Thursday, 27 June 2013

Digital epiphanies: work and family in a digital age

CRFR Associate Director Natasha Mauthner on the Digital Epiphanies project 

When I tell people that I am doing a research project on how digital technologies are reshaping our work and family lives, everyone has a story to tell.

A mother I meet on holiday in a youth hostel says that while her partner takes their three children skiing, she uses her day to clear emails, catch up on work and generally get ahead of herself for when she returns to the office.

Another mother explains that while her husband – who travels a lot for work – was physically present with the family during the Christmas holiday he was mentally absent, glued to his computer and iphone even when engaged in family activities.

While one father bemoans the fact that his wife spent their summer holiday ‘on the blackberry the whole time’, another tells me he finds the idea of having a holiday without wifi unimaginable. Gesturing to the smartphone that he his holding, he tells me his digital devices have become ‘part of my body’.

What questions do these anecdotal stories prompt?

are people’s use of digital devices challenging not only the traditional separation between work and home, but also that between work and leisure

is ‘the holiday’, as we have come to know it in recent historical times, undergoing change?

who stands to gain or lose from these shifts? employers, employees, families, men, women, children?

Are these changes contested by some while accepted and even embraced by others?


These are some of the questions that colleagues and I are exploring in a project, Digital Epiphanies, www.abdn.ac.uk/business/research/epiphanies/index.php, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).). Our collaboration emerged from an EPSRC interdisciplinary workshop ¬- “Sandpit and creativity greenhouse” – on work-life balance in a digitally dependent society. Read more about Sandpits on EPSRC’s website.

Having never met one another before, four of us – me; Anna Cox, University College London; Chris Preist, Bristol University; and Rosie Robison, Anglia Ruskin University –  came together as an interdisciplinary research team over the course of six days: two days face-to-face at the University of Nottingham, and the remaining four in a virtual 3D collaborative workspace.

We came together because of our shared interest in understanding how work-life boundaries are being reconfigured through the use of digital technologies; and what scope there might be for developing digital means of negotiating work-life challenges.

The Aberdeen study – being undertaken by myself and Karolina Kazimierczak - focuses on 15 case study families with children under 18 living at home. Informed by new and emerging mobile and digital methodology the project uses multiple methods including observation, shadowing, conversations, video ethnography, digital, photographic and written diaries. The overall approach is to invite family members to take part in the project as collaborators in the research by involving them in the selection of methods and production of artefacts. The project started in March 2013, and we look forward to sharing our progress in a future contribution to this blog.

If you’d like to know more about the project contact Karolina Kazimierczak  or Natasha Mauthner or visit the project website: www.abdn.ac.uk/business/research/epiphanies/index.php

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