This week I’ve taken some time to write about issues stemming from the release of “Lower Ed”. I’ve discussed critiques of generalizability and thesis selection; methods; and, theoretical tensions in public sociology. I want to spend some time on questions that emerged from my methods in this project.
I spent a lot of time being dishonest in this study. By that I mean, I used covert investigation techniques. I pretended to be a prospective student. I initiated the enrollment process with no intent of enrolling. I did not disclose my student status during campus tours.
Sociologists have debated the ethics of covert research methods for quite some time. Most of that concern is about the privacy of respondents who are misled by covert researchers. I don’t really have that issue. I never misrepresented myself to students, who were the focus of my study. But, I did selectively share information about my intentions with enrollment officers at for-profit colleges. Their privacy is less of an issue given they weren’t really the focus of my study and I examined their role rather than investigating who they are as individuals.
Still, the issue is interesting given the nature of social problems.
Some of the most interesting, important and under-examined contemporary social problems deal with what one might call the atomization of social processes. This is mostly due to technological expansion but is aided and abetted by forms of financialization.
Basically, to understand inequality today we need to study diffused processes of reproducing inequality. In my case, I wanted to understand the context of higher education choices because there was evidence that many of those choices inverted the principle that education is a vehicle for upward social mobility. That’s a social problem.
To study that issue, I chose to study the most extreme case of that social problem: for-profit higher education.
To study for-profit colleges, I had to engage the colleges as a prospective student would. Thirty years ago that would have meant calling a 1-800 number or just walking into a local campus. In 2008, for-profit colleges were engaging prospective students using a myriad of “enrollment strategies”. These strategies included buying online ads and search terms. For example, one paper says that for-profit colleges were the number one ad buy for the search terms “unemployment insurance”. These strategies also included data aggregation, sometimes called lead generators, that extract all that trace data we produce to sell to companies so they can target us for advertising.
How was I going to engage THAT process? It was clear that it was part of the context of choice. But I can’t walk up to a lead generator. And my trace data is part and parcel of who I am — namely, at the time, a black female doc student — and couldn’t be obscured or manipulated.
Researchers are increasingly asking how we can study these “black box” processes. And, it is an important issue. These processes are only accelerating as technology affords them and financialization makes doing so profitable and standard operating practice. If you have not done so, I highly recommend reading Frank Pasquale’s “Black Box Society“. Frank says that the most disturbing aspect of how we now consume critical information is how these covert processes, “…influence the choices we make ourselves”. You should also read Cathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” for more on how these data are constructed and weaponized.
For my study that influence was clear. I engaged the process by entering my data in as many of those “find the best school for you!” website data farms that I could find:
I linked these to email and google voice accounts I set up for this study. For three months I kept the email and voicemail messages that came in as a result.
What did this tell me? Not much we didn’t know. But then, I knew what we know. Most students do not. Those students get emails from very official looking websites, recruiters, and sales people offering them what sounds like valuable information about college. They get information about student loans and, especially, student loan financing. If this were a primary way that I had been gathering college information and I had little knowledge about prestige hierarchies in higher education, I would think Capella was a good school, student loan debt was normal, and that there are infinite ways to repay it when I eventually get the good job that college promises.
I’m collaborating with some folks at Data & Society for more future conversations on methods, covert and not, about these processes of financialized oppression that are mostly hidden in black boxes.