Fly on the wall or wasp on the window? Reflecting on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer

by Sarah Van Duijn | Reading Time: 5-7 Minutes

“There he is again, slowly but steadily heading my way. Just after the aldermen meeting started, I am no longer able to focus on what is being said. Moving in a menacing manner, a huge wasp is buzzing quietly around the ceiling lamps. After a few loops over the U-shaped table the twenty of us are sitting at, the wasp picks its final position: the window behind the alderman sitting across from me. I surely won’t lose sight of that creature anymore. While I am staring through the alderman across the table, I notice him wondering what on earth I could be looking at. Probably feeling overlooked, the wasp begins to zoom loudly at the same time. “I’ll take care of that” the alderman says decisively, while rolling up the minutes in front of him. Moments later, there is no more buzzing. I let out a soft scream while the meeting coordinator informs the others that I am “pretty scared of wasps.” – notes


The wasp was not the only thing that died that day – so did any hopes of me becoming a ‘fly on the wall’ as a participant observer. Being a fly on the wall refers to taking on the role of an inconspicuous observer, to going unnoticed by the actors you study. Over time, the anthropological ideal has become contested or even ‘ridiculed’ (Hannerz, 2010), and would be nearly impossible to attain anyway, when like me, you clearly don’t belong. My fieldwork included joining strategic meetings of aldermen and healthcare insurers to explore how they collaborated after the 2015 Dutch healthcare reform – and I was “way too young” to be a director.

Considering impact: abstract values translated to practice

Elsewhere, I pointed out a variety of challenges that a multi-sited ethnographer may encounter during fieldwork, including securing access to different organizations, following boundless subjects, and making sense of a plethora of perspectives (van Duijn, 2020). In relation to these challenges, I briefly reflected on problems that fostering research relationships across fields may generate, such as actors trying to leverage your role across organizations. In this blog, I want to elaborate on the values that guided me through taking on the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, and share how working through the conundrums I came across uncovered new avenues for exploration and reflection.

1.    Reflexivity

Given that I inevitably became part of the social settings I observed, it was imperative to consistently be aware of, and reflect on, the impact of my presence on the data I generated. To give an example, during one of the first strategic meetings I observed between insurers and aldermen, they divided themselves across the table automatically: insurers on one side, and aldermen on the other. When the chairman of the meeting entered the room, he exclaimed that this obviously was not off to a good start, and started pushing tables together, whereupon the insurers and other aldermen soon came to his aid. While rearranging the room, one of the insurers jokingly stated “well Sarah, that was unacceptable of course, we’ll do anything to disprove your findings.” The rearranging of rooms became a running joke, and I have only seen insurers and aldermen sitting intermingled after that.

2. Transparency

Blending in was quickly off the table for me, and I did not mind. I felt comfortable in the role of an outsider and liked being clear about my intentions, since I would not only be reporting my findings to an academic audience, but also to the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Sports. In my experience, being an outsider could work out in two ways. At times, it could be inconvenient. People would sometimes quickly stop talking, or change the subject when I entered a room. Other times, however, being upfront and transparent aided my pursuits. In inter-organizational settings, people seemed more hesitant to talk to me if they thought I worked with their collaborative partners. When I took on a clear role of outsider from university, they opened up more quickly about their experiences or intentions with other actors in the field.

3. Doing no harm

My research and relations across organizational fields, however, meant I could not become too transparent. It quickly became apparent that I was walking a tightrope between being transparent about my findings and doing harm. My PhD research focuses on the dynamics of collaboration between unfamiliar partners. When the time came to present preliminary findings, I wanted to be transparent about the findings of my research, but at the same time, not damage the budding collaboration between aldermen and insurers. My findings included statements from earlier times in which relations were less than friendly. Fearing that sharing a report would tempt actors to selectively pick out quotes that could damage their relationship, I had to find another solution. I decided to lean into the assumptions actors made about each another, and after presenting general findings, I made up exaggerated prejudices that the actors could reflect on. Having to find inventive ways to share my data, thus also sparked novel discussions and insights for my research.

Reflection uncovers new opportunities

It goes without being said that these were not the only times during which my presence clearly impacted the situation I was observing. Such moments were not always lighthearted. Sometimes actors seemed annoyed by my attendance, sighing “and yet another anecdote…” when I observed sensitive or tensed situations. Other times, I projected being intrusive onto a situation, which – after asking – only was the case in my mind. These moments opened up roads to new conversations and insights. Having no illusions of becoming a fly on the wall encouraged me to continuously approach my fieldwork with an attitude of reflection. Principles such as being transparent, doing no harm, and consistently reflecting on my impact, however, turned out to not only be abstract ideas that steered my contemplations about how to fulfill the role of a multi-sited ethnographer, but also served as concrete guides to navigate through issues that could emerge when doing fieldwork.


Hannerz, U. (2010). Fields Worries: Studying down, up, sideways, through, backward, forward, early or later, away and at home. In Anthropology’s world: life in a twenty-first-century discipline (pp. 59–86). New York, NY: Pluto Press.

Van Duijn, S. (2020). Everywhere and nowhere at once: the challenges of following in multi-sited ethnography. Journal of Organizational Ethnography, 9(3), 281–294. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOE-12-2019-0045

Sarah Van Duijn [PhD Candidate] is interested in the construction of interorganizational collaboration between unfamiliar partners. Her research empirically focuses on the (strategic) collaborations that emerged after the Dutch healthcare reform of 2015. Through multi-sited ethnography, she explores how local stakeholders make sense of their changing tasks and relationships in the field. Using a combination of boundary work and paradox as a theoretical lens, Sarah aims to shed light on how unfamiliar partners build collaboration from scratch.

The myth of the ivory tower


Bubbleby Rosanne Anholt | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

In the social sciences, we often obtain our data from people. We may collect opinions, experiences or understandings from different groups of people through various methods, like surveys, observations or interviews. As researchers, we have the responsibility to do our research participants no harm, and to behave ethically and with integrity towards them. Often however, there are others involved in our research – in addition to research participants – and we have a responsibility towards them, too.

To protect those who allow us to interview them, partake in our focus group discussions or document their lives in our photovoice projects, we obtain informed consent, ensure confidentiality and put data protection measures in place. Besides research participants however, we may encounter a range of other people at various stages of the research process. Fixers, for example, who help us arrange interviews with people we might otherwise not have access to, or interpreters and translators, who help us understand our research participants. There may also be student-assistants, who transcribe our interviews, take over our teaching duties during our fieldwork, or accompany us in order to gain some research experience. Sometimes, we seem to forget that the “do no harm” principle applies just as much to them as to the people we interview or observe – of which the following true story is a deplorable example.


During one of my fieldwork trips for my PhD research on how humanitarian and development practitioners interpret the idea of “resilience” and translate it into practice, I am hosted by a young Syrian who works for a humanitarian organization. One morning, as he and I are having chai (tea) outside in a hesitant Spring sun, he tells me about a time he was hosting a student from a European university who was studying the experiences of Syrian refugees for his master thesis research project.

Without any Arabic speaking skills nor access to the Syrian refugee communities, the student asked my Syrian host to help him out. They agreed on a decent compensation, after which my host organized more than a dozen interviews with different Syrian families both inside and outside the country’s different refugee camps, as well as acting as an interpreter during the interviews. When the student left the country, he promised to transfer the payment for the hours of work my host put in and the expenses he made – like travel costs and small gifts for the Syrian families participating in the study.

In the few months after the student left, there were different excuses to delay the payment. From bank accounts allegedly not working, to money running low due to hospital expenses made for a family member. The student even went as far to propose using his university department’s charity fund on the condition that my host could produce a counterfeit company name and registered address – the illegality of which could have put my host in real danger. My host declined, and when the student stopped replying to his messages, he eventually gave up.

If we fail to practice our research in a principled manner, as this student has, we may cause harm to the people we work with. We also risk discrediting the scholarly community, and ultimately put people’s trust in researchers and their willingness to work with them at stake. Transparency is one important measure we can take in order to be accountable to the people we engage with throughout the research process. This means, for example, to negotiate a contract when outsourcing research-related activities. We may also share information about the institutions and individuals – including supervisors – involved in a research project, to give research participants and others the option to file a complaint in case agreements are violated.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers don’t operate in a vacuum. The ivory tower, where researchers are completely cut off from the world in order to cook up scientific theories, is a myth. Even when we don’t co-produce knowledge through the interaction with research participants, we are ultimately embedded in institutions where we engage with our colleagues, students and non-academic staff. Moreover, universities increasingly interact with the outside world – not just with other academic institutions, but also with societal partners like municipalities or non-governmental organizations. That also means we may have more responsibility than we think.

Rosanne Anholt is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. Her research focuses on how humanitarian and development organizations interpret and use the policy buzzwords resilience, humanitarian-development nexus and local ownership in responding to the impact of the Syria crisis in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.


Wearing two hats?


Serving seniors or serving science: a dilemma game

MarijeBlokBubble1 by Marije Blok | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Serving seniors or serving science?
Loneliness is a serious problem among older people. My organization, the National Foundation for the Elderly, aims to tackle this challenge through different activities. My team works on innovations to support ageing in a meaningful way. We investigate wishes of older people in interviews; explore their ideas in co-design sessions and test prototypes. I love my job! And it only got better when I succeeded in creating a PhD position to enrich it: now I would even be better able to serve the elderly! However, soon I discovered that serving science is not always the same as serving seniors and I started to face ethical challenges.


Dilemmas of a double role
All researchers face ethical challenges. Lucky us: there are guides to help us out. The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity – the integrity Bible for (Dutch) researchers – provides methodological and ethical standards. It introduces a set of ‘virtues’ for good scholars, including honesty, scrupulousness, transparency, independence, and responsibility.

As a researcher working for an employer outside the university, I’m also supposed to take principals of my organization into account, including making a difference, being involved, flexible, connecting and distinct. However, both sets of principals sometimes conflict. I often feel like I’m wearing two hats, as values of my organization and science are not always aligned.

The Erasmus University developed the Dilemma Game, supporting researchers in practicing with hypothetical dilemmas. Inspired by playing this game in a course at the faculty, I reflect in this blog post in a playful way on dilemmas I faced in my work. Next to exploring what to do when interests of seniors and science seem to clash, I hope to motivate fellows operating both in science and society to reflect on their work as well. All blocks contain a dilemma (left) and the considerations I made (right).


Representing a wellbeing organization, I felt responsible to make participating a pleasant experience for the older people (B). However, I also found the value of scrupulousness important and didn’t want to be flexible at the cost of this scientific value (A).  I choose A, as including new persons would anyway affect the reliability of the results (A+C). Unfortunately, this was not a happy-ending story. The collaboration was disturbed and another participant left because her friend wasn’t welcome.


This dilemma forced me to choose between being flexible and connecting (A) – according to my organization’s values – or scrupulous and independent (B) – following scientific principles. C was a successful mix: beneficial for my organization without ignoring scientific standards.


As an elderly organization, we joined this project to make a difference in older people’s lives and considered this approach (B) suitable for this. Our partners considered replacing participants at the cost of scrupulousness and not in line with ethical standards (A). We considered B, but first discussed this with the partners once again. This worked out surprisingly well, so we ended with C.


Considering what would be most honest from a scientific point of view (A, B) I decided to be transparent in reporting, but to not use their input (A). Instead of interviewing her husband I spent additional time having coffee with the lady, as I felt responsible after her sharing her story (C). This mix was a good strategy and in line with both my organization and research


A beautiful hat
I am not a talker at all, but I feel you really listen to me and that makes me share my story’ – an 85-year old lady when I finalize my interview. For a moment I feel guilty, as my primary interest was a valuable dataset. But then I realize that a valuable encounter can be valuable for my research at the same time. Reflecting on my dilemmas taught me that although my organization’s values are not always similar to those in science, decisions aren’t necessarily black or white. Am I wearing two hats, in my position? No, I’m not. I’m wearing a very special one and will do this with pride!

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.


Time management: Finding the balance between energy, inspiration and just getting shit done

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

To be honest: it’s not always that easy to combine a fulltime job in a non-academic organisation with a PhD project. Or the other way around. Instead of one (PhD) project, I manage five team members, working on eight (international) research projects. All of these projects come with their own partners, tasks, and deadlines. Nevertheless, so far I survived 3,5 years, with satisfying results and progress. Currently I’m in a period of transition. After five years at the National Foundation for the Elderly, a charity combatting loneliness among vulnerable older adults, I’m about to start at Leyden Academy, a knowledge institute on the topic of ageing. In this transition, time management turned out to be a welcome skill. Although I have already quite some experiences, the course I followed did make me realize once again how important it is for a researcher to keep this skill on point. I’m happy to share my take-away’s with you. 

1.     Priority over time

“’No time’ normally means ‘no priority’”, a friend of mine uses to say – which in Dutch sounds even stronger. This course made me realize again that spending my time on things with priority, provide me energy whereas spending – or should I say wasting? – time on things without priority lead to stress and unhealthy pressure. I was already familiar with the matrix supporting to decide whether a task is important and/or urgent. The course triggered me, however, to define what important actually means to me. I started to recall my goals for this month– I monthly define my main focus – and checked whether a new task would contribute to these goals or not. Additionally, distinguished whether something was important in general, or for me personally. Sometimes the job was important, but not necessarily for me. 

2.    Itrinsic motivation over mood

This take-away is related to my first learning. When I define my yearly or monthly goals, I always start to reflect on why I exactly started all this in the first place. In my case this is particularly important, as I don’t do my PhD project for the university or anyone else: it’s all my own motivation and I could easily quit if I’m not motivated anymore. So, when I doubt my motivation, I start to recall myself: ‘Starting my PhD was my dream and gives me the great opportunity to specialize in the fascinating field of older adults and to valorise all the work I do.’ Luckily, I’m not often in this mood. But getting the bigger picture clear, helps me to stay motivated. Not only about the non-attractive PhD tasks, also in my ‘regular’ job. My regular job is also part of how I would love to conduct my research. Sometimes I rather would spend all my time on my PhD but I’m aware that a fulltime PhD position wouldn’t have satisfied me as much as this double role. Yes, and that also implies writing assignments on Saturdays every now and then.

3.    Pragmatic over Perfect

 ‘Ask someone without time to do the job and you can be sure it’s getting done’, is a saying I love. And I often even apply it to my own research project: planning a task when I don’t have so much time. Although I’m not the type of person performing very well under pressure, for some tasks this is the best way. Some jobs don’t need so much time and inspiration, they just need to be done. For instance, writing a proposal (or assignment / preliminary analyses / looking up some literature…) in order to get access to my data is obligatory, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I should spend all my time, inspiration and energy on it. Yes, in the end it was a useful exercise to get more insight in my own research, but some steps of the process felt rather bureaucratic. 

4.    Inspiration over Discipline

I’m happy to be blessed with a sufficient dose of self-discipline – I need it a lot in my full agenda. I have all types of routines and schedules on when, how, and where I work to get my tasks done. This discipline is not only displayed in my work, also in my leisure time. I only rarely skip a Monday morning run. During the course I realized how important these moments are – although I also feel guilty sometimes if this is at the cost of work. But is the latter actually the case? Sitting behind my desk early every morning doesn’t guarantee inspiration or productivity. The best ideas (with regard to the set-up of a study protocol, the title of a paper, the response to a colleague who annoys me) pop up during my runs. Especially as these on the road time has decreased in lock-down (no train, no bike to work), I really need to keep this space. Another learning: sometimes I totally planned to work on a certain piece of a paper, but suddenly get the inspiration for something else. I learned that’s it’s okay – even a must – to be flexible. Especially when I’m able to mainly work on important non-urgent tasks, it’s okay to postpone a task to do something else first. 

Last but not least

Plan in only 80% of your time – was recommended during the course. Earlier this month I read something similar in a blog on time management: Plan your tasks and then double the time planned for this. Both reminded me to be more realistic in what to achieve. Especially with the take-aways in mind, this will definitely help me. Not only to be more productive, but also to be more relaxed. I’m writing this blogpost on a Saturday. Because I’m intrinsically motivated, I have the inspiration after a run through the snow this morning. It contributes to my goals and I’m pragmatic: it just want it to be done, today. And yes, it was on my to-do list yesterday as well. But that list was not realistic. Instead of 80%, I planned in 120% of my time. Now I realize this, I’m fine with it and with my own time management skills – including the pitfalls.  

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Structural unpaid overtime as ‘part of the job’ – don’t buy it!

by Yvonne La Grouw | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Structural unpaid overtime and wellbeing

On the Alarm Day on the sixth of April 2021, Dutch universities protested against structural unpaid overtime. The increasing scarcity in higher education and research had led to extreme work pressure and strongly influences academics’ wellbeing. In fact, the problematic wellbeing of academics is a recurring and almost normalized topic, as if it is just a part of the job that we need to accept. 

Structural unpaid overtime is a persisting problem in academia, in the first place due to increasing student numbers and decreasing funding. Universities are expected to provide top-level research and education and therefore, academics need to work harder for less. This is an essential problem that needs to be fixed in political decision-making arenas.

Logo of the Alarm Day 2021

The romantic myth of overtime and overachievement 

What can we as young scholars do, in daily working life, if we want to contribute to a system-change? I believe we need to change the romantic ‘overachieving’ academic work culture.

During the last four years, I observed a complex organizational culture of on the one hand being bothered by extreme working hours and lurking burnouts, and on the other romanticizing and ironically joking about it. The latter seems to be a coping mechanism to deal with the former. Check for example social media accounts for sharing experiences with the burden of being an academic, for example Dr. Exhausted and Panicking Postdoc. I haven’t found accounts for Burdened Bankers or Coping Consultants.

Although humor is the best de-stressor and acknowledgement of your struggles are comforting and therefore helpful, this type of discourse is risky as well. It risks normalizing and sometimes even romanticizing the problems of the job. It frames unpaid overtime as something we have to live through, actually, something we have to do.

Implicitly, the discourse tells us that if we do not work overtime until we are exhausted or panicking, we lack ambition, perseverance, relevance, resilience, and can therefore no be successful. The concept of ‘humble bragging’ may also apply here: some scholars are happy to share that their life exists of 24/7 work, work, work, and therewith implicitly tell us how their working hours reflect their success. It is true that some scholars happily practice the 24/7 workweek, but for a healthy working environment, this should not be the norm. It seems fairer and healthier to do the work you are actually paid for (your fte).

Between optimism and anxiety

Elsewhere, I explained how senior scholars put junior scholars under pressure through ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant, 2008) through motivating them to optimistically pursue top publications, while it might run against their own wellbeing and future career perspectives (La Grouw, 2019). The romantic myth of overtime appears a similar cruel optimistic phenomenon. 

Ironic jokes and humble bragging create a double feeling of optimism and anxiety. Optimism will motive you to persevere in doing unpaid overtime (I can do this and will generate success and acknowledgement!), and anxiety will create stressed feelings that you need to do more (unpaid) overtime to be successful (it is never enough, I am always too slow!), just as your colleagues. A persistent cruel optimistic stance towards overtime is problematic, because it blurs the boundaries of your requirements and tasks, contributes to feelings of losing grip on the job and therefore feeds feelings of being overwhelmed and unqualified.

How can we break with this social norm of (showing off with) overtime? 

Foucault would argue that resistance is key. The Alarm Day is, therefore, a great initiative, as it focuses on reducing the tasks per academic, which will help in reducing work pressure. Individual scholars can resist by breaking with the romantic culture of overworked academics. We need to be brave and set boundaries and stop participating in the challenge of ‘who used the least holiday hours this year?’. 

When the workload is too much, discuss what you can do less. If you are not allowed to do less, delivery lower quality, and communicate this to your supervisor as a consequence of the high workload. I know this is tough, as our work is understood as a representation of the self, and again creates fear of not being successful enough for academia. Still, it is important to take a step back from this idea of the perfect self and a step forward to a healthier and happier work environment. Especially for PhDs, I believe a healthier, happier and relaxed you will lead to more creative and innovative work.

A crucial element of these acts of resistance is supervisors and colleagues respecting and accepting these boundaries. Acts of resistance of young, female, people of color and/or LGBTQI employees might be less likely respected than that of their older, male, white, straight and/or cis-gendered colleagues. Therefore, it is highly important to be attentive to acts of resistance of our colleagues and support them.

Unpaid overtime is, of course, okay as a necessary exception now and then (although paid overtime would be a refreshing alternative). Unpaid overtime is not an exhausting performance that deserves cheering, so don’t buy it!

Yvonne La Grouw is a PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. She uses a critical, actor-level lens to study decision-making processes in healthcare and social policy settings, feminist perspectives and academic cultures.


Berlant, L. (2008). Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss and the Senses. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 63: 33-51. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543067001043

La Grouw, Y. (2019). Seniors, vermijd wreed optimisme en gebruik je positie. Beleid en Maatschappij, 46(1), 164-169. https://doi.org/10.5553/BenM/138900692019046001012

Co-creation, older adults & Covid: six learnings

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes

We would have loved so much to add it to our New Year’s resolutions: innovating together with older people – like in the good old days. But after almost a year with COVID, it doesn’t look like we can go back to normal yet. So… postponing again? That would be a shame! With a little flexibility and creativity, more is possible than you might think. Flexibility when it comes to the older adults; the methodology as well as the innovations itself. I am happy to share six learnings from the past year! 

The older adults

1.     Think close

Instead of recruiting participants, I engaged in a conversation with my own grandmother about how she had experienced the process after my grandpa passed away – something that, as a granddaughter I was reluctant to do at first and as a researcher I was reluctant to burden her with. Not only did my grandma not mind at all, it also resulted in a nice personal conversation.

You often don’t need to search far for good stories. The threshold for diving into the depths with close others is sometimes higher than with strangers, but it is worth it and saves a lot of (travel) time.

2.    Join what already exists

It was not easy: recruiting individual older adults for a focus group. Moreover, participants had to meet several conditions and had to be willing to come to our office in these insecure times. The solution? We looked to join an existing bereavement group.

Joining an existing group has many advantages. The group is already complete; people know and trust each other; location is already arranged; meetings are already in the agenda of participants and the (COVID) rules of the external organization can be followed, which makes everything a lot easier.

3.    Nothing new under the sun

Older people remain older people. For example, one lady showed up an hour early in an online group session while my colleague and I were still making preparations. Still, older people like to arrive on time. Another lady called me the day before her participation in an online test because she was in need for some social talk. Even, or perhaps especially, in COVID times, social contact is often an important motivation to participate in research.

Much has changed. Yet much has also remained the same. Do not expect older people to suddenly behave completely differently online. So, don’t do that yourself either. 

The methodology

4.    Don’t wait

A planned focus group was replaced by individual phone interviews in order to get to know our target group. Crying, a lady who had recently lost her husband, answered the phone. The anonymity of the phone made her feel safe in her vulnerability. We would never have achieved this extra layer of depth in a focus group session.

Of course, it is a pity if you cannot carry out the activities as planned. But what a pity even more to wait without doing anything? You can learn so much in the meantime!

5.    Learning by (just) doing

‘Are older people able to do that, online research?’ Why not just try? My test-user had a tablet, but meeting me through TEAMS, sharing the screen, opening the app with camera and microphone, was too much to ask for. Both for her and for the tablet. But she was clever – and so were we. With the camera on and the lady in front of the mirror, we could still look at her screen. And by calling her by phone, we could even hear each other.

Trying something new requires creativity and perseverance. But it is very rewarding! Not just feedback on a new idea, but also insight into the research method itself: win-win.

The innovation

6.    A flexible service design

We tested a toolkit to support older people in sharing stories. The pilot, which resembled the real service as much as possible, consisted of some online activities and two physical sessions. Just before the second session, the COVID measures were tightened. The pilot was put on hold.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is the importance of (user-friendly) digital solutions for older adults.  So if the implementation of our innovations needs to be postponed because of social restrictions,  are these then actually ready for the new normal? The new normal requires innovations with a flexible service design in which a group activity can easily be exchanged with one-on-one sessions, online or telephone activity; in which family members or caregivers play a role, if we have difficulty meeting the elderly; or by having the intervention fit in with activities that continue even with limitations, such as therapy or a care trajectory.

I am convinced that we will only come up with more sustainable solutions if we continue to involve older people in our research in creative ways. I am curious about your most important lesson from the past year!

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU). She works as a researcher at Leyden Academy for Vitality and Ageing, studying the use of narratives to optimize the quality of residence care for older adults. Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Hackers of Science: Lessons from interdisciplinary science in a Hackathon

by Myrthe Reuver & Nicolas Mattis | Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Note: This blog is based on the hackathon work by the authors as well as Marijn Sax, Felicia Loecherbach and Sanne Vrijenhoek during the Media Hack Day Hackathon on Diverse Recommenders on 9-10 October 2020 . Felicia wrote a personal blog about her experiences at this hackathon as well.

Who doesn’t want to be a hacker? The word Hackathon, which combines the words hacker and marathon, might evoke images of nerdy looking guys in hoodies, coding away with green letters on a large black screen. However, we were hackers not conforming to this stereotype: our most experienced programmers were the women in the team, and we were not primarily coders but problem-solvers from different scientific domains (from communication science, philosophy, computer science and computational linguistics). Moreover, we did not hack banks, governments or elections. We hacked a societal problem: a lack of diversity in news recommendation, in a 24-hour hackathon organized by public broadcaster NPO! The public broadcaster has their own “Netflix”-like recommendation system: a video portal where users can watch public TV programs and documentaries. With “diverse recommendation”, the NPO meant users of this system would get recommended different items than ones only based on their personalized preferences. This means, for instance, users getting recommendations on different topics, genres, and ideas than their usual preference of NPO videos.

This is especially important because non-diverse (news) recommender systems can actually damage democracy, leading to online filter bubbles or echo chambers. For instance, personalization of online news can lead to the user only consuming news that immediately interests them: about football, or only about one perspective on the U.S. elections. Such a limited perspective harms the deliberative aspect of a functioning democracy, where different perspectives and ideas should be heard and debated.

We attempted to diversify the NPO Start recommendation system in a 24-hour hackathon and learned much and more not only about diverse recommendation, but also about science and interdisciplinary collaboration!

Why is diversity in recommender systems important? 
Diversity in recommender systems is a ‘hot topic’ nowadays. You might know it as the “fabeltjesfuik” recently discussed in the Dutch television show ‘Zondag met Lubach’, or as talk about Filter Bubbles (Pariser, 2011) and echo chambers (Sunstein, 2009). A system that only gives users more of the same content can lead to polarization or a very limited perspective on current issues. This can be dangerous for democratic participation in a society (Helberger, 2019). For instance, a sports fan only gets more recommended news articles or videos on sports, but new topics and other ideas are excluded from this user’s news consumption.

As a public broadcaster, the NPO is ultimately driven by the public value of diversity and providing a public discussion space. And from this perspective, it is not hard to see the need for diverse news exposure. Only when we, as members of a society, are aware of the different voices and opinions that are out there we can constructively discuss and decide on the best way forward.

Therefore, NPO asked 5 teams to design a diverse recommender system for their video platform NPO Plus. Instead of getting more recommended news based on one’s personal preferences, users should have the opportunity to encounter diverse content. We participated as team “Geeky Griffins”, an interdisciplinary team of scientists (PhDs and postdocs from the VU and UvA) from the fields of computational linguistics, philosophy, and communication science, and took on the challenge of a 24-hour hackathon.

And as an interdisciplinary team of five junior researchers, we did not just hack recommender system diversity. We also hacked the scientific disciplines! We identified some lessons we learned from working with different disciplines on one complex topic. Is such a disciplinary shake-up perhaps the answer to complex problems like recommender system diversity? We feel like such an approach would also work well for other complex societal problems, where technical, philosophical, and experimental knowledge is all needed.

Our team logo

What did we do during the hackathon?
After hearing the word “hackathon”, you might think of other kinds of hackers who write complex computer programmes, and ‘hacking’ taking place mostly behind computer screens and in code. The reality is more complex though: hackathons can be about any kind of non-computational problem. These range from problems in wildlife preservation to education, and non-programmers make also valuable contributions to a team. The idea of a hackathon is to explore a problem, and build a prototypical solution, in a very short time frame. Teams compete against each other and present their solutions to a jury at the end of the Hackathon. The best solution (and team) wins!

Usually, a hackathon is in one location where food and drinks are provided so ‘hackers’ can focus on the problem at hand, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic we had a virtual hackathon from our homes. This was a strange experience for us: food was delivered to our house so we could spend all our time working on the problem, for which NPO provided video data such as subtitles and metadata on the videos. We worked throughout the night in our separate rooms and houses, and only connected through video chats in Microsoft Teams. This was especially strange because for most of the 5 team members, this was the first time we met each other or worked together. In 24 hours, we not only got to know each other’s preferred working styles, but also experienced quite some stress together.

This hackathon was like an intense hazing period for our “Rethinking News Algorithms” project. For this NWO-funded project, the authors of this blog and their fellow hackathon teammates intend to work together during the coming 4 years. In 24 hours, we already experienced all kinds of common pitfalls of interdisciplinary science, from miscommunication to the threat of not communicating at all.

What did we learn?
Our virtual video-calls started with mapping our respective strengths, with each of us coming from different fields. This was particularly valuable, as the problem at hand involved unique challenges that required the perspective and know-how from more than just one academic discipline. For example, when it comes to designing a diverse recommender, there is the technical programming perspective (‘how’), but also the philosophical and ethical perspective (‘why’ are we doing this). We feel such an approach might be more useful to other complex societal problems as well.

In addition, when tackling complex societal issues, the participation of (non-academic) stake-holders is essential. Throughout the hackathon day, we were able to talk with experts (such as data scientists and programmers) working with the current NPO recommendation system. Their ideas on, and terminology about, diversity in recommender systems were not the ones common in academic research. However, these terms and ideas were closer to how our designed systems would be used in non-academic contexts. This meant speaking to these non-academic stakeholders was especially useful!

Screenshot from the Award ceremony

We decided to split into two teams, one working on the technical implementation and the other on theoretical argumentation of our ideas. While this approach played into everyone’s strengths, it also created a certain disconnect. Due to our set-up the theory and tech were treated as two separate parts of the project. This was something that we only realized in hindsight and we might have wanted to avoid. We had some meetings where everyone came together during the day. That was nice. However, during long stretches we made choices on our ideas without leveraging advantages of each other’s expertise. This might have been less than ideal. Our takeaway is that the connection and collaboration is the most important to this interdisciplinary project and should be at the core of such projects on complex societal problems.

Our diverse understandings of science and recommendations were useful for solving the problem. One example was how to explain the recommender’s diversification to users. Should we visualize cluster and/or topic distance between items, which is a more computational approach? Or should we keep things simple by merely providing user-friendly content suggestions, because offering a technical visualization might overwhelm users? This latter idea came from the communication scientists in our team. We also extensively discussed the implications of our definitions and approaches thanks to the philosopher. In the end, all these ideas came together in our prototype. Our idea consisted of (among other aspects) a “peek behind the curtain” idea, where users would be enticed to see what other users and perhaps famous people are seeing, and embedding the subtitles of every video in a multi-dimensional space to distance between videos was visible and calculatable.

In the end, there were some differences in approaches and ideas, but our final product contained aspects of each of them. We presented our prototype to the jury, consisting of experts in recommender systems at the NPO and at Media Perspectives, and to our own surprise our team won! The jury was impressed with our story, where we put the user experience central but also used the newest computational techniques.

We recently heard other good news: the NPO is possibly interested in further developing our concept! This strengthened us in our idea: a shake-up of traditional scientific disciplines, and involving people with different perspectives, could help solve complex societal problems such as recommender system diversity!


  • Helberger, N. 2019. On the democratic role of news recommenders. Digital Journalism, 7(8), 993-1012.
  • Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. London: Viking/Penguin Press.
  • Sunstein, C. R. 2009. Republic.com 2.0. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Myrthe Reuver (MA MSc) is a PhD Candidate in Computational Linguistics at CLTL at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). She researches how to automatically capture news diversity in recommendation systems in the UvA/VU project “Rethinking News Algorithms”. One of her interests is combining knowledge from linguistics and other fields in the humanities and social sciences with new techniques related to machine learning, AI, and data analysis. If you want to know more, you can follow her on Twitter.

Nicolas Mattis is a PhD candidate at the department of Communication Science. He studies news selection and exposure diversity in news recommender systems. His research is part of the interdisciplinary project “Rethinking News Algorithms: Nudging users towards diverse news exposure”.

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

by Marije Blok| Reading Time: 5 Minutes

What we can learn from older adults in this crisis

Whereas in February we were still joking about the situation in China – only one month later we found ourselves in the midst of a global crisis. Fierce restrictions and containment made our world smaller overnight, forcing us to make the best of our daily life in a different way than we were used to. We needed coping strategies to deal with all of that, but no one seemed to have any previous experience we could take lessons from.

No one? No. There ís a group we can learn from in this extraordinary time: the older adults. This population, in this crisis often considered a vulnerable group, can be seen as a source of inspiration, as older adults already have experience in dealing with limitations in life.

I’m referring here to what is known as the paradox of ageing. Although older people are often confronted with physical, mental, and cognitive challenges, they score surprisingly high on quality of life. Theories in the field of social and emotional ageing describe the coping strategies older people follow to ensure these levels of quality of life, despite decline (Charles & Carstensen, 2009). Coping strategies we all can benefit from in this exceptional era.

Forced to choose 
In the crisis, we suddenly had to choose and select. We were asked to only travel with public transport if strictly necessary, and only to meet-up with a limited number of friends. Striking – and somewhat confusing –  was the RIVM’s call to limit social contacts to only one sex buddy; a message that was already revised shortly.

Whereas most of us were overtaken by these restrictions, the older ones among us were already familiar with limitations before the crisis, as both their energy level and time left are limited. The socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al, 1999) explains that older adults are particularly good in choosing and selecting. They focus on most valuable relations – family members, close friends – and activities in life. And guess what? It turns out to be a successful strategy to maintain wellbeing.

Early in the crisis, my grandfather passed away. We had no other choice than only invite the closest relatives to his funeral. After the disappointment, we embraced this extraordinary setting. It was more intimate than we could ever have achieved in a packed church service. I learned to appreciate the restriction, as it helped us to focus on most important things and persons in life.

Alternative strategies
For almost everything that had been totally normal in daily life, we suddenly needed alternative strategies. Skype meetings, walking routes, queue management, disinfection routines. Whereas some of us dealt very well with it, others had more difficulties in getting used to new strategies such as working from home.

New strategies for older adults? Been there done that! The theory of Selection Optimization & Compensation (Baltes & Baltes, 1990) explains how older adults, more than younger ones, are good in finding alternatives. When getting older, they continuously have to deal with physical and cognitive decline and restrictions. Although the COVID restrictions are of a different kind, older adults seem to know how to handle this. Selection refers to selecting the relevant goals that, realistically, can be achieved in the particular circumstances. Optimization is defined as optimizing the own capabilities to achieve these goals. Compensation includes the alternative strategies where objectives cannot be achieved in the usual way.

Being able to develop compensation strategies can be very beneficial these days. Personally, I needed the crisis to say goodbye to my gym. I’ve become a happy runner over the previous months, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened without the gym closing its doors. My grandmother, instead, easily switched to the church service on her Smart TV, because at her age she didn’t always visit the service live anyway.

Everything under control
Control, what’s that? Over the previous months, we have lived our lives week by week. We started counting down towards April 7, soon that became 1 Juno. At first only the terraces would open, then the restaurants and bars followed. Will my appointment at the hairdresser take place? My vacation? Most of us found it hard to accept this uncertainty.

According to the lifespan theory of control (Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995) older adults are better in accepting things they cannot influence or change. Due to cognitive and physical decline, they are more used to this. My team at the National Foundation for the Elderly has worked hard setting-up a corona panel, consisting of 500 older adults whom we asked for their opinion on crisis related issues. Remarkable was that the eldest group, aged 75+, turned out to feel less mentally effected than the younger group, who indicated to feel more lonely than before. We may explain this by the fact that older adults already before the crisis learned to accept things they cannot change. Facing age-related decline, they got used to adapting their expectations in daily life.  

Many of us have successfully developed new habits during this crisis. Others are still doubting and considering whether and how they want to go back to their – stressful- pre-COVID lifestyle. Older adults learn us that Fear Of Missing Out won’t make us happy but focussing on most important things in life will do so instead. So, the next time you don’t know how to handle a crisis? Ask some older people (stay safe at six feet :)) to share their experiences. Because most of all we need to do this together.


  • Baltes PB & Baltes MM. (1990). Selective optimization with compensation. In: Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carstensen LL., Isaacowitz D. & Charles ST (1999). Taking time seriously: a theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychology Journal, 1999 54(3), 165–81.
  • Charles, ST & Carstensen LL. (2009). Social and Emotional Aging. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2009. 61:383–409
  • Heckhausen J & Schulz R (1995). A Life-Span Theory of Control. Psychological Review 1995, 2(2), 283-304.

Marije Blok (MSc) is an (external) PhD candidate studying ageing and technology at the Sociology department (VU) and a project manager in the Innovation department at the National Foundation for the Elderly (Nationaal Ouderenfonds). Here she will share the experiences on her journey through science and society.

Conflict of interest: you vs. your research

Looking at the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity with a qualitative eye

Lisa-Marie Krausby Lisa-Marie Kraus| Reading time: 6 Minutes / 

The replication crisis, questionable research practices, plagiarism and fraud. Anyone who is reading this blog post, is probably familiar with these buzz words. To promote and foster integer research, the Netherlands Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (NCCRI; KNAW et al., 2018) was introduced.

As a researcher, I have gone through both extensive quantitative as well as qualitative training. Thus, two types of methodologists reside in me. While reading the NCCRI for the first time, the code predominantly spoke to the quantitative rather than the qualitative researcher in me – which I think should not be the case.LMKAfb1

Let me explain why that is.

The code addresses topics such as Communication, Honesty and Transparency. Needless to say, all of these topics are important to academic research in general, but qualitative researchers would probably argue that there is more to Transparency than currently described in the code.

While conducting a study and when interpreting the findings, researchers bring certain values into the project, which are grounded in their own, unique worldview. Being aware of that, is a practice rather elementary to qualitative researchers. I would argue, however, that this habit is a valuable one just as much for quantitative researchers. It may be true that the epistemological assumption of quantitative research presupposes an objective reality that can be measured and described as such. Yet, the way surveys are put together – in terms of what questions are asked, and more so: not asked! – conducted and eventually interpreted by the researcher is a different story (here, also see Postpositivism). Hence, this “type” of Transparency, that is the elaboration on one’s positionality (O’Dwyer & Bernauer, 2013) is also advisable within the quantitative tradition to keep up comprehensive ethical standards.

Each person, regardless of their research approach looks at a topic through a certain lens, influenced by personal interests, preferences and world views. For example, a part of my PhD project (Becoming a Minority) is concerned with the reactions to growing cultural diversity of native, upwardly socially mobile individuals. Upward social mobility is the movement within the social hierarchy from a lower to a higher position in terms of social class. Since I am socially mobile myself, there are certain personal values and ideas that I hold and bring into my research. Needless to say that I do my best to be as objective as possible, yet it would be disingenuous to pretend my personal life trajectory has not shaped the view that I have on the topic.

In my research I hypothesize that the socially mobile could be more open to diversity. I do so since the socially mobile have experienced more heterogeneous types of contact throughout their life trajectory compared to socially stable individuals. Consequently, the socially mobile should be “used to” adapt rather easily to social change. At the same time, the upwardly socially mobile could have more negative reactions since their social position might be more sensitive to “threat” compared to other middle-class individuals who have inherited their social status from their parents.

I don’t think it comes as a surprise that, surely, the former is a finding much more appealing to me personally (to back-up this claim scientifically, check out Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2004) and the need for a positive image of the self). So what if I find a pattern revealing that in general the upwardly mobile do not “deal well” with growing diversity? Is it in my interest to reflected upon myself or the mobile as a group like that?


I think that favouring one hypothesis over the other is not always a conscious process. But a first step is to be aware of your own background and critically evaluate it when conducting research. Your life trajectory influences the decisions you make as a researcher – and can pose conflicts of interest with the self. Hence, the NCCRI should also create awareness of these sometimes unconscious processes which can pose a threat to ethical research standards.

The NCCRI tries to tackle general integrity issues but the inference that can be made is that the “I” is in no way a matter that only applies to qualitative research. Also, more quantitative researchers face conflicts of interests. In order to be more inclusive of all types of methodologies as well as more exhaustive in general, the NCCRI should take the posed matters into account.

In conclusion, I propose to reformulate certain sections of the code. There is – to some extent – a guideline in the NCCRI that already hints at a topic related to the described issue. In the section for “Standards for good research practices” it states:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) interests, arguments or preferences.” (number 18, p. 17)


“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest” (number 55, p. 18)

As these predominantly refer to 3rd party interests, I suggest to include the researcher’s position and personal gains in the statement:

“Make sure that the choice of research methods, data analysis, assessment of results and consideration of possible explanations is not determined by non-scientific or non-scholarly (e.g. commercial or political) nor your own interests, arguments or preferences.” (p. 17)


“Be open and honest about potential conflicts of interest”, by adding “[…], these include your own interests”.


KNAW; NFU; NWO; TO2-federatie; Vereniging Hogescholen; VSNU, (2018). Nederlandse gedragscode wetenschappelijke integriteit. DANS.

O’Dwyer, L. M., & Bernauer, J. A. (2013). Quantitative research for the qualitative researcher. London: Sage.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In J. T. Jost & J. Sidanius (Eds.), Key readings in social psychology. Political psychology: Key readings (pp. 276-293). New York, NY, US: Psychology Press.

Lisa-Marie KrausLisa-Marie is a PhD candidate at the Sociology Department of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research is part of the Becoming a Minority project and focuses on how (socially mobile) natives react to and make sense of becoming another ethnic minority in European cities.