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A virtual ethnography of the dynamics of social change in relation to new technology

Principal Researcher

Dr David Morrison
Institute of Communication Studies
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
+44 (0)113 233 5805
david@ics-server.novell.leeds.ac.uk

Co-Workers

Dr Robin Brown
University of Leeds
robin@ics-server.novell.leeds.ac.uk

Mr Terry Hemmings
University of Leeds
terry@ics-server.novell.leeds.ac.uk

Dr Elizabeth Silva
Open University
e.b.silva@open.ac.uk

Mr Michael Svennevig
University of Leeds
sven@ics-server.novell.leeds.ac.uk

Research Period
1 February 1998 to
31 January 2000
Background/Context
Aims and Objectives
Project Design
Implications

Background/Context

One of the central questions of the late twentieth century is how is technology producing social change? In particular how are people organising and restructuring their lives at the level of the household? Recent work on technology and households has suggested that any general understanding of the objects people need and use, and the way in which those objects are used, cannot ignore household practices and relationships within the household. The project further accepts that if there is to be a 'virtual society' created out of new technologies then there must be a 'virtual household'. To understand whether or not this is a real possibility we must understand the dynamics and workings of households to appreciate how technology is, and might be, incorporated within them.

Aims and Objectives

The project aims closely to examine how technologies are incorporated into the home. As part of this aim the project focuses on areas where technology is particularly considered to have the potential to alter existing relationships and interactions in the home. The project examines changes that are taking place through the introduction of technology in:

  • domestic social relationships

  • the nature and pattern of domestic work

  • authority patterns within the home - as technology bestows certain 'skills' that alter knowledge and hence authority within the family

  • leisure activities as 'time' is released through the introduction of technology

  • educational level as technology is used as a resource

  • the emergence of the 'home' office - those who now work from home as a result of technological advances in communications.

Project Design

The study breaks with traditional methods of observing people in their natural settings by adopting the latest technical developments in audio-visual recordings. These developments now make it feasible and economically viable to 'wire' several key areas of domestic and technological exchange for continuous video and sound recording. Miniature fixed focus cameras and associated video recorders are placed in various rooms of the household to record activities and record discussions. The researchers will, in a sense, be in the room(s) with the participants to the research, but be present in an unobtrusive way. This method grants an unrivalled degree of insight into the functioning and impact of new technology within the home. The sample comprises four distinct categories of families according to levels of technology in the home, with four households within each category.

Implications

The findings from the project offer an important contribution to our knowledge of the adoption, use, and impact of new technologies. The method adopted assists the understanding of the impact of new technology by providing a unique body of data on household activities which until now it has not been possible to capture. The richness of the data has direct policy implications at both a social and commercial level. At the social policy level, the project tells us how technology is used as a resource within the home and how it supplements or competes with existing resources. At the commercial level the research furnishes precise information about individuals' use of technology in their practical everyday lives. An improved understanding of the routines of living can provide clues as to what types of technology are likely to be adopted, and what benefits new product development can bring.

 

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Contents current at 12th December 2000