Summary
The project is a collaboration between Professor Natasha Mauthner (University of Aberdeen), Dr Anna Cox (University College London), Dr Chris Preist (Bristol University) and Dr Rosie Robison (Anglia Ruskin University), and emerged out of an EPSRC sandpit and Creativity Greenhouse ‘Achieving work-life balance in a digitally dependent world’.

These pages focus on the part of the project undertaken by the team from the University of Aberdeen.

Our Project

Telling people that you are doing research on the ways in which digital technologies are reshaping our work and family lives guarantees a lively conversation.

Parents talk about the ubiquity of technology in their children’s lives and how to tear them away from their iPods and Xboxes.

Mothers and fathers bemoan technology creeping into family times and spaces: the dinner table, the bedroom, the weekend and the holiday.

While some find it hard, even impossible, to imagine life without ‘being connected’, others are grappling with how to stop technology from taking over all aspects their lives. And different family members may have contrasting views with some embracing the very technological practice or device that another is resisting.

One way or another, digital technologies are pre/occupying men, women and children. They are making people think about how we work, live, play, and relate to one another; how these practices are changing; and to what effect.

  • Are children spending more of their time online than outdoors?
  • Are we doing more work in what we have been used to seeing as non-work times and spaces?
  • Are family relationships – between men and women, parents and children, nuclear and extended family - changing as a consequence of technological practices?

Does all this matter? If so, how and why? And how are the questions arising and being discussed in sites beyond the domestic: in organisations, schools, the media, academia, to name just a few?

Theoretical Approach

Research around technology and work-family life often makes several related assumptions that we are trying to move away from in our project. The first is that something called ‘technology’ is doing something to our work and family lives. We are not sure how possible or meaningful it is to speak about what technology is or does in the abstract because technology only becomes, means or does something when it is put into practice in specific contexts and in interaction with other social and material practices. For example, the iPad is, means and does something different when it is used at work or at the weekend; when it is used at work to check a spreadsheet or to book a holiday; and when it is used at the weekend to read the newspaper or check emails.

A second assumption is that technology, or people’s use of it, is either good or bad, efficient or wasteful, a help or a hindrance in managing work, life and the boundary between these. We want to get away from making normative evaluations about technology use: about how people are living their lives and using digital technologies in doing so. We want to avoid framing our research in terms of the notion that, put simply, technology does good and/or bad things.

There is a third assumption that underpins these other two, and that we also want to move away from. And that is that the concepts and categories that we use in our research (such as technology, but also others like work, family, parent, child, work-life balance, weekend, holiday, efficiency, hindrance) and the boundaries between them (such as work vs family, technology vs non technology, efficiency vs wasteful) are already made: that what these things are and mean are already specified when we arrive to study them. Instead, the question of what these things are, mean and do is precisely the empirical question that we want to investigate in our study.

Rather than take these categories and boundaries as already constituted, we want to open them up for empirical investigation. That is, we want to understand how things that we have come to think of as bounded things - like technology, childhood, work, family, the weekend or the holiday - acquire their ‘thingyness’ through being made moment-by-moment in everyday socio-technical practices. For example, what do practices that seek to limit email use at the weekend tell us about how ‘the weekend’ is being normatively constituted: as a work-free time and space that should be used for non-work activities such as family activities, leisure, or domestic chores? How does using a smartphone to check email during a holiday shift the boundary between work and leisure, and help reshape the notion of ‘the holiday’, as we have come to know it in recent historical times? We are also interested in understanding what makes these emerging practices possible, and whether these practices benefit some constituencies (employers, employees, families, men, women, children) while disadvantaging others?

In thinking about these issues, we are particularly influenced by two social science traditions: studies of science and technology, and feminist theory.

Our methodological approach

Because our starting point is that concepts or things (like technology, work, family, etc) are not already made before we arrive on the scene, this also means that we, as researchers, are also playing a part in constituting what these things are, mean and do. In other words, we and the methods and practices that we are using in our research are also helping to craft specific realities into being. This means that we also need to find ways of studying, understanding and accounting for our own methodological practices. We are therefore interested in taking a critical look at the methods we are using, where these methods come from, what their underlying assumptions are, and how we are putting them into practice in specific contexts.

Our Participants, Sites and Methods

We are working with a small number of households in north-east Scotland, with at least one child under the age of 18. Our 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 methods we use include participation, shadowing, conversations, video ethnography, digital, photographic and written diaries. Our empirical study is based primarily in domestic sites, with briefer forays into community and workplace settings.

Our Work

In this section we share some of the documents produced from our work on the study. These include press stories and blog entries related to the project, as well as presentations and publications based on the materials collected or generated in the process of our research.

In the Digital Epiphanies Aberdeen project we are working with visual methods in the study of technology use in work and family practices. (See our earlier blogs on our project and research methods). Recently we have been working with Dr Tiina Suopajärvi from the Urban Life Lab at the University of Oulu, Finland, making a time lapse film of a greenspace in Aberdeen City. The film, The Bowl: A Day in the Life of Union Terrace Gardens, conveys movements and activities - including people, animals, technologies, and wildlife – and their accompanying soundscapes. The film runs from early morning until late afternoon on Monday 31st March 2014. Time-lapse technology compresses time in the film and makes it move faster. This means that the film itself will last less than 10 minutes and individuals will not be recognisable. We decided to film from the street level in order to enhance our interactions with the public. We also distributed leaflets about the film project, and will be creating an interactive web-based platform where the public can view, and comment on, the film. We hope this film will help us understand how Union Terrace Gardens – a site that has been the subject of much debate and controversy with regards to its regeneration and redevelopment - is used by different groups.

Our project is being funded by grants from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, University of Aberdeen and University of Oulu. The details of the project, and the film, can be seen on a related website.

This text has been written for the Digital Epiphanies blog.

Using Visual Methods in Domestic Spaces

The Digital Epiphanies: Work-Family Configurations in a Digital Age project, by the Aberdeen team, explores how boundaries are being made between work and family in everyday practices, and how technologies are implicated in this process. We are currently working with 5 families in North East Scotland, with at least one child under the age of 18. We are inviting them to take part in the project as collaborators in the research by involving them in the selection of methods and production of artefacts.

One of the questions we have been investigating is whether and how visual methods might help us get at the everyday practices of these families. Early on in the project we became interested in visual methods because we wanted to observe and understand family practices: what people are actually doing, and not just what they say they are doing. In August, Natasha went on a 10-day visual methods summer school in Antwerp to experiment with how we could use visual methods in our project. As a result, we decided to use the following methods: a video tour of the home; an interactive floor plan activity; researcher- and respondent-generated photographs, films, scrap or smash books, and diaries; individual and family interviews and conversations; and walk- or go-along using a GoPro as ways of participating in ‘A day in the life of …’ each family.

As we are working with these methods we are seeing how different stories are emerging depending on the methods that we are using. Coming into someone’s home with an additional sensory, visual and material focus feels like a different way of working compared to the more standard and static interviews we have used in the past. Moving around the home, looking at and talking about objects is an oblique way of getting at our research question, and brings new spaces, objects and practices into view. Having a visual record of our encounter, in addition to a mental image, memory or field notes, helps with the analysis and being able to look differently at the spaces, objects and practices. For example, it redirects our focus from certain objects, practices and stories – which held our attention at the time of our field encounters and conversations – towards other objects, other practices, and other possible stories.

We are currently writing up these experiments in visual methods and will be sharing them more widely at the upcoming XVIII International Sociological Association World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama, Japan, 13-19 July 2014 (http://www.isa-sociology.org/congress2014/).

This text has been written for the Digital Epiphanies blog.

Digital epiphanies: work-family configurations in a digital age

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 as he was 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 is holding, he tells me his digital devices have become ‘part of my body’.

What do these anecdotal stories tell us? That people’s use of digital devices is challenging not only the traditional separation between work and home, but also that between work and leisure? That the notion of ‘the holiday’, as we have come to know it in recent historical times, may be undergoing change? That different constituencies – employers, employees, families, men, women, children - may stand to gain or lose from these shifts? That these transformations may be 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, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The project, which is in collaboration with Anna Cox (University College London), Chris Preist (Bristol University) and Rosie Robison (Anglia Ruskin University), emerged out of an EPSRC sandpit and Creativity Greenhouse on ‘Work-life balance in a digitally dependent society’. Having never met one another before, the four of us came together as an interdisciplinary research team over the course of 6 days: two days face-to-face at the University of Nottingham, and the remaining four in a virtual 3D collaborative workspace. We coalesced as a team 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 Dr 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 plan to embark on fieldwork over the next month. I look forward to sharing our progress in a future contribution to this blog.

This text has been written for the official blog of the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships.

Films

Digital families are here to stay

26 February 2016, Scottish Universities Insight Institute. A workshop co-organised by Natasha Mauthner as part of Digital Families Across the Lifecourse project. For more information see the website of the project.

Family Album

4 June - 4 July 2015, Seventeen Belmont Street Aberdeen. Art exhibition by Stephanie Vandem with contribution from Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak.

 

How is technology changing our family lives?

May Festival 9-11 May 2014, University of Aberdeen. Interactive public event led by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak. (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/mayfestival/events/5202/)  

Presentations

Work and family practices in a digital age

A contribution by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak to the workshop 'Digital families are here to stay', as part of the public event series 'Digital Families Across the Lifecourse'. Download a copy of the contribution.

Technology and the (re)making of work and family

A contribution by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak to the workshop 'Socio-technical practices and work-home boundaries', MobileHCI Conference 2014, Toronto, Canada, 23-26 September 2014.

Digital technologies and work-family boundaries: A posthumanist, performative approach to family research

A paper by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak for the XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology, Yokohama, Japan, 13-19 July 2014 [‘Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Family Life’ session]

Digital epiphanies: work-life practices in a digital age

A paper by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak presented at the World Social Science Forum conference on Social Transformation and the Digital Age, Montreal, Canada, 13-15 October 2013.

Digital epiphanies: work/family configurations in a digital age

A poster by Natasha Mauthner and Karolina Kazimierczak presented at the University of Aberdeen Business School Research Day held in Aberdeen on 18 September 2013. Download a copy of the poster.

Work/family/technology figurations and practices in the home

An overview of the project presented by Professor Natasha Mauthner at the Visual Methods Seminar 'Observing and Visualizing Urban Culture' held at the University of Antwerp on 25 August - 3 September 2013. Download a copy of this document.

Publications

 

Mauthner, NS. & Kazimierczak, KA.  (2014). 'Technology and the (re)making of work and family'. in MobileHCI'14: Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices & Services. Download a copy of the contribution.

Scrapbook

We use this space to showcase some of the materials generated or collected in the process of this study. If you have any material – a text, a photograph, a drawing, a recording – that you would like to share with other people via this website, please get in touch with Karolina or Natasha.

Drawing an interactive map of the house

 Share your story

 

We are interested in collecting stories about digital technologies in people’s lives and would like to hear from anyone who wants to share their story. If you have a story – a text, a photograph, a drawing, a recording, or any other material – that you would like to share with us, or with other people via this website, please get in touch with Karolina or Natasha.

Help us plan further projects

We are currently planning further projects which would allow us to better understand the way in which digital technologies are shaping people’s work and family lives. We would like to hear from anyone who wants to get involved in these future projects.

If you have an idea, or would like to learn more about our ideas for further work, please get in touch with Karolina or Natasha.

Links

Digital Epiphanies - main project pages

If you are interested in finding out more about other research studies undertaken as a part of Digital Epiphanies project, please visit the main project pages
 

Our Funders

The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). For more information, visit the EPSRC home page

 Related Projects

Family Rituals 2.0

This multi-disciplinary project explores the evolving nature of family rituals within the digital age to support work-life balance for mobile workers. It was developed during the EPSRC Creativity Greenhouse 'Achieving work/life balance in a digitally dependent world'. For more information, visit the project home page.

Digital Brain Switch

This multidisciplinary project studies how people manage the switch between work/life boundaries, both in 'real' and digital worlds, focusing on the role of modern communications and their impact. It was developed during the EPSRC Creativity Greenhouse 'Achieving work/life balance in a digitally dependent world'. For more information, visit the project home page.

Balance Network, Exploring Work-Life Balance in the Digital Economy

This network provides an interdisciplinary research community to explore Work-Life Balance in the Digital Economy. It was developed during the EPSRC Creativity Greenhouse 'Achieving work/life balance in a digitally dependent world'. For more information, visit a relevant section of the EPSRC home page

Relevant Websites and Blogs

Centre for Research on Families and Relationships

The Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) was established in 2001 as a consortium research centre based at the University of Edinburgh, with partners at the Universities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Highlands & Islands and Stirling. For more information, visit the home page of the Centre and the official blog.

If you are interested in finding out more about the project, please get in touch with 

You can also contact us by post using the following address: 

University of Aberdeen Business School
Edward Wright Building
Dunbar Street
Aberdeen
AB24 3QY
Scotland
United Kingdom