The Culture Lab at the University of Maryland (by Joanna Pepin)

culturelabSpearheaded by Professor Melissa Milkie, the Culture Lab is a training and research lab for the systematic study of culture, with a particular focus on social issues related to gender, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Professor Milkie, graduate student Kathleen Denny, and I spent last fall creating a website (http://www.theculturelab.umd.edu/) for this new venture. We interviewed several faculty and grad students working on these types of projects for input into the lab. Aiming to create a dynamic site for scholars seeking to study culture, we sought to create a resource with practical tools on how to systematically analyze cultural texts, such as newspapers, magazines, social media, videos, websites, and television broadcasts.  With a particular emphasis on content analysis, we envision the site as a repository for information and supporting materials for those undertaking this method.

In addition to the website, a group of graduate students is participating in an innovative methods class on content analysis. Although some graduate methods courses spend a couple of class sessions focusing on content analysis, there are few (if any) courses available that exclusively focus on this approach.  However, this methodology is uniquely suitable for the study of culture. Professor Milkie is training students in the foundations of content analysis and teaching these students best-practices that increase the quality of their research projects.  Graduate students in the course are all working on individual projects with a diverse range of interests and mediums including video blogs on YouTube, advertisements in China, and national newspapers and magazine articles. Each student will finish the class with the tools to continue their research and to turn their projects into publishable papers.

Another component to the Culture Lab is a speaker series. Last week, the Culture Lab was excited to welcome Assistant Professor Neal Caren, from the University of North Carolina.  Caren’s research focuses on social movements and of particular interest to the Culture Lab, he has expertise in the use of big data (data large in volume such as tweets from Twitter).  According to Caren, many researchers are now trying to answer some questions that sociologists typically ask with the use of big data. Specifically, these data sources seem useful in generating frequencies of events and occurrences of particular outcomes and for looking at trends over time. For instance, Caren explained how he used big data to look at the amount of coverage of social movements and political figures in national newspapers. By conducting a quantitative text analysis, Caren illustrated how to turn words into numbers for statistical analysis and provided an example of how a topic modeling process can be useful in understanding how subjects or words co-occur. After the lecture, Caren visited the Content Analysis class and shared an example of creating a big dataset. He showed how he was able to (relatively easily) examine which words were more common in ASA presented papers that became published versus those that did not.  Each student in the class also had the chance to ask him questions about their research projects. At the end of the day, we were excited about what we had learned from Caren’s research methodologies and had gained new resources to add and share on the Culture Lab’s website. Research data librarians at UMD are also interested in helping researcher obtain the texts they need and dealing with any copyright issues.

Stop by the Culture Lab in 4127 to talk with us about your ideas!

Joanna is a 1st year Graduate StudentJoanna Pepin

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