Come find out what I’ve been working toward for the last three and a half years! On Tuesday, December 7, I will present what we academics call a doctoral dissertation proposal defense.

At 11 a.m., I’ll stand up in front of an audience of stern-looking academics and other interested parties and talk about the really big paper I’m planning to write about my really big research project on storytelling, social networks, and health (see below for the nitty gritty). I’ll talk for 30 minutes; the general public (yes, you!) gets to grill me for 10 minutes. Then my committee grills me for 20 minutes, throws me out to conduct secret deliberations, then drags me back in to tell me whether they’ll let me keep thinking and writing. If my profs give me the thumbs up Tuesday, I get to disappear down the rabbit hole for a few more months, come back out with lots of data, charts, and tested hypotheses, and do a full dissertation defense. And then, if I’m really good, I get some nice letters to put at the end of my name.

Sounds like fun, right? If so, then join in! The proposal defense takes place in the Tunheim Classroom Building, Room 111, on the DSU campus. If you won’t be in Madison on the 7th but would like to listen and submit questions, e-mail me, and I’ll send you a link to the online session.

Ten minutes is an awfully short time for public questions (give me the chance, and I’ll talk with an audience all day long!). If you have questions or feedback that don’t fit in the time Tuesday, I’ll be happy to take your input right here in the comment section. Fire away: just like Johnny Five, I need input!


The Nitty Gritty

  • Title: “Effects of Narrative on Interpersonal Connection and Communication in Health Social Networks”
  • Date: Tuesday, December 7th
  • Time: 11:00 am (CST)
  • Place: TCB (Tunheim Classroom Building), Room 111

Research Questions:

  1. Does storytelling influence the structure of an online social network?
  2. Do storytellers play a distinct role in sustaining an online social network?

I plan to investigate how people communicate within a health social network, a website providing a forum for interaction among individuals interested in specific health issues (see, for example, CureTogether, PatientsLikeMe, and ObesityHelp). I want to know whether people who use narrative more frequently—i.e., people who tell more stories, share more personal experiences—tend to have more “Friends” (in the Facebook sense of the word) and draw more responses with the online content they provide.

Some theory: Narrative theory says that we make meaning through stories. We are a storytelling species; that’s how we make sense of our world. Social cognitive theory says that social influences shape individual thought and action. Social network theory further supports the idea that our connections with our social network influence who we are and what we do.

Together, these theories suggest that in the context of a health social network, users will gravitate toward information that appeals to their sense of narrative. Personal narratives may provide context, establish authority, and indicate commonality, all of which may appeal more to health social network users than non-narrative information. If narrative content and the users producing it do generate more conversation and connections within health social networks, then that will suggest that storytellers provide distinct value to health social networks and play an important role in sustaining those networks.

In studying the influence of narrative content in health social networks, this dissertation tackles just one aspect of a larger research agenda on the influence of online social networks on health behavior. Like any other health intervention, health social networks matter only so far as they help patients get better, feel better, and live longer. Health social networks may expand our access to information and resources and thus help us make better, more satisfying health decisions. Health social networks may also expose us to all sorts of untested, ill-informed content that leads us to make worse health decisions than if we had just listened to doctor’s orders. Investigating the role of narrative content in health social networks is one step toward evaluating whether health social networks positively influence health behavior.

Ellingson, L. L., & Ellis, C. (2008). “Autoethnography as Constructionist Project.” In J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Handbook of Constructionist Research (pp. 445-465). New York: The Guilford Press.

I’m reading up on autoethnography, trying to get clear on how (and whether!) to distinguish it from scholarly personal narrative. Ellingson and Ellis (p. 450) talk about how Enlightenment ideals of scientific inquiry—remaining dispassionate, controlling conditions, converting observations to numerals, searching for the answer, separating truth from practice—”are rhetorically constructed to privilege the powerful elite and marginalize other voices” (they cite Gergen, 1999, pp. 91–93). Then this:

Autoethnography developed in large part as a response to the alienating effects on both researchers and audiences of impersonal, passionless, abstract claims of truth generated by such research practices and clothed in exclusionary scientific discourse (Ellis, 2004). It attempts to disrupt and breach taken-for-granted norms of scientific discourse by emphasizing lived experience, intimate details, subjectivity, and personal perspectives. Thus autoethnography as a method participates in the ongoing social construction of research norms and practices at the same time that it seeks to influence the social construction of specific phenomena (e.g., child abuse; Hacking, 1999).

Whether or not SPN and autoE are equivalent, it’s pretty clear they offer the same response to the “impersonal, passionless, abstract” research paradigm. SPN and autoE are a critique of the academic status quo. In a way, they are in-house action research: by advancing SPN and autoE, we call those marginalized voices back to the center.

Reading about Lou’s SPN dissertation and defense (Nash, 2004, pp. 124-125), I encounter Lou’s word multilogue and his desire for authenticity and connection.

Why was I drawn to the South Dakota blogosphere? Because for the first time, I could hear my state’s voice, South Dakotans speaking in their own voices about the life and the places I know. They were placing (are placing) this multiloguing (multilogical?) voice online, on an even footing with the professional media, which can never make South Dakota sound as authentic as the amateurs, in the original sense of the word, writing for love. I could hear South Dakota as more than a rare condescending mention from a national news reporter (clearly detached, sounding surprised to even be mentioning South Dakota, and almost always mispronouncing if not mislocating our capital).

And I could join them. Welcome to the conversation.

Nash, R. J. (2004). Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power Of Personal Narrative. New York: Teachers College Press. 

I’m clearing out the bookmarks from returns to the library… gotta write this stuff down again! Not gospel, just brainstorming…

  1. Nash says (on page 9 of… I think it’s Spirituality, Ethics…) that he sought to become a philsopher of education. Do we have a philosopher of information systems? Is that what I’m trying to become? And does anyone hire philosophers any more?
  2. Where’s the IT artifact? That’s the positivists’ question. I ask, Where’s the IT agent, the postmodern quantum observer to give meaning?
  3. Facebook and Twitter tap something… but not this narrative knowledge SPN digs up. They build awareness, but not knowledge, definitely not wisdom. They transmit information and connection, but they are not permanent. They live in the moment and build no past or future. In Facebook and Twitter, we do not (can not?) build stories that transform us (authors or readers).

Hey, check this out: Manish Singhal, currently acting coordinator of doctoral programs at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources in Jamshedpur, India, used scholarly personal narrative in his doctoral research on spirituality at work. Cites Nash and everything!

We still haven’t found an implemented overlap with information systems research, but organizational behavior seems to move us a step closer to management studies. Closer, closer….

What is a dissertation… or more specifically, how do we characterize the months, weeks, and days leading to the submission deadline?

a sustained period of panic-induced synthesis of partially understood ideas

–Snowden, D. (2006). Stories from the frontier. Emergence: Complexity & Organization, 8(1), 85-88.

Dr. Mark C. Taylor, chairman of Columbia University’s religion department, issues this call in the NY Times to “End the University as We Know It.”Among other problems, Taylor sees specialization making the university irrelevant: (more…)