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Methods in Motion 26: Lisa Lazard on Digital Motherhood

9 June 2017
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Dr Lisa Lazard, Lecturer in Psychology, explores the use of stimulus-based interviewing in examining mothers’ digital engagements with social media.

The last decade has witnessed a virtual explosion in the use of social networking sites. In addition to developments in the digital that have enabled routine access to social media for many, increasingly sophisticated technological innovations (both textual and visual) have intersected with everyday practices and experiences, including mothering. Mobile devices have created space for numerous digital mothering engagements including pregnancy monitoring, app-based journaling of child development and ‘mommy blogging’ to name but a few.

Alongside dedicated motherhood technologies, parenting is a recognisable theme on generic Social Networking Sites (SNSs) such as Facebook. Although both mothers and fathers share child-related content online, some research suggests that mothers post material about their children and family, particularly photos, with greater frequency than fathers. This is the starting point of my research which explores how mothers make sense of posting family-related content online, particularly that which features their children.

In it, I used stimulus-based interviewing during which mothers were invited to show a selection of child-related posts that they had made to their SNSs. Posting could be in photographic and/or written form, including inspirational quotes or parenting articles. In this study, with the exception of one participant, mothers chose photo posts of their families or mother-child selfies. These posts formed the basis of the interview and were intended to provide the contextual grounding for discussion. In common with other studies using stimulus interviews, the posts served, at least at one level, as icebreakers as well as comment and memory prompts. Particular kinds of stimulus interviews, such as some forms of photo-elicitation techniques, have been treated as a means through which the richness of subjective experience can be articulated. They have also been seen as a medium through which implicit assumptions shaping participants’ lives can be rendered explicit. However, Rose suggests that the use of photo stimuli in particular has often been focused on the visible content in the photo rather than how it is produced.

Mother and baby imageThe content of the photo and written posts were undoubtedly important to the mothers, but so too were the ways in which their posts traversed and negotiated visual and textual aspects of doing motherhood as well as the audiencing of it. Given that posts are a form of social interaction in online communities, participants were keenly aware of the viewing audience. One participant, for example, showed a photo post of her child with a blue tongue from eating sweets. Whilst the participant discussed multiple meanings of the image, she drew attention to how visual emphasis on her child’s discoloured tongue resisted intensive mothering mandates around ‘healthy’ living.

The presence of mobile devices in the production of images was also highlighted by participants in the study. One mother shared a post of a selfie taken with her daughter when her child had got into bed with her one morning. Smartphone technology enabled the participant to demonstrate the authenticity of her parental bond through the lack of ‘staging’ of the photo. Bodily proximities were also relevant to the photo’s production. As Hess notes, smartphone photo technologies require particular orientations of our bodies to take a ‘good’ selfie. The arrangement of physical bodies highlights the ways in which the body configures with mobile devices. In the participant’s selfie, these close bodily configurations underscored mother-child togetherness. Indeed, the intersection of the body and device was continually present in the data and its collection, as participants and interviewer angled themselves around smartphones to see posts.

The use of posts as interview stimuli undoubtedly enriched participants’ descriptions of their online lives as mothers. More than this, the posts themselves, as communicative visual/textual productions, became interwoven in both the interview as a method of data collection as well as in the curation of mothering identities and experiences online. This opens up possibilities for the exploration of the multiplicity of elements that are brought together and play out in digital social spaces as well as in the methods we choose to study them.


Dr Lisa Lazard is a Lecturer in Psychology whose research focuses on gender, power and identities. She has published on a wide range of issues including sexual violence and parenting. She tweets from @LazardLisa.


Further Reading
Ammari, T., Kumar, P., Lampe, C. & Schoenebeck, S. (2015): Managing Children’s Online Identities: How Parents Decide What to Disclose about their Children Online. CHI, 1895 -1904
Hess, A. (2015): The Selfie Assemblage. International Journal of Communication, 9, 1629-1646.
Rose, G. (2010): Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment. Farnha: Ashgate.
Rose, G. (2014): On the Relation between 'Visual Research Methods' and Contemporary Visual Culture. Sociological Review, 62(1), 24–46.