Interacting with texts: Adobe Acrobat Pro

Posted: August 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research tools, writing | Comments Off on Interacting with texts: Adobe Acrobat Pro

Today I’m plugging one of my favorite applications, one that I’ve found to be indispensible both in my work as a researcher and my day-to-day life as a seasoned grad student:  Adobe Acrobat Pro.

Most everyone is familiar with Adobe Acrobat, the free, gold-standard tool for reading pdfs.  Well, the Pro version is the superstar older sibling of Acrobat.  You can use it not only to read pdfs, but also to:

  1. create pdfs (from Word or Excel documents);
  2. set the security level of the pdfs that you create, such that they cannot be copied or altered;
  3. mark up and annotate pdfs (highlight text, insert comments and graphics)
  4. copy passages from a pdf to insert elsewhere (such as into Endnote, a great tool for creating and managing bibliographic references);
  5. combine multiple pdfs into one;
  6. convert pdfs into Word (or Excel);
  7. compare versions of a pdf document;
  8. create fillable pdf forms.

The main thing that I use Adobe Acrobat Pro for is the third point above – marking up and annotating texts.  In fact, Adobe Acrobat Pro has (for me at least) revolutionized the process of how I interact with texts.  Let me explain.

In the old days I’d build up massive collections of books and articles for my research – enough to fill a small library.  Each one of those books and articles would be covered in my handwritten jottings, highlights, sticky notes, and flags.  To retrieve those notes (and the thoughts that went along with them) I’d have to revisit each one of those texts, flip through it, decipher the jottings, and then do something with them.  Traveling was a hassle because it meant the agony of choosing the most necessary texts and then schlepping them around with me.

Not anymore.

These days I have everything I can get my hands on in electronic format.  I can carry thousands of texts around with me, safely contained in the hard drive of my laptop or in a virtual safe deposit box in the cloud.  Using Adobe Acrobat Pro I can easily mark up those texts electronically with all the virtual highlights, sticky notes, flags, scribbles, and jottings that my heart desires.  All of these are also easy to modify and even delete.  Remember flipping through your old library books and diligently erasing all your pencil marks?  Remember your dissatisfaction in knowing that you could never remove that ugly highlighting?  With electronic texts these little problems simply don’t exist.

The other thing that’s so useful is that all of the typed comments I insert into a pdf can easily be copied and then pasted into other documents and programs.  For example, I sometimes start composing parts of my own writing into the texts that I’m reading.  With a few clicks I can lift my compositions out and paste them into Word.  When I’m jotting things down about the text itself, I lift and deposit those into Endnote, where I store all the bibliographic information for each book and article that I read.  (Note to grad students – this is extremely useful in preparing for your general exams, as well as preparing your literature reviews.)

The only pain point about using Adobe Acrobat Pro is that it’s pricey, but the good news is that students and educators can get a substantial discount.

What programs do you use for marking up text, and what do you like about them?

Social technology

Posted: August 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, theory | 1 Comment »

What is the relationship between technology and social life?  How do our technologies shape us, and how do we shape them?

These questions have been hotly debated for ages, and it’s a testament to their importance and complexity that they still continue to dog researchers, scholars, and laypeople alike.  In fact, it’s safe to say that studying the relationship between technology and society will never go out of style.

So where do we start, and how do we frame, set up, and execute our studies?

My choice is to utilize a perspective called social technology.  Social technology is a “soft-line” deterministic perspective which holds that “technology has structures in its own right but that social practices moderate their effects on behavior.” (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994, p. 125)  In other words, the social technology perspective assumes a dynamic relationship between technology and society in which each shapes – and is shaped – by the other.

The social technology perspective is a logical middle ground between the extremes of technological determinism on the one hand, and social constructivism on the other.  Technological determinists believe that technologies will result in particular (social, cultural) outcomes.  In other words, technologies exert a force on us, but not vice versa. Social constructivists, on the other hand, study technologies from the perspective that they are entirely shaped by us, but not vice versa.

In contrast, social technologists believe that the ways in which people use technologies are not predetermined, but nor are they random or unshaped.  Rather, there is a constant push and pull between the technological and the social.  Social technologists believe that people create and engage deliberately with technologies and use them to reach goals, fill needs, and generally achieve things in the social world.  At the same time, social technologists are sensitive to the ways in which technologies do exert a force on us by limiting our choices, propelling us to select certain paths, and shaping our perspectives and our reasoning.

What does this mean for social technology researchers?  Three important implications come to mind.

  1. We never look at technologies in isolation, because doing so will never give us a complete understanding of their use and significance, or anything close to it.  Rather, we need to look at the social contexts of which technologies are a part.
  2. We accept that neither social life nor any technology is ever static, but always a work in progress.  Because of this, we have to pay attention to the ways in which both technologies and societies evolve and (more often) co-evolve.  In this way, we must look at the historical/social development of technologies over time.
  3. We recognize that while technology exerts a force on social life, it is only one of the many other influences, including institutional structure, member knowledge, social hierarchies, social rules and traditions, and others.

What social technology studies are you currently conducting?  What social technology studies inspire you?

Works Cited

  • DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121-147.

Additional Sources

  • Barley, S. R. (1986). Technology as an occasion for structuring:  Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31(1), 78-108.
  • Latour, B. (1991). Technology is society made durable. In J. Law (Ed.), A sociology of monsters:  Essays on power, technology, and domination (pp. 103-131). London: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation:  Philosophy, sociology, genealogy. Common Knowledge, 3, 39-64.
  • Neff, G., & Stark, D. (2004). Permanently beta:  Responsive organization in the Internet Era. In P. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online:  The Internet in context (pp. 173-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (1994). Genre repertoire: The structuring of communicative practices in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(4), 541-574.
  • Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects:  Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-420.
  • Yates, J. (1989). Control through Communication:  The rise of system in American management. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Crowdsourcing data analysis

Posted: June 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | Comments Off on Crowdsourcing data analysis

At the recent ICA conference in Boston I attended a very interesting talk about crowdsourcing.

For those of you new to this term, crowdsourcing is a portmanteau combining “crowd” and “outsourcing.”  It is the process of outsourcing small, repetitive tasks to a large group of workers.  According to Wikipedia it was first coined by Jeff Howe of Wired magazine in his article, “The rise of crowdsourcing”.

The talk I attended was called “Crowdsourced Content Analysis” and was given by Aaron Shaw of UC Berkeley.  At the micro level, Aaron’s talk was about the pros and cons of using crowdsourced labor to do data analysis. Aaron described how he had used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one of the earliest and best-known crowdsourcing sites, to outsource the content analytic data analysis for one of his research projects.  He touched upon some of the logistical and tactical issues involved in taking this approach.  At a macro level, Aaron asked larger questions such as:  How do we ensure and measure the digital literacy skills of a crowdsourced labor force?  How do we test for and ensure reliability and accuracy?  What are the ethics of crowdsourcing?

While online crowdsourcing of data analysis (content analysis or otherwise) doesn’t seem to have quite caught on yet amongst academics, it may well become the go-to tool in the near future.  Aaron’s talk highlighted its attractive features – low cost, online distribution of information, easy handling of large data sets, inexpensive labor – and left us with many interesting and important questions to reflect on.

Do you have any experience crowdsourcing your data analysis?  What tools have you used?  What was your experience like?

How to write a dissertation: Tips and tricks

Posted: June 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: writing | 1 Comment »

Recently I was chatting with some of my fellow grads about how intimidating it can be to get started with – and continue – writing a dissertation.  In fact, it can be so intimidating that many postpone it, sometimes indefinitely.

Eleven months ago I started drafting my dissertation.  To date I’ve written seven chapters totaling roughly 90,000 words, or 200 pages of text.  This isn’t a fast work pace – colleagues of mine have written as much in far less time.  It’s not an especially long manuscript, either.  In fact, I’d say it’s about average for a qualitative/ethnographic study of communication.  I’m now getting ready to revise and finalize the manuscript.  I can finally see the finish line looming ahead.

Looking back my assessment of the writing process is that it was surprisingly manageable.  How so? How do you get started writing a dissertation and then keep going until it is done?

These are the tips and tricks that have worked for me.  They aren’t very original, and they may not work for everybody, but they’ll give you an idea of potential strategies for tackling the process of dissertating.  At the very least, I hope they’ll show you that writing a dissertation can be a much more approachable task than you might imagine.

  1. Have a model. What do completed dissertations written under the direction of your committee chair look like?  How long are they?  What sort of chapters do they have?  How many pages are dedicated to the literature review, the methods, and the findings?  What sources did they cite?  How did they present their data?  What strategies did they use for writing persuasively about the findings?  I spent about a week reading dissertations that had been successfully defended by students in my department working with my chair.  It gave me a very good idea of would be expected from me.  I don’t think this is a substitute for talking directly with your chair about his/her expectations, of course, but it’s a good preliminary step.
  2. Have a plan.  Before drafting a single chapter of the dissertation I sat down and wrote up a project plan.  The format I used was very simple – at the top of the page I wrote my desired defense date.  I then worked backwards to the present day, noting the milestones leading up to the target defense date and the dates by which I wanted to reach each milestone.  Under each milestone I noted the various tasks involved.  As I figured out how long the entire project would take I took into account how many hours I’d have per week for writing, the amount of time my chair would need to read each chapter draft and provide me with feedback, the time I’d need to incorporate feedback into my manuscript, time for additional revisions, time for additional data analysis, time lost (over holidays, during periods when my extra work duties would prevent me from writing, etc.), and so on.  Not only did this project plan help me organize my attack on the dissertation, it also helped me devise a realistic and feasible idea of how long it would take me to complete it.  This gave me a lot of confidence in the project even before I started writing.  Although I didn’t use a formal template for my project plan, I think that these ones here look useful.
  3. Think small.  Remember that project plan?  I often wrote up mini plans for each academic quarter, each week, and sometimes each day.  It helped me tremendously to see my project as a large collection of many small, manageable tasks rather than one monumental job.  I never sat down at my computer and thought, “now I need to write a chapter.” Instead, I asked myself what little things I’d need to do to get that chapter done.  These would be things like:  organize my notes; read more sources on topic X; write up the chapter outline; write the first section of the chapter (as noted on my outline), made of paragraphs addressing a, b, and c.  Being able to focus on and complete these small components was also a confidence-booster.
  4. Be consistent. Once I had my plan I was very diligent about working regularly, even it if was only for a limited amount of time each day.  I quickly noticed that if I spent long periods of time away from my dissertation I lost touch – the gist of my arguments faded, my citations went stale, and I’d have to spend extra time re-familiarizing myself with my work.  By spending time with my project each day, it stayed fresh in my mind, and I could dive in much more easily.  I even went so far as to schedule writing times into my calendar.  Not only did this help me maintain a consistent working pace, but it also helped me allot priority to my writing time.
  5. Be accountable to someone. When you’re writing a dissertation there aren’t any external deadlines to follow.  Nobody breathes down your neck, telling you when to hand each piece in.  This may sound liberating, but for some it can actually slow or even halt productivity.  This is why I think it’s a great idea to be accountable to someone.  Remember that project plan?  Share it with someone – your chair, a fellow grad, a writing partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague.  Tell people when you are planning to have things done, and ask them to check in on you, even informally, to see that you’ve followed through.
  6. Get extra writing support.  It can be very beneficial to talk through your writing with someone, whether for feedback or simply a pep talk.   For these purposes, writing groups can be a great resource.  My impression is that writing groups are best when structured.  For more information see the Phinished website as well as this article written by Chris Golde.
  7. Choose your workplace strategically.  Think about where you can write productively, and under what conditions.  I know that I can’t write any old place – I need somewhere very quiet with minimal external distractions, so I make sure that I get to these places for my writing hours.
  8. Fight distraction.  Even in the quiet, semi-isolated places I search out for writing, I still find myself bombarded by distractions.  To fight temptation I keep my phone and sometimes even my wifi switched off.  I use a stopwatch and make myself write for blocks of 45-50 minutes before taking a little break.  I also keep a notepad and pen next to my computer, so that I can jot down any ideas and/or tasks not related to writing that suddenly pop into my head.  At the end of the day I allow myself to go back to that list and follow up on what I’ve noted down – half of which turns out not to be very important after all.  One of my colleagues goes so far as to maintain multiple desktops using Spaces (he’s a Mac user).  On his work desktop he has no access to his personal email account, no Internet browser, and no documents except those related to his project.
  9. Finally, keep on keeping on.  Every little bit of work that you do gets you that much closer to the goal.  At some point it’s more about stamina and determination than anything else.

I’ll finish with the best words of advice I got from my friends and colleagues when I announced that I was starting to write my dissertation.

Kate D. said:

This is the stage where I reminded myself that it’s not about being smart, it’s about the will to hit the next key.

ML said:

One page a day. That’s all you need to do. Once you’ve done that, amp it up to two. It’s like exercising. A marathon seems less impossible once you’ve managed a mile.

Dale C. said:

Remember that the best dissertation is a *done* dissertation.

And Tom G. said it best of all:

Fight that blank page. You can do it! Choose words. Make sentences. Build paragraphs. Construct chapters. It’s a sinch…it’s a cinche…it’s a singe… It’s easy.

Cloud based file storage and sharing: Dropbox & Sugarsync

Posted: May 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | 2 Comments »

Why might a researcher/scholar want to have a cloud-based file storage and sharing system in place?

  1. You are in the field collecting data and want to save it beyond (just) your local machine.  For example, I typically bring a laptop and a thumb drive with me into the field, but those can potentially get damaged, lost, or stolen.  A cloud based file storage system ensures that my data is safely stored and will never be lost.
  2. While in the field you need access to your data or other materials.  When I’m on the move and have need of my informed consent documents, schedules, interview questions, etc. I can access them from any computer with a working Internet connection.
  3. You are processing data or writing/editing documents collaboratively.  You want files to be stored in a central location where all team members can access and work on them.  For example, I might be working on a joint paper with colleagues where everyone contribute edits, additions, comments, etc.  Rather than having to sync papers each time one of us makes a change, we simply work on one master document stored in the cloud.
  4. You want to share files that are too large to email.  For example, you might have audio or video files that you want transcribed.  Most of these files are impossible to email because they’re just too large.  Put them in the cloud and then have your colleagues download them to their machines.

For these purposes I use Dropbox.  Dropbox is compatible with Mac (natch) and also Windows, Linux, the iPad, iPhones, Android and BlackBerry.  You can get a *free* account with 2GB of space; if you want more than that then you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription (US$10 for 50GB, US$20 for 100GB).  It’s easy to install and use and I highly recommend it.

Sugarsync is a tool with very similar functionalities and some additional features.  You can have a free 30 day trial, but then you have to pay for it, starting at US$5/month for 30GB and going up to US$25/month for 250GB.  See this page for more info on their pricing.  I haven’t used it myself, but it seems to have gotten positive reviews.

Are there other tools that you use and/or recommend?

Free software alternatives for researchers (and students)

Posted: May 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, research tools | Comments Off on Free software alternatives for researchers (and students)

I recently found an excellent article written by Nicholas Buchanan, a grad student at MIT, on free software alternatives for students and (other) researchers.  You can read his article here.  In it he lists and describes various tools for a range of tasks, including data analysis.  He also mentions TAMS and Zotero.

Nicholas writes:

“From operating systems to qualitative mark up and analysis, there are almost always free alternatives that are equivalent in function and quality to their proprietary counterparts. In fact, some free software is now the industry standard…”

If you are looking for such open source tools, or trying to decide between them, I recommend reading through this article.  Thanks, Nicholas!

TAMS Analyzer How To guide — new!

Posted: May 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research tools, TAMS | 2 Comments »

I have just finished an updated version of my (free) TAMS Analyzer How To guide which you can download here.  Alternatively, you can download it from my page at

My documentation includes information on the following:

  • Starting a new project in TAMS
  • Basic coding in TAMS
  • Using audio, pdf, and image files
  • Creating an Init file
  • Creating and using context codes
  • Running searches on coded data
  • Generating reports
  • Additional sources of information on TAMS

Matthew Weinstein, the author of TAMS, continues to improve the program, so be sure to check the TAMS website regularly for updates.  He has also created extensive documentation on TAMS and its features and functionalities, which can be downloaded separately or bundled with the software itself.

The old new challenges of online labor

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research work | 2 Comments »

This is an updated version of an older post that I wrote on some of the inherent tensions and contradictions pertaining to online labor (including, but not limited to service interactions) that I’ve seen manifested in my data. I’ll be doing a presentation on this material at AoIR 12.0.  Please contact me if you’d like additional information.

Freedom versus Control:  Every Little Click You Make

For the online laborer there are tensions between increased freedom and intensified control.  You have enhanced flexibility to work anywhere (provided that you have a smart device and an Internet connection), anytime.  However, your online employer has many tools at his/her disposal for monitoring and controlling your behavior at work.  Your communication (calls, messages) can be easily recorded, and most likely is.  Such digitized information can also be quickly and easily archived and shared, meaning that there are potentially semi-permanent records of your work and/or interactions out there in cyberspace for others to see.  Companies can monitor the exact amount of time you spend on any given task, as well as the degree to which you adhere to scripts and protocols.  While your thought process may be private, not every little click that you make is.

Independence versus Dependence

For the online laborer there are tensions between independence and dependence.  On the positive side, now more than ever before you might have increased options as to who you’d like work for, for how much, for how long.  Is your employer on the other side of the planet?  No problem — you work from home, or your local coffee shop or Internet café or library.  You can do the work when and where you like.  On the negative side, you might be giving up any chance of job security.  Freelance service providers are a dime-a-dozen and can be cut off at any time, with no explanations provided.

Identity Management

For the online laborer there are tensions around identity.  Workers might have more control over their identity management, since they can potentially choose what information to share about themselves online.  Gender, ethnicity, age, accent, appearance – all of these may (finally) be moot points to the employer.  Or maybe not.  With online labor it seems to me that there is more potential for an organization to control and manipulate your online identity for their own purposes.  It might not matter to the company who you really are, but for customer service purposes maybe they need to present you (through icons, scripts, insinuations, etc.) to clients in a particular way.  Think of the cultural masking that goes on at call centers, for example.

Technology:  Making Work Easier or More Difficult?

One of the common tropes about technology is that it makes work easier, faster, and more efficient.  But does it?  In my own research, I’ve found that technology can actually make some tasks more complex, more unwieldy, and more difficult to complete.  For the online laborer, there may be increased pressure to do more work at a faster pace than ever before, with less and less time for reflection and analysis.

Culture versus Procedure

There is no doubt that technologies are connecting more and more people around the world, and that all of us, especially those of us involved in online service interactions, are engaging in more and more intercultural communication.  In terms of conflict though, is culture really the sticking point? Scholars often make culture out to be a major stumbling block, but in my research I am finding that it’s actually procedural knowledge (by which I mean information about how to do online interactions) that causes the most confusion.

The Great Question of Scale and Quality

Technologies allow online laborers to reach out to more and more people and they provide support for more frequent and convenient contact.  As companies scale their online service, however, contact potentially becomes less and less personalized.  Organizations might find themselves in the position of having to script personalization into their interactions, which arguably makes them less natural, and therefore less appealing to customers.  For those in charge of writing and/or evaluating an organization’s customer service scripts, decision trees, flow charts, etc. this issue is naturally one of concern and importance. It’s also an area where focused communication research can really pay off.

Zotero for capturing and archiving webpages

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research tools | 2 Comments »

I have heard positive reviews of Zotero for years, but being a steadfast EndNote user I never tried it out.  Yesterday I finally got my first look at it, and yes — it does indeed look like a very useful tool.

Briefly, Zotero and EndNote are both tools for managing and publishing bibliographies, and are thus of great use to students, writers, academics, etc.   The two have similar functionalities, but Zotero is free, open source, and cloud-based.  EndNote, on the other hand, costs money to buy and to update, and it’s stored locally on your machine.  I don’t have any complaints with EndNote, and plan to keep using it.  However, Zotero has a number of special features which EndNote doesn’t have, one of which I want to mention today:

Zotero can capture and archive webpages.  Learn more about that functionality here.

Now isn’t that pretty cool?

If you are researching webpage content, this could be extremely useful for you, since by using Zotero you can easily capture and store such pages for later analysis.

A few caveats:

Zotero won’t capture links, moving pictures, audio, etc.  I don’t think you can use Zotero’s search functions to search within the text of the captured webpage.  (Note:  I was wrong about this — you can.  See comments below.  Thanks, Avram and Adam!)   (Speaking of which, have you tried out Evernote?  Evernote is another great tool for capturing and archiving webpages, and all the content captured is searchable.)  Finally, Zotero is not an analytical tool.  For coding and analysis, you’ll want to import the data into another program, such as AtlasTi, TAMS Analyzer, etc.

Remember now, Zotero is designed first and foremost for archiving (scholarly) sources; it wasn’t created to do website analysis, hence the drawbacks mentioned above.  However, as a “getting-started-on-your-website-analysis-project” kind of tool it might come in handy.

If you are interested in learning about tools for large scale website analysis projects, see my colleague Laura’s website here.

TAMS Analyzer help

Posted: April 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: TAMS | 1 Comment »

If you need help using TAMS Analyzer, I recommend that you:

  • get a (completely free) copy of my “getting started with TAMS” documentation by emailing me at:  blog4 [at] tabithahart [dot] net
  • download all of the documentation that Matthew Weinstein, the creator of TAMS, has written. Go here and click on the “Download” link and then the “Complete Documentation” link.  The complete documentation, made up of a dozen or so documents, covers a wide variety of TAMS-related topics.
  • see Matthew Weinstein’s video tutorials here.
  • contact Matthew and ask to be added to the TAMS Analyzer mailing list that he maintains.