Archive for May 5th, 2011

May 5, 2011

Boiling Frog

boiled frogs

The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. It is a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. However, the premise of the story is not literally true; an actual frog submerged and gradually heated will jump out. (Similarly, the metaphor of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand is also not base in fact.)

The moral of the story is that people should make themselves aware of gradual change lest they suffer eventual undesirable consequences. At times it is told in support of a slippery slope argument. It is also used in business to illustrate the idea that change needs to be gradual to be accepted. It was used in 1960 to describe the dangers of sympathy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War; in 1980 about the impending collapse of civilization anticipated by survivalists; and in the 1990s about inaction in response to climate change and staying in abusive relationships. It has also been used by libertarians to warn about slow erosion of civil rights. In philosophy the boiling frog story has been used as a way of explaining the ‘sorites paradox’: if you remove grains one at a time from a heap of sand, at what point does it cease to be a ‘heap.’

May 5, 2011

Unobtrusive Research

big zucker

Unobtrusive research is a method of data collection used primarily in the social sciences first described in 1966, which do not involve direct elicitation of data from the research subjects. Unobtrusive measures are contrasted with interviews and questionnaires, in that they try to find indirect ways to obtain the necessary data. The unobtrusive approach often seeks unusual data sources, such as garbage, graffiti and obituaries, as well as more conventional ones such as published statistics. Unobtrusive measures should not be perceived as an alternative to more reactive methods such as interviews, surveys and experiments, but rather as an additional tool in the tool chest of the social researcher. Unobtrusive measures can assist in tackling known biases such a subjective bias towards a result expected.

The proliferation of digital media opened a new era for communication researchers in search of unobtrusively obtained data sources. Online communication creates digital footprints that can allow an analysis of data that are obtained through unobtrusive methods, and are also much  larger than previous studies. These footprints can now be used to analyze topics such as the content of communication events, the process of communication, and the structure of the communicative network. The surge of Internet-sourced research data rekindled the discussion of the ethical aspects of using unobtrusively obtained data. For example, can all data collected in the public domain be used for research purposes? When should we seek consent, and is it realistic to require informed consent from sources of unobtrusively collected data? These questions do not have a simple answer, and the solution is a result of a careful and ongoing dialog between researchers, and between researchers and society.

May 5, 2011

People Watching

truman show

every person in ny by jason polan

People watching is the act of observing people and their interactions, usually without their knowledge. This differs from voyeurism in that it does not relate to sex or sexual gratification. Though often a casual hobby, it can be used formally as a means for sociological, anthropological or psychological research.

Naturalistic observation is a more formal way of describing people watching in an academic sense, and involves observing subjects in their natural habitat, taking great care to avoid interfering with the behavior being observed. People watching is often accompanied by eavesdropping, surreptitiously listening to the private conversation of others without their knowledge.