Blog Post

Visulisation & Conventional Research Challenges

Visulisation & Conventional Research Challenges

Happy, belated St Patricks Day from Ireland!

It has been a while since my last HASTAC post, but what a day to discuss Irish, or should I say Northern Irish identity here at Queen’s University Belfast. Last week I held my “Explorations of Northern Irishness” Symposium at the prestigious Riddell Hall in Queen’s and I have to say that despite the stress of organising such an event it was a very enjoyable day in terms of academic interest and engagement. With 15 diverse and interesting papers the Symposium discussed identity in contemporary Northern Ireland across interdisciplinary boundaries, from linguistic perspectives, cultural heritage, psychological insights and media narratives.

One paper presented at the symposium was my own; a paper entitled “Northern Irish Identity in the Provincial Media - Narrative Patterns & Perceptions”. Today I will discuss the challenges in writing this paper, particularly with an emphasis on the utilisation of digital tools vs conventional qualitative scholarship. 

The paper highlighted how little research has been carried out in the area of analysing how Northern Irish identity is articulated in the press media in Northern Ireland. The commonly held consensus over Northern Irish identity is that it represents a national identity that appeals to both oppositional sides, Catholic/Nationalist & Protestant/Unionist, in a post-conflict society. The research focused on the importance of the framing agendas and framing narratives in the articulation of the Northern Irish identity, and examined the frame agendas configuration in terms of individual narrative components to identify the narrative perception of the Northern Irish identity within the confines of the Northern Irish press media.

The study utilised Content Analysis of a data set consisting of news articles published in three major Northern Irish newspapers, collectively representative of the 3 largest daily newspapers produced in Northern Ireland - the slightly Unionist orientated ‘Belfast Telegraph’, the moderate Nationalist ‘Irish News’ and the broadly ‘Unionist News Letter’.The analysis period encompasses collectively the period 1997 – 2014, which was then broken down into two distinct time periods; 1997-2007; and 2007-2014. This research is a micro-study comprising a larger data-sect over the time period 1969 – 2014 detailing the usuage of the term 'Northern Irish identity' in the wider press media.

A process of manifest coding was employed to produce an emergent coding scheme by clustering similar variables together, and this was systematically condensed to discover emergent patterns, themes or biases. Collectively, the discoveries within the research show the relative stability of media frames surrounding the Northern Irish identity, specifically highlighting the perceived component structure of the Northern Irish identity as broadly partisan, however it was also seen that there is a subtle narrative perception shift of the Northern Irish identity across the time periods.

However, when writing the paper I had originally utilised some different digital programmes for exploratory analysis that helped both clarify and confuse issues. As a HASTAC scholar I am keen to encourage and explore digital tools, yet I became aware that the digital can often prove distracting to the research issue at hand. One example was that I used VoyeurTools Bubblelines program to produce visualisations of narratives across time, comparing Northern Irish, Irish and British identities in the media to determine the salience of these identities at a given point. I was very happy with them as a visual aid, in that a quick look can reduce a complex dataset into an easily understood message. However, it became apparent that while this was useful, the more pertinent issue was that for ease of analysis in an academic setting it was preferable to present the data in numeric statistical tables. That is not to say that the visualisations were lesser in any way, but simply I found, their role works best as an aid. Often I see scholars blur the distinction between using these methods as a final result rather than an aid, and in doing so we can, while improving understandings through an implicit visual way, in fact inhibit our own understanding of the data presented. So from Ireland, a warning!

My next post will concern using data archives that have not been configured in terms of academic research, and the challenges in utilising these resources.

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