Interviews and themes

Just a general update and some thoughts on the research so far and on my interviews. I’m busy at the moment with a number of bits of work – some research assistant stuff for my supervisor, a summer school I’m teaching at and some work for the SCCJR around their website – but still making as much time as I can for the PhD research, and I’ve conducted a number of interviews in the last few weeks. Had a great time at the SCCJR residential and saw some brilliant presentations.

The fieldwork interviews – the strange experience of having an in-depth conversation in full “listening mode” for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours with a complete stranger – have been the part of the research I’ve enjoyed the most so far. In the interviews I’ve generally been focusing on four main topics:

  • Identity and community – how people got started with the project, how they describe themselves, their sense of a broader Tor community and what motivates them to contribute to Tor.
  • Design and organisation – what is actually involved in working with Tor (either in the project or in the community), how people make decisions about the technology, how people debate and decide on different ways of doing things, the importance of open source values, how the organisation has changed over time and what day-to-day challenges they face in their work.
  • Labels and perceptions – people’s views on how Tor is perceived by those inside and outside the project, how they think law enforcement, the media and politicians view the technology, how they deal with the friction that Tor faces from others (be that abuse complaints from ISPs or dealings with law enforcement) and their perspectives on the different things Tor is used for and the appropriateness of different ways of governing the network and the organisation
  • Internet freedom and the future – what people think the main challenges facing the project are, what they’re excited about, what they’re worried about and whether they feel pessimistic or optimistic about the future of internet freedom.

I tend to focus on different bits of this with different interviewees – for example, sometimes there will be a specific thing I’m interested in asking more about, like the reasons behind a particular decision or change, and sometimes I’m more interested in talking generally about the topics and probing further where interesting things come up. In an interview with a relay operator I might be more interested in the day-to-day experience of running a relay or how they deal with ISP abuse complaints, while for a core member of the project I might ask more about how design decisions are made or the challenges of working with such a geographically dispersed group of people. I also try to be careful to be respectful, sensitive and reflexive when interviewing – although none of these topics are necessarily sensitive in themselves, I make the effort throughout the conversation to judge whether there are topics that people might not want to talk about and avoid these where possible.

All in all, I’ve found the interviews I’ve conducted so far really useful – people have been very insightful and generous and the project is coming along well as far as I can tell. I think that some people are a bit skeptical due to my identity as a criminologist. This is understandable – in the US especially, criminology is still strongly associated with “state science” and administrative or forensic research on behalf of law enforcement authorities. This is very much not the tradition I’m drawing from – in the UK (and parts of the US) there is a strong tradition of more critical, activist criminology which views crime as socially constructed – but I can certainly understand why people might be worried about my motivations for the research. I think that when I was engaged in LGBT rights activism I would have felt very much the same way if approached by a criminological researcher. Still, this just means that it’s even more important that I approach the research in an open and honest way.

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