Diary methods: nature, implementation and effectiveness
The diaries that this book focuses on are solicited diaries, which are different from personal diaries (also known as archival or unsolicited diaries) that people choose to keep voluntarily without this being requested by researchers. Unsolicited diaries can also be used for research, usually as a type of secondary source, when researchers explore a historical phenomenon from individuals’ subjective accounts of experiences in which they were involved (Gottschalk, Kluckhohn & Angell, 1945). Unsolicited diaries are usually adopted as a stand-alone method particularly for qualitative historical analysis. Solicited diaries are diaries that are intentionally' created for the purpose of research, which means that participants are required to write diary’ entries regularly' over a period of time, reporting their own experiences and interpretations of events related to a particular research topic (Braun & Clarke, 2013; Cucu-Oancea, 2013). Solicited diaries therefore serve as a flexible research method which can be designed and adapted to fit different research questions and target participants in a wide range of research areas (Kaur, Saukko & Lumsden, 2018). The remainder of this section introduces the solicited diary method, in relation to structure, duration, frequency' of entries, compatibility' with other methods and forms diaries may take for the research design, together with the effectiveness, and indeed challenges, of adopting diary' method for research purposes.
Diaries range from highly' structured to unstructured, and therefore can be aligned with the full gamut of epistemological and theoretical positionings and produce data for both quantitative and qualitative analysis. As such, diary data can resemble that arising from a structured observation or questionnaire (Mullan, 2019) or a biographical narrative interview (Taylor & Gannon, 2018), with semistructured diaries always seeking for a balance between enabling participants’ flexibility' in data provision and preventing their reports straying too far from the topic. Diary research can follow both short and intense timescales, even a matter of hours or days (Henderson, 2020), and periods of months or more (Chapters 3 and 5, this volume). The time span of diary keeping does not have a universal standard; a sufficient duration is considered to be neither too short to obtain sufficient data, nor too long to diminish participant fatigue and/or reactive effects. The design of diary' studies also requires decisions to be taken concerning the frequency of required diary' recording. Diary’ recording occurs in the form of event-based sampling, which requests diary’ entries to be provided when the researched phenomenon occurs (Chapter 7, this volume); and interval-based sampling, which collects diary data regularly at pre determined intervals (Cohen et al., 2003). Solicited diaries may serve as stand-alone data, but they are often incorporated into a multi-faceted methodology (Chapter 1, this volume). Most commonly, diaries are combined with interviews in what is known as the diaryinterview method (Zimmerman & Wieder, 1977). In this method, the diaries constitute the basis for successive or retrospective interviews.
As a cultural artefact with a long history', the traditional paper-and-pencil diary is still an acceptable form when it acts as a research method (Chapter 9, this volume). However, written diaries are increasingly assisted with the use of software (e.g. diaries using word-processing software), internet (e.g. email diaries) and social media (e.g. blog-based diaries), which make diary keeping more convenient and traceable. In addition, more innovative forms of diaries have emerged, including audio (Chapter 3, this volume; Monrouxe, 2009), video (Kaur, Saukko & Lumsden, 2018; Scott, Green & Cashmore, 2012), photo (Chapters 4, 6, 8 and 10, this volume) or collage diaries (Bartlett, 2012), which can provide a more vivid and multi-dimensional dataset for research projects. Indeed, researchers might be uncertain whether their research even counts as diary research, particularly as their diary-like or diary-inspired data collection may have been facilitated by digital tools and constituted an already-identified method (e.g. photo-elicitation). It is indeed difficult to define what counts as a diary' and what does not, considering the very' diverse types and forms of diaries as we have showcased above and in this volume. We understand solicited diaries as: records of researched phenomena, produced under researchers’ guidance, based on events or recorded at regular intervals, which records in essence contain participants’ perceptions and reflections on their experiences. There are many ways this definition can be pushed, as shown in the chapters in this volume. Concepts such as ‘regularity'’ require further exploration. Moreover, the perception of diary' research as obtaining personal reflections may be misplaced when some highly' structured studies are consulted, where for example a diary entry' involves recording details of asthma symptoms (Smith et al., 2000; Dietrich, Kracke & Nurmi, 2011).
Diary method facilitates researchers’ effectiveness and convenience in research practices which other methods cannot easily achieve. It enables researchers to enter into the everyday lives of participants in a range of contexts that researchers are unable to enter, or that are too geographically distant to access. Diaries document life as it is lived, rather than recounting a past event or feeling as retrospective questionnaires or interviews do, which in theory’ improves the accuracy of the data. Diary' research, longitudinal studies in particular, can examine daily rhythms of life or within-person changes over a period of time, which challenges the snapshot view of social practice that other research methods often offer. Furthermore, aided by' digital tools, diaries taking the forms of audio and video can provide unique insights about the body and creative practices, which allow researchers to conduct multi-level data analyses.
At the same time, diary methods also pose challenges for researchers, which we summarise here. Diaries are explicitly constructed as ‘interventions’ in some research areas such as psychology' (Levine & Calvanio, 2007) and healthcare (Furness &
Garrud, 2010), where diaries are intentionally used as a research instrument that also may have positive effects, for example on health and wellbeing. In higher education research, there is more reticence to deliberately engage in a research practice that has a demonstrable effect on participants’ lives - rather the tendency is to minimise reactive effects. While all empirical research on human subjects arguably has an effect on participants’ lives, diary method may pose a particular challenge to researchers working in this mindset, as keeping diaries of behaviours and practices is likely to have an impact on these behaviours and practices. Diary' method, in its common form, obliges researchers to relinquish control of part of the research process to their participants. Researchers are usually absent from the diary data provision, which leads to the fact that they cannot spontaneously put the participants back on track as they can do in interviews and focus groups. There is thus considerable uncertainty surrounding the quantity and quality of diary data, and researchers are at risk of receiving partially completed diaries. Giving feedback to participants during longitudinal diary' research is, arguably, an effective remedy for this issue (Chapter 5, this volume); and researchers also cope with this by' complementing or triangulating diary data with data from other methods (Chapter 11, this volume). Diaries can easily trigger ethical concerns considering their confessional nature and the likelihood that they contain personal and private data, with ethical issues ranging from foreseeable issues such as participant protection and confidentiality (Chapter 8, this volume) to unforeseen issues such as participants’ emotion changes (Chapter 7, this volume). Diaries may' produce holistic accounts of participants’ lives, which is clearly an advantage, but this can also give rise to ethical concerns about the possibility of anonymising accounts that contain so much detailed information. Last but not least, the comprehensive dataset can also impose huge pressure on researchers’ workloads for data organisation and analysis.
Moving from the perspective of researcher to participant, diary' method arguably can be considered a participant-friendly mode of research, depending on the requirements. Solicited diaries can appear less obtrusive or daunting than other research instruments, considering participants’ initial familiarity with diary' keeping as a practice - though this familiarity can also pose a challenge if participants confuse the research diary' process with keeping a private diary'. Diaries allow participants to represent and interpret their world from their own standpoint, in their own time, before they bring this to the researcher (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015; Hyers, 2018), which can diminish the potential interference from the researcher’s agenda in the data-gathering and may lead to surprising data. Furthermore, because of the possibility of recording data away' from the gaze of the researcher, participants may confront less pressure in providing data through diaries compared to face-to-face observations and interviews; this makes diaries a particularly feasible method for researching marginalised groups (Eidse & Turner, 2014; Chapters 4 and 9, this volume) and sensitive topics (Harvey, 2011; Chapter 8, this volume). Diary keeping, as an activity requiring some intellectual effort (depending on the study' in question), encourages participants’ in-depth engagement with the data production process; the act of recording the data is already akin to an initial layer of analysis. This can and often does lead to an information source with profound reflections on the researched phenomena.
There are also a number of common challenges and issues associated with the participants of diary’ research:
i Though participant-friendly in some respects, diary' methods also demand higher investment in terms of time and effort than many' other methods, which may prevent people from signing up to and staying in diary studies.
ii There is also the challenge for participants to retain a commitment to recording relevant, informative data at the required interval or in temporal proximity to the occurrence of the researched phenomenon.
iii Diary' keeping also requires a series of skills, including but not necessarily limited to: information selection, reflection, critical thinking and summarising, with different types of diaries requesting different specific skills (e.g. literacy in written diaries; IT skills in online diaries; digital skills in photo, audio and video diaries).
iv Moreover, diary' research, especially longer-duration studies, may cause respondent fatigue and reactive effects on participants’ lives (which may' be positive or negative, intended or accidental); the changes in participants’ diary'-keeping behaviour can be interwoven with their broader life experiences during the research period (Cao & Henderson, 2020).
All of these challenges need to be carefully considered by researchers in order to achieve a high quality' of data from this innovative research method.
Overall, solicited diaries are a flexible research method which can take various types and forms to facilitate a wide range of research purposes. Diary’ method enables researchers to capture the minutiae of personal events, motives, feelings and reflections across time and across contexts. Diary' research has high potential to be used more widely’ in higher education research and more broadly' across the social sciences. However, researchers may hesitate to adopt diary' method considering the challenges outlined above, including recruitment issues, attrition of participants, variation in quality' and quantity' of entries, a lack of control from the perspective of the researcher over the nature of the data, the modification of behaviour that results from diary-keeping, and ethical issues relating to personal and private content. Rather than dismiss these challenges, we explicitly set out to expose and explore these issues, so that more researchers feel confident to work with a diary research design. In this volume, we and the contributing authors showcase how methodological issues of diary’ research may' be encountered and negotiated in empirical studies on aspects of higher education.