can draw methodological inspirations from one another beyond disciplinary boundaries and traditions.

To that end, we are inviting submissions that will reflect the diversity of approaches. Doctoral and early career researchers are particularly welcome to join.

Deadline for abstracts: 21 January 2016 (Update: Call extended to 21 February)

How to submit:

1. To submit a paper abstract for the RC33 9th International Conference on Social Science Methodology, visit After landing on the homepage, navigate to ‘Abstract Submission’, which appears in the left-hand column of the page. See the image below.


2. Complete the form in full. You may wish to cut and paste your abstract into the Abstract field from another document. Each abstract is limited to 5000 characters.

3. Choose the relevant session for your stream. To do so, you will need to select the session organiser’s name [Yenn Lee] from the drop-down menu highlighted in the image below. To check you are submitting to the correct session, you can view a table of sessions and session convenors by clicking the link titled ‘View the list of sessions and session convenors’. Once complete, click Submit.


For all additional information, please contact Dr Yenn Lee (yl22 [at] soas [dot] ac [dot] uk).

* Crossposted at SOAS News.

Beg, borrow, or steal?

The study I did in France was in Information and Communication Sciences. One of the first things we learnt across modules was that in a newer field like ours we can’t afford not to be interdisciplinary – that we need to be aware and able to draw on theories and methods already out there. Biology, computer science, journalism, you name it. I can’t speak for other colleagues in the cohort, but to me, that made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t one?

Fast-forward a decade. These days I find myself working more and more with multimodal online content in my research. And in my line of work at SOAS, I get to meet many brilliant minds specialising in analysis of other types of images, videos, and art objects. I couldn’t help but notice there is so much room for an ‘idea bazaar’.

Voilà, this is a little bit of background story about how I came to propose a session titled Interdisciplinary Discussion on Visual Methods at the upcoming 9th International Conference on Social Science Methodology (RC33) next autumn. In the post that follows, I am going to create a call for papers for the session. I genuinely hope the call will reach out and get a good response, so that a forum for a rich and continuing discussion can be set up.

Challenge accepted

I know many celebrities advertise a product that they have never used and probably never will. That’s something I wouldn’t be able to. With no intention to sound self-righteous, it’s only that I tend to feel uncomfortable if there is a discrepancy between the ‘talk’ and the ‘walk’.

I have just encouraged students to take part in #AcWriMo, a month-long academic write-a-thon led by PhD2Published. So what feels like the next natural step for me is to have a go at it myself too.

Grounded in reality, my goals are:

  1. Work on manuscripts everyday – however small a number of words are actually produced, and
  2. Get (at least) two papers out of the pipeline.

So far so good.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I run a three-part programme called Writing Up Your Thesis for PhD students in their 3rd year or later. It’s hybrid of a workshop on the strategic management of the final stages of thesis production and a collective writing retreat. While updating the slides from last year, I once again realise there has been quite a variety of technological attempts to combat distractions of our time. And you know how much I love list-making and categorisation…

  • Pomodroido: a timer app for the pomodoro technique for Android
  • Write or Die 2: a web app that starts to delete what you are writing if you pause for too long
  • Anti-Social: social networking block software
  • Freedom: productivity software that blocks websites and apps
  • FORCEdraft: a free text editor that won’t quit until you reach your goal
  • Coffitivity: a website that recreates the ambient sounds of a cafe
  • Writers room in Washington DC: space comparable to South Korean dokseoshil
  • Scrivener: alternative wordprocessing software, particularly good for storyboarding
  • FocusWriter: a wordprocessor that offers a simple, distraction-free writing interface (a similar feature also available in MacJournal)
  • Evgeny Morozov’s safe with a timed combination lock
    I’ve become very strategic about my use of technology as life is short and I want to use it wisely. I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. […] To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me. It’s not that I can’t say “no” to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done. I find it a very effective system.
  • Cell Lock-Up: a prison cell for cell phones (see also the Phone Stack, the Forest app, and the UNICEF Tap Project)
  • The ‘Three Month Thesis guru’ James Hayton’s Offline Sunday
    For me at least, the internet is a default habit. Whenever I am unsure what to do, the first thought that comes to mind is always to check email. Then while the email is loading I’ll open another tab with my second email account, then another with Facebook. Then after scanning those I’ll often open a news website, […] then back to Facebook where I’m chatting with 3 people at the same time, then I’ll notice another email has come in… [falling into a default loop of e-mail and Internet].