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Focus Area Digital Methods in Context

Digital and networked media penetrate and increasingly determine more areas of life, and digital footprints left behind by humans using digital tools have a revolutionary potential to provide new angles for understanding social phenomena. The analysis of the associated communicative, social and technological processes presupposes a comprehensive knowledge of the data sources generated by digitization and the adequate procedures for their collection, utilization and evaluation. And data are neither found, nor can they be treated, in abstract. Contextual aspects, as well as fundamental methodological and epistemological issues related to conceptualization, operationalization, measurement, and inference when it comes to utilizing them, should always be considered.

At ZeMKI, digital methods are used and further developed in order to adequately investigate questions related to deep mediatization, digitization and datafication. These are all processes that characterise and connect developments taking place within multiple fields of research that are at the very centre of ZeMKI’s focus, as for example education, everyday life, politics, popular culture or religion. By digital methods we mean a series of novel computer-aided methods for the analysis of digital traces, as they are increasingly applied within communication and media research. This implies the utilization of both cutting edge commercial software and command-line software environments for computational analysis and graphics. Examples include text-as-data methods, network analysis supported by (semi) commercial data crawlers – or based on manual querying of application programming interfaces (APIs), the use of supervised and unsupervised machine-learning methods, agent-based models and other methodological techniques and various methods of digital ethnography.

Such methods are gaining in importance due to data growth in the course of digitization and are aimed at complementing and enriching -- rather than replacing -- established data collection and evaluation practices: Digital methods record the aspects of user behavior that can be observed on the basis of digital traces, from which inferences can then be drawn with regard to, among other things, the subjective meaning of the respective media practices, and the structural, attitudinal and behavioral aspects of communication processes and the actors behind them. Assessing the validity of such conclusions is challenging and requires crossing both disciplinary and methodological boundaries. This may often involve the integration and triangulation of traditional approaches to qualitative and quantitative methods with innovative digital methods. A special expertise of the ZeMKI lies in such method combinations. A particular focus of ZeMKI is the development of its own research software. Moreover, the collection and exploitation of digital data requires a more extensive discussion of the ethical implications as well as of the necessary provisions for ethically sound and approved research designs. 

Key questions of the competence area Digital Methods in Context are: How can digital platforms and environments help us better integrate and triangulate qualitative and quantitative methods in the humanities and social sciences? Which types of combinations of digital and established empirical methods can complement each other and how? How can we ensure that theory- and context-driven questions – not data availability – is driving our new insights on phenomena of interest? What didactic practices and curricula are optimal for modern methodological training in the social sciences and humanities. What are the key methodological competencies students and scholar should have in the age of digital trace data? How can the increasing automation of communication by “communicative robots” (bots, language-based digital assistants, etc.) be explored?

Updated by: ZeMKI