Cross-Case Study Themes: Methods, Digital, Body

This brief comparative overview of the case studies summarizes four cross cutting themes related to the synergies and tensions raised during MIDAS when crossing the disciplinary boundaries of the Digital Arts and Social Sciences. These are:

These themes will be elaborated on and developed in future MIDAS publications, which will be made available on this website as appropriate.

Digital Body: Fragmenting the Body

The body features in and is represented differently across the sites, with some focusing on the whole body, others as a fragmented entity, others understanding the body as one part of a larger landscape. Similarly the lines drawn, blurred or removed between notions of the body and the mind vary as do the boundaries between the physical and the virtual/digital body. These differences reflect different purposes, and interests that circulate within the case study contexts – and these histories shape and inform their methodological practices.

Zoning the body has a number of benefits for researching embodiment in digital environments, it:

  1. Allows in-depth micro focus bringing parts of the body into view;
  2. Brings into view the connections to be made between these elements;
  3. Recognizes the different social roles and functions that body parts have in embodied interaction; and
  4. Helps to stabilize the methods of research, the case studies that fragment the body have clear sets of methods

Not zoning the body also has benefits, it:

  1. Creates a holistic un-bounded body that keeps the idea of the body open;
  2. Enables complex and varied interaction with the body (e.g. Performance);
  3. Allows aspects of embodiment (e.g. emotion, affect) that do not map to distinct body parts to be examined; and
  4. Provides a methodological space for interdisciplinary views of the body.

Each approach to fragmenting the body also has limitations. Fragmenting the body can close down and fix the body, produce myopic observation, atomize and de-contextualize embodied experience and interaction, and limit imaginative research. Not fragmenting the body can lose sight of the body, lead to weak connections regarding embodiment, unfocused and ungrounded research.

Interrogating a site’s approach to fragmentation contributes to an understanding of its conception of embodiment, and makes it possible to consider the benefits of moving between different stances to fragmenting the body, for example, by layering or sequentially connecting these approaches.

Digital Body: Physical-Digital Crossings

Physical-digital Trajectories refers to whether and how, the researchers worked across physical, digital or virtual domains in relation to embodiment. How Physical-digital Trajectories featured in each site was related to the conception of the digital/body, the research practice and time scales of the case study site. Digital Arts research practitioners (makers) spoke of their need for a physical output/object to think through design and to communicate with. These trajectories were not a feature in all the case studies, notably where the digital and body are embedded in real time interaction – with a process of amalgamation.

Physical-digital Trajectories can contribute a number of potential benefits to embodiment research:

  1. Innovates ideas of the body by re-imagining it via the different perspectives and material possibilities that the physical and the digital afford;
  2. Creates a context of digital serendipity in which the digital ‘generates ideas’ to support the process of creative thinking and making;
  3. Contributes to research processes: when a problem was raised in the design process, the participant returned to the physical;
  4. Opens up the tensions between the digital and the physical as a productive space for exploring the body.

An amalgamated approach to the physical-digital also has potential benefits:

  1. Provides a holistic context in which to consider the body;
  2. Rejects binary oppositions between the body-digital that can open up new imaginations and languages of the body beyond the physical.

Both also present limitations for researching the digital-body: physical-digital trajectories may carve up research process and bodily experiences in ways that are distorting, and give too much agency to the digital; an amalgamated approach may reject boundaries and differences that are significant for embodied experiences. Engaging Digital arts and Social sciences in the design of different kinds of physical-digital trajectories and/or the types of transitions across them, could be helpful in creating new contexts of digital serendipity, in which the digital is purposively disrupted to generates new ideas could support the process of creative thinking and making in relation to embodied interaction.

Digital Body: Engaging with the Sensory

The senses are emphasized differently in each case study. A broad range of senses (e.g. olfactory, touch, kinesthetic, vision, aural) is attended to in the Digital Arts case studies. Sensory metaphors are used in the Digital Arts and these bring the materiality of the body and its sensory possibilities into play, these re-think the body and the digital as part of a creative process and the multisensory dimensions of practice-based research are a significant resource for thinking and re-imagining the body, its boundaries and potentials. Social Sciences limited attention to the sensory fails to account for significant aspects of embodied experience. Attention to the sensory in these case studies has potential benefits for research on embodied interaction via:

  1. More global ideas of embodiment environments and extending understanding of the body;
  2. Showing new possibilities for sensory interaction with the digital;
  3. Understanding and innovating how technology can be used to enhance the senses;
  4. Generating metaphors and methods that draw on sensory experience (e.g. sensory maps, sensory probes).

Social Science approaches could benefit from more engagement with the sensory as a key aspect of human interaction, especially as the digital increasingly moves toward sensory-based interaction/interfaces.

Methodological Crossings

Methodological crossings in Digital Arts and Social Sciences needs to be rooted in an understanding of the epistemological bases and research values of each. The epistemologies informing Digital Arts use research to provoke and disturb interaction – to elicit knowledge of different ways of behaving, thinking, feeling, and to generate creative innovative relationships with the digital. In contrast, those informing Social Science use research to study existing behavior, to understand situations, and inform the design of technologies that fit that interaction space. Each of these positions has benefits and limitations for researching embodied interaction.

Methodological explicitness, or lack of it was a key difference between the Digital Arts and Social Sciences. Tacit knowledge pervaded the Digital Arts, the processes were less explicit, and the structures looser. In stark contrast, the Social Science case studies each drew on a distinct set of established methods that were made. A lack of methodological explicitness has several benefits, it:

  1. Affords creative individual blending and remixing of methods;
  2. Keeps methods in a state of productive flux;
  3. Supports a sense of exploration;
  4. Promotes a lack of predetermined outcomes;
  5. Reduces constraints, as it is always possible to find a way around them – to ‘trick’, ‘subvert’ and ‘manage’ digital technologies to get them to ‘work’.

Explicitness also has advantages:

  1. Visible clear methods;
  2. Clear expectations;
  3. Constant reference to the work of others, and grounding work in larger body of research.

Both approaches also have limitations: Digital Arts can make the research processes less visible and open to critique, risks re-inventing of ‘the wheel’, and building on previous work; Social Science can be methodologically rigid, risking stasis, a limited sense of exploration being predetermined. Both explicit and tacit approaches are useful for embodied interaction studies and their combination offers pathways for innovative research.

Researcher disposition is a significant aspect of how the Digital Arts and Social Sciences established research boundaries. The Digital Arts valued and made salient the personal and the subjective, while Social Sciences aimed for the objective and the generalizable. These different positions have benefits and limitations. Sensitivity to different researcher dispositions and attitudes is central to collaboration across Digital Arts and Social Science.

Word Clouds

These themes emerged from the analysis of our six case studies using word clouds, which we found a useful tool for cross-case analysis.

Table 1: Comparative table of themes using word clouds (wordles)
Case studies Body Digital Methods
brunel body wordle brunel digital brunel methods
 Fashion body wordle  Fashion Digital Wordle  Fashion Methods wordle
 RCA body wordle  RCA Digital wordle  RCA methods wordle
 Available soon  Available soon  Available soon
 VL Body wordle  VL Digital wordle  VL Methods wordle
 Simulation body wordle  Simulation Digital wordle  simulation methods wordle

Summative Comparative Table

Table 2: Summary of case study discourse and approaches to theory, method, the digital and the body
Table 2: Summary of case study discourse and approaches to theory, method, the digital and the body

Recommended Readings

In preparation.