Exploring diary duration in and beyond higher education research
In their guide to diary method research, Bartlett and Milligan (2015, p. 38) emphasise that ‘there is no “right” or “wrong” period of time for keeping a diary'1. However, the examples they' provide to exemplify- a range of diary' study' durations range from 40 days to 18 months (ibid.). Indeed, as noted in the introduction, guidance on diary method often rests on a normative assumption of the longevity of a study. One of the common ways of defining diary method is to note that it involves collecting data ‘over time’ (see e.g. Bartlett & Milligan, 2015, p. 30; Hyers, 2018, p. vii), with the longitudinal aspect of this method held up as a defining feature. In view of this assumption of longevity, guidance on diary design is likely to discuss for how long it is possible to maintain a diary study while avoiding participant attrition or a dip in diary’ quality (e.g. Alaszewski, 2006). Given that diary' method obtains its methodological kudos from its longitudinal nature, there is another question underlying ‘how long is too long?’, which is ‘how short is too short?’: does a diary’ study’ gain methodological legitimacy' from being long enough) In which case, is it possible for a diary to be not long enough) This section of the chapter engages with the notion of diary' duration, situating short-term diary' studies in the wider landscape of this discussion.
Diary’ studies tend to fall into one of two categories in relation to temporality. First, there are diary studies which attempt to capture ongoing phenomena, where the researcher determines the time-scale of the study. These studies try to capture the reality of everyday life relating to a particular phenomenon, such as chronic health issues (Jacelon & Imperio, 2005), non-normative sexuality (Kenten, 2010) or practices of street vending (Eidse & Turner, 2014), or, in relation to higher education, students’ choices relating to where they study (Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016) or how they' use their time (Chen, Yamal, Hustad & Sims, 2016; Nonis, Philhours & Hudson, 2006), or the prevalence of sexism on campus (Swim, Hyers, Cohen & Ferguson, 2001). Second, diary studies may' also be designed around time-bound phenomena, where the phenomenon in question imposes the time-scale of the study. These studies seem to be less common than the former type, but may include the specific time period after a birth (Williamson, Lceming, Lyttle & Johnson, 2012) or operation (Furness & Garrud, 2010), a sports season (Day 8c Thatcher, 2009), or, in higher education, an academic year (Scott, Green 8c Cashmore, 2012). Time-bound studies encompass a wide range of durations, from a few days to a year.1 Short-term diary studies may be used to research both ongoing and time-bound phenomena.
The focus of this chapter is short-term diary' studies, but there is no formal definition of what counts as ‘short’. In reviewing literature for this chapter, I explored diary studies where the diary-keeping period was one month or less, as a working definition of‘short’. The most common durations were two weeks or one week, with the shortest period I found being three days for a study’ on the experiences of compulsions for those with a diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (Bucarelli 8c Purdon, 2015). There is also a grey area where time-use studies, which are a specific type of study aiming to survey how populations use time, overlap with diary’ studies, and where the typical length of the time-use log is one day, or at times two units of one day each (Sullivan 8c Gershuny, 2018, Kitterod 8c Pettersen, 2006). However, the majority of these studies, time-use studies included, focus on capturing ongoing phenomena, with few examples of time-bound phenomena. Moreover there is very' little discussion in these papers of the choice of short-term diary duration, and interestingly, where justifications of duration are included, they still err towards the ‘as long as possible’ argument, where the duration of the diary study is curbed by the nature of the study or the availability or potential tenacity’ of participants (rather than by the duration of the phenomenon). This chapter therefore specifically focuses on the somewhat neglected discussion of ‘how short is too short?’ in relation to short-term, timebound phenomena (i.e. are there phenomena which are too short to be researched using diary' method?).
The question of ‘how short is too short’ is intimately linked with the chosen sampling strategy' of a diary' study, which in turn is closely' related to the phenomenon in question. As noted in the introduction, in diary' research there are specific sampling procedures related to the timing of diary entries. In this form of sampling, as discussed by Hyers (2018, p. 96), ‘diary’ entries represent a sampling of the hours, days, weeks and months of an individual’s ongoing experiences’. There are two broad ty'pes of sampling in diary' research: interval-based, which is based on recording information at specific, regular intervals (which may' be triggered by' a reminder from the researcher, in which case it is signal-based), and event-based (or event-contingent), which is based on recording information when the phenomenon of interest occurs (Bartlett & Milligan, 2015). Both forms of sampling are related to the duration of the study, as in both cases the researcher has to design the study to ensure that the phenomenon of study is captured in sufficient detail.
If the study lasts a week and uses an interval-based sampling strategy to capture a frequent ongoing phenomenon, participants may' be requested to complete a diary' once a day (e.g. in Swim et al., 2001, researching sexism on campus), while a more infrequent phenomenon may involve keeping a diary' once per week (e.g. Hyers, Syphan, Cochran & Brown, 2012, studying professional development interactions of faculty' members). If a study lasts a week and uses an event-based strategy' to capture an ongoing phenomenon, the choice of a one-week study implies that the phenomenon of study will occur several times during that week. For example, in the aforementioned study of where students study (Beckers, van der Voordt & Dewulf, 2016), the duration was one week, presumably based on the assumption that the participants would engage in study activities several times during that week. In the case of an event-based diary study used to research an ongoing phenomenon, the question of ‘how short is too short’ is linked to the requirement that the phenomenon of study' occur several times during the chosen time period.
However, a different question arises for a study which is based on a short-term time-bound phenomenon. In this research context, interval-based entries may be much more frequent, as in the time-use surveys which may ask participants to record what they are doing every' ten minutes for one or two days (Kitterod & Pettersen, 2006). An event-based sampling strategy’ would need to assume that the phenomenon of interest would occur frequently during the phenomenon of study (Hyers, 2018); for example a study' of breastfeeding in the post-birth month
(Williamson et al., 2012). The choice of duration and the choice of sampling are based on researching an activity, feeling or process that occurs frequently during the time-bound phenomenon; the choice of sampling strategy then depends on the specifics of the study. With a more occasional phenomenon, the risk increases of insufficient occurrence - from whence the question arises - are some timebound phenomena too short to use diary method, whether for interval-based or event-based sampling?
This section has set out interlinked factors relating to diary' duration which need to be addressed when formulating a diary study. First, there is the distinction between ongoing phenomena and time-bound phenomena. Linked with this, there is the question of what counts as a short-term diary study, and how length of diary study relates to duration of the phenomenon in question. Second, there is the decision between interval-based and event-based sampling, which is linked to the duration of the phenomenon and the duration of the diary' study. Short-term diary' studies (of one month and less, as a working definition) face different challenges to the issues of attrition and quality' decline faced by' longer-term studies - instead, the issues relate to whether a shortterm diary study can capture sufficient occurrence of the phenomenon to form a substantial basis for analysis. With a short-term diary' study of ongoing phenomenon, the duration of the diary study' is chosen to balance occurrence with participant fatigue; with a short-term diary' study' of a short-term time-bound phenomenon, the diary' study' duration is not chosen by' the researcher. The only choice open to the researcher is the choice of interval-based or event-based sampling, which must balance the feasibility' of recording the experience of the phenomenon while also experiencing it. There is, then, a higher risk involved in researching a short-term, time-bound phenomenon, which is perhaps why this is a less common form of diary’ study, and one that is almost entirely neglected in higher education research; it is the aim of this chapter to inspire more researchers to attempt this type of diary research.