Thursday, April 05, 2007

Open Sourcing the Research Process

This blog is something of an experiment in the open sourcing of the academic research process, but I hope you enjoy participating in it.

Open Source Programming (OSP) is a mode of production and development that allows open access to the software product's source code. Code is made publicly available for modification and redistribution, so that progress is made by any number of individuals working on a technical problem in community. Linux and Mediawiki are good examples of such open source software products. Source code is published alongside the software, so that many more people have access to the knowledge, and therefore the power, to change and improve the product. This approach to software design evolved in contrast to closed access software, for example Microsoft, where problems are dealt with by a select number of individuals who have exclusive access to the source code. Many of you will have experienced the elitism and inefficiency which results from this closed access approach to software production and development.

A wellknown product of open source software MediaWiki is Wikipedia, the online interactive encyclopedia. Entries can be updated by users so that knowledge is built in a community from diverse educations and experiences. (An interesting development, however, is Conservapedia, a "rival" interactive encyclopedia which was set up by conservative Christians and politicians who felt that their contributions to Wikipedia were always deleted - This might suggest that Wikipedia itself is only open for development by those whose agendas match those of Wikipedia moderators and/or users - I'd like to look into this further at some point)

An emerging community in Belfast, Ikon, has used MediaWiki as a model for its community homepage, IkonWiki. Visitors to the site are free to edit the content, layout, and skin of the pages, as well as contribute resources and engage in discussion. While sites like IkonWiki use OSP as a software model, OSP can also be understood as an approach to a variety of subjects. For example, Douglas Rushkoff has written on Open Source Democracy, OpenCola is a recipe for a cola drink posted on the Internet in contrast to the closely guarded secrets of CocaCola and Pepsi, and blogging itself can be seen as an open sourcing of journalism, as well as an instrument of the open sourcing of culture more widely. But OSP is increasingly being understood as an approach to religion, Open Source Judaism being an early example. Open Source Programming could be a useful framework in which to understand what emerging Christian communities are attempting to do in their engagement with the Christian tradition in a new context that emphasises full participation, decentralisation, and organic evolution. Open Source Theology is an obvious example here.

But what might these communities consider to be the source code of Christianity? And are these communities engaging in a rediscovery, reinvention, and recreation of that source code in and for shifting contexts?

I have a number of interests that I hope to explore through my research with emerging Christian communities. But as a methodological issue, I've been thinking about creating a research-specific-blog (a la Bryan Murley) for a while now. I gave a paper yesterday at the British Sociological Association's Sociology of Religion Study Group and the UK Research Network for Theology, Religion, and Popular Culture (UKRNTRPC) Conference on Religion, Media and Culture in Oxford, and I now have the confidence to follow through with a research blog.

The self-reflexivity of feminist researchers has made me aware of the benefits of participation and transparency in research. I hope that this research blog will enable emerging Christians, among others, to interact with me about my research method as well as my research subjects, and allow those who participate in the research at later dates to come together to talk about their thoughts and experiences.

I also hope that this research blog will allow for what Liz Stanley calls 'accountable knowledge' ' which the reader [or participant will] have access to details of the contextually-located reasoning processes which give rise to “the findings”, the outcomes” (in Cotterill and Letherby, 1993, "Weaving Stories: Personal Auto/biographies in Feminist Research," Sociology 27 (1) p.68). Just as I will have the privilege in this research to listen to other people and the freedom to use their insights to build a thesis, I hope that this blog will help participants and others to engage in the same kinds of activities.

In these ways, I hope my research project, and specifically this blog, will highlight the possibilities and benefits of such an open sourcing of the research process itself.