PhD topics

Below is a list of PhD topics that our academic staff have suggested as study opportunities for PhD students to undertake. If you wish to develop a proposal around one of these topics, please contact the relevant member of staff to discuss this, and copy in ispgr@sheffield.ac.uk.

Note that you are not required to undertake one of these projects to study for a PhD with us - you can also formulate your own proposal by following these instructions.

Also available is the central University's Find a Supervisor tool, if you want to search across the whole University.

Academics' perceptions of literacy and being literate

Contact: Dr Peter Stordy

Digital technologies have transformed what it means to be literate and to experience literacy. Various literacies have been coined to capture this transformation including established literacies like computer literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy and internet literacy, to newer conceptions like transliteracy, metaliteracy and multimodal literacy. With varying degrees of success, some scholars have attempted to categorise these literacies (e.g. Addison & Meyers, 2013; McClure, 1994; Spitzer et al., 1998; Bawden, 2001; Savolainen, 2002; Lonsdale and McCurry, 2004; Stordy, 2015) but how do others perceive the myriad of literacies and literacy types? What do they understand it means to be literate in the 21st century?

Addressing the needs of dementia patients’ carers: a national profiling exercise to ensure long-term wellbeing

Contact: Dr Laura Sbaffi

According to Alzheimer’s Research UK (2015) and the Alzheimer Society (2014), there are 850,000 people in the UK living with different stages of dementia and 80% of them are being looked after by a friend or family member; this translates in 700,000 people who had to put their own lives on hold and experience often severe physical, emotional, psychological and financial distress as a result of their role as carers.

The overarching idea behind this research project is to identify segments (i.e. typologies) of dementia carers based on a number of contributing factors, such as geo-demographics, behaviours, attitudes and needs to establish an up-to-date national picture. This exercise will be conducted via a quantitative research tool (i.e. survey) to be distributed across a number of charities and associations and will be complemented by interviews and focus groups where needed to shed light on the more complex aspects.

Boots et al. (2015) showed that “early therapeutic interventions could help caregivers identify their needs, and focus on enhancement of the positive, intact experiences to prevent caregiver burden”, suggesting that carers of patients affected by mild dementia or having been recently diagnosed, could benefit the most from this research.

I am very interested in supervising a PhD project that investigates experiences and issues of dementia patients’ cares, especially in a study that explored:

  • the literature review on the current situation of the carers around the UK;
  • how people deal (if at all) with their role as carers;
  • the key aspects that might emerge from a survey on a national sample of carers;
  • the formulation of an instrument that can help healthcare professionals to identify needs and stir carers towards personalised coping solutions.
Affordances of popular digital games in education

Contact: Dr Peter Stordy

Gamification typically describes the creation of games to promote learning outcomes. However, popular digital games like Pokemon Go and World of Warcraft, arguably already do this. This area has received less attention in the literature.

Bottom-up ICT innovation

Contact: Dr Christopher Foster

I am interested in the shifting concept of ‘innovation’. I have previously researched strategy and policy that might allow ICT innovations to be more socially inclusive.

Possible areas of focus:

  • Localised and/or informal ICT innovation amongst marginal groups, and how this might be captured and scaled.
  • How do digital firms use customers, users or intermediaries as a source of innovation?
  • What are the policy conditions which drive (ICT) innovation to be more inclusive?
Cultures of data science practice

Contact: Dr Jo Bates

How do cultures of practice influence how data science is done? How do these cultural factors shape the outputs of data science projects? What are the actual and potential implications of these cultural dynamics? This topic could be approached from a variety of perspectives e.g. cultural economy, feminist etc, and would likely use ethnographic or similar methods. I am interested in supervising projects that explore these questions with a focus on specific empirical cases. There are many possible cases, however preference will be given to project ideas that focus on novel ideas that offer realistic opportunities for empirical data collection. This project is suitable for students with an academic background in the social sciences/humanities (e.g. sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, politics etc), and students should have some knowledge of social/cultural theory.

Data Journeys/Data Frictions

Contact: Dr Jo Bates

How do interrelated socio-material forces shape the movement of data between different people, organisations, sectors? What socio-material forces slow down, obstruct and block data movements? How do emergent data flows bring social actors into new types of relation with one another? How ought these emergent data flows be theorised in order to inform our understand of emergent dynamics of power, structure and agency in an era of datafication?

I am interested in supervising projects that explore these questions with a focus on specific empirical cases. There are many possible cases, however preference will be given to project ideas that focus on novel ideas that offer realistic opportunities for empirical data collection. This project is suitable for students with an academic background in the social sciences/humanities (e.g. sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, politics etc), and students should have some knowledge of social/cultural theory.

Digital ecosystem

Contact: Dr Angela Lin

The rapid development of smart and connected devices and the services that are built upon them are gradually changing and blurring organisational, social, and temporal boundaries. An ecosystem approach to managing IT systems, business partners, and strategy has been proposed to replace the traditional approach. This new approach requires different ways of thinking and approaching challenges and planning the strategies. The topics (not limited to) that I am interested in this area are:

  • Consumer behavior in digital ecosystems
  • The role of new digital ecosystems in the organizational context
  • Organisational, social, and ethical issues arising with new digital ecosystems
  • Privacy and confidentiality issues of digital ecosystems (with Dr Jonathan Foster)
Digital transformations and organisations

Contact: Dr Jorge Martins

I am interested in the ubiquity of digital technology and its implications for work practices and organisational processes. Possible areas of focus include:

  • How does the socio-materiality of digital technology shape work practices and organisational arrangements?
  • What kinds of organisational and institutional implications does the making of data-based goods and services carry in terms of business models, work practices and organisational structures?
Digital transformation in the public sectors

Contact: Dr Angela Lin

Governments around the world are taking advantage of digital technologies with an aim to improve internal efficiency and to provide quality services to its citizens. The management of government IT systems and IT projects is not easy, and sometimes the outcomes of IT systems development and implementation can be disappointing. I am interested in any projects focusing on digital transformation initiatives in the public sectors.

Food logging

Contact: Dr Andrew Cox and Pam McKinney

Internationally, governments are recognising that obesity is a major health challenge for this century, and people are becoming more aware of the influence of diet on their health. Yet in a time of economic austerity resources to support healthcare are stretched, and it is vital that innovative methods of health information provision are investigated. The increasing availability of mobile health applications is of great interest, in terms of informing people about their own health and promoting improved self-management. Diet and fitness tracking apps are increasingly popular, as a form of food logging: the activity of recording food intake and monitoring weight and other health conditions that may be affected by diet, using applications (apps) accessed through mobile devices and personal computers. MyFitnessPal having amassed 75 million registered users worldwide. Tracking what one eats has long been recognised as a way to improve diet and support outcomes such as weight and symptom management, and an app is probably more effective than a paper based diary. But we need to know much more about how people weave food logging into their daily lives. Evidence of the practical benefits of logging food as such, have to be set in the context of controversies around the quantified self movement, and more widely in critical debates around “big data”

We are very interested in supervising a PhD project that investigates experiences of food logging, especially in a study that explored:

  • What information literacy means in the context of food logging;
  • how food logging relates to other forms of quantified self, such as activity tracking;
  • How food logging varies in specific situations eg in the context of a medical condition like diabetes or a practice such as running. This could involve working with relevant third sector organisations.
  • How food logging integrates with wider information behaviour around diet, health and fitness.
Globalisation of firms, firm value chains and digital technologies

Contact: Dr Christopher Foster

Global production is increasingly fragmented and often includes small and marginal producers from developing and emerging nations. Recent literature has explored the potential for firms and regions who are part of such fragmented networks to improve their position and ‘upgrade’, particularly the literature on value chains and global production networks.

With the growth of digital ICTs and connectivity, we are seeing a digitisation of value chains right down to smallest firms and producers, and a growth of relevant online services and platforms. However, we know little about the impact of digital technologies in these networks, particularly on those smaller producers and firms.

Potential questions to explore include:

  • Do digital ICTs and connectivity support smaller firms upgrading (or downgrading) in value chains?
  • How can regions build policy around digital technologies to improve their position in global production networks?
  • Are there new constraints on firms in value chains as digitation and platforms emerge?
  • Are online services and platforms enabling new types of the value chain for small firms?

I would particularly interested in studies which explore changes in more established economic sectors (e.g. apparel, agribusiness).

Globally Distributed Collaborative Work

Contact: Dr Pamela Abbott

I am interested in research about how globally distributed teams (e.g. agile software development teams) collaborate and innovate. Increasingly, the practice of global software outsourcing is being undertaken to produce innovative outcomes. Firms are outsourcing IT services not only to gain cost and scale advantages but to increase their innovative capacity by leveraging the cutting edge and often entrepreneurial expertise of small global firms. Their practices are very often fraught with difficulties related to distance, time and geographical separation as well as cultural and knowledge differences. I have investigated some instances of these issues in Chinese software and services outsourcing firms and found various “work-arounds” and collaborative strategies (Abbott, Zheng, Du, & Willcocks, 2013; Abbott, Zheng, & Du, 2014; Zheng & Abbott, 2013). There is also a wide range of research about this topic from well-established authors in the field e.g. (Hinds & Kiesler, 2002; Levina & Vaast, 2013; O’Hara-Devereaux & Johansen, 1994).

Some possible research questions:

  • How do collaborative work practices emerge in distributed teams?
  • How do the characteristics of distributed environments (time-space separation, knowledge, status and cultural differences) influence the efficacy of collaborative work ?
  • How does the nature of work (e.g. software development) change/adapt/transform when in distributed settings and what contributes to these changes?
  • How do working relationships contribute to changes in work practices when influenced by distributed environments?

Abbott, P., Zheng, Y., Du, R., & Willcocks, L. (2013). From boundary spanning to creolization: A study of Chinese software and services outsourcing vendors. The Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 22(2), 121–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsis.2013.02.002

Abbott, P., Zheng, Y., & Du, R. (2014). Collaboration, learning and innovation across outsourced services value networks: software services outsourcing in China. Cham: Springer.

Hinds, P., & Kiesler, S. (2002). Distributed Work. MIT Press.

Levina, N., & Vaast, E. (2013). A Field-of-Practice View of Boundary Spanning in and across Organizations: Transactive and Transformative Boundary Spanning Practices. In J. L. Fox & C. Cooper (Eds.), Boundary-Spanning in Organizations: Network, Influence and Conflict (pp. 285–307). New York: Routeledge. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ZwUVAgAAQBAJ

O’Hara-Devereaux, M., & Johansen, R. (1994). Globalwork: Bridging Distance, Culture and Time. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Zheng, Y., & Abbott, P. (2013). Moving Up the Value Chain or Reconfiguring The Value Network? An Organizational Learning Perspective On Born Global Outsourcing Vendors. In ECIS 2013 Completed Research (p. Paper 162). Utrecht, Netherlands. Retrieved from http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~vlaan107/ecis/files/ECIS2013-0821-paper.pdf

How can governance contribute to the effective handling of information and data in organizational and social media contexts?

Contact: Dr Jonathan Foster

How can information governance contribute to organisations' handling of their information and data assets?

Contact: Dr Jonathan Foster

ICTs, Development and Globalisation

Contact: Dr Pamela Abbott

I am interested in studies investigating phenomena around ICTs and development, i.e., the contested relationship between the development of ICT initiatives in poor, underdeveloped communities and the resulting influence this may have on development efforts in those environments. This topic is related to ICTs and globalisation, in general, were we see the emergence of socio-technical innovations that either work well in relation to their contexts of implementation or are caught up with complex institutional arrangements that inhibit their usefulness. Some specific topics around this area may include:

  • Social entrepreneurship projects in developing countries that are ICT-enabled or have a significant component of ICT infrastructure involved
  • Development of ICT infrastructure to support ICT-enabled Research and Education initiatives
  • Failed ICT initiatives in developing countries with analysis of causes of failure
  • Studies looking ICTs meant to enhance healthcare provision or wellbeing in underserved communities to determine how they are appropriated by end-users
  • Studies looking at technology innovation emerging from developing country contexts
  • Studies looking at the appropriation of technology to deal with social problems such as conflict, forced migration, social exclusion, financial exclusion
The impact of digitisation on micro, small, or medium companies

Contact: Dr Angela Lin

Democratisation of digital technologies has enabled micro businesses and SMEs to access to the capitals that were not available to them before. However, the evidence has shown that not all businesses can take advantage of digital technologies and those who are unable to do so are lagging behind those who can. I am interested in projects which aim to investigate the impacts of digitisation on businesses and businesses' digital strategies for the digital economy.

Impact Sourcing

Contact: Dr Pamela Abbott

I am interested in research about models of global sourcing that attempt to engage in improving the socio-economic conditions of the local contexts in which the outsourcing service providers operate. For example, if a multi-national firm decides to offshore its IT service provision to India (as a case in point) and sets up a captive centre in a remote town where it hopes to make a positive impact on the economy and social life of the community, this would provide fertile ground for an impact sourcing study. I studied such cases in the past publishing my observations in two papers (Abbott, 2005; Abbott & Jones, 2012) and also looked at how a lack of engagement in local contexts could negatively impact social relations in communities where global sourcing was a key provider of economic development (Suri & Abbott, 2012). A number of other references are given below which provide good resources for studies about impact sourcing (Babin & Nicholson, 2013; Carmel, Lacity, & Doty, 2014; Lacity, Rottman, & Carmel, 2012; Sandeep, 2015).

Some possible research questions:

  • How do firms who practice impact sourcing reconcile the competing ethical positions of profit motive and socio-economic improvement?
  • How do we effectively evaluate the development impact of impact sourcing ventures?
  • How do impact sourcing ventures demonstrate sensitivity to local contexts when engaging in social improvement activities?

Abbott, P. Y. (2005). Software export strategies for developing countries: A Caribbean perspective. The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 20. Retrieved from https://144.214.55.140/Ojs2/index.php/ejisdc/article/view/119

Abbott, P. Y., & Jones, M. R. (2012). Everywhere and nowhere: nearshore software development in the context of globalisation. European Journal of Information Systems, 21(5), 529–551. https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2012.7

Babin, R., & Nicholson, B. (2013). Sustainable Global Outsourcing: Achieving Social and Environmental Responsibility in Global IT and Business Process Outsourcing. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=SRIEo9dW_1AC

Carmel, E., Lacity, M. C., & Doty, A. (2014). The Impact of Impact Sourcing: Framing a Research Agenda. In R. Hirschheim, A. Heinzl, & J. Dibbern (Eds.), Information Systems Outsourcing: Towards Sustainable Business Value (pp. 397–429). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-662-43820-6_16

Lacity, M. C., Rottman, J. W., & Carmel, E. (n.d.). Emerging ITO and BPO Markets: Rural Sourcing and Impact Sourcing: Mary C. Lacity, Joseph W. Rottman, Erran Carmel: 9780769549187: Amazon.com: Books. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Emerging-ITO-BPO-Markets-Sourcing/dp/0769549187/

Sandeep, M. S. (2015). Innovations in outsourcing: the emergence of impact sourcing. \copyright Sandeep Mysore Seshadrinath. Retrieved from https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/handle/2134/19596

Suri, G. S., & Abbott, P. Y. (2012). IT cultural enclaves and social change: the interplay between Indian cultural values and Western ways of working in an Indian IT organization. Information Technology for Development, 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/02681102.2012.719860

Information Systems, strategy practices and performativity

Contact: Dr Jorge Martins

I am interested in Information Systems strategy as a social activity, something organisational actors do in practice, and the processes employed to accomplish it. Possible areas of focus include:

  • What is the praxis of the effective Information Systems professional (e.g. Chief Information Officer, Information Systems consultant, change manager) as a strategic thinker, relationship builder and negotiator?
  • How is strategic influence won or lost through discursive practices in the context of how information technologies are adopted and adapted?
Internet infrastructure and digital inequality

Contact: Dr Christopher Foster

Underlying our connected world is an internet infrastructure which is marked by opaque agreements and conflicting interests. These processes are invisible but they shape the ways we interact with the internet, and the ways that digital information is used and consumed.

I’m interested in studies that explore some of the processes around internet infrastructure, particularly studies that looks at how infrastructural decision-making impacts on digital divides, digital inequality or regional connectivity.

Such work can readily draw on theories of infrastructure from information systems, actor-network theories or wider social science literature on infrastructure

Examples of possible areas of focus:

  • Exploring public-private projects around internet fibre, and the impacts on digital information.
  • The emergence of new infrastructure components (such as content delivery networks and internet exchanges) and how decisions around these is impacting on digital inequality
  • Activist driven and open internet infrastructure.
NoSQL database design

Contact: Dr Peter Stordy

Effective relational database design is well-documented (e.g. Connolly & Begg, 2005). Despite the increase of NoSQL (non-relational) databases by organisations and businesses, their effective design is less well understood. To what extent can the techniques and concepts present in 'good' relational database design be transferred to NoSQL database design? What implications are there for teaching database design?

Personal IT used and impacts

Contact: Dr Angela Lin

Personal ICTs range from smart gadgets (e.g., smartphones, smartwatches, activity trackers, smart home), services (e.g., messengers, advance personal assistance), to complex peer-to-peer ecosystems (e.g. social networks, sharing services, and collaborative systems) (Trenz, 2018). Personal ICTs are expected to impact not only on individual adaptors but also on organisations as well as society. The topics relating to the use and behavioural changes because of the use are particularly welcome.

Social media, sousveillance and protests

Contact: Dr Paul Reilly

Eyewitness perspectives on protests and civil unrest can now be shared by recording footage on a mobile phone and sharing it on sites such as YouTube. This could potentially redefine journalism, allowing previously marginalised voices to be heard in a public sphere that is co-created by both citizens and professional journalists. Social media is facilitating sousveillance, a form of inverse surveillance which empowers citizens through their use of technology to ‘access and collect data about their surveillance’. Sometimes witnesses deliberately record the actions of authority figures, such as police officers, and have a clear political agenda for sharing this material. Yet, the use of mobile phones by members of the public to record personal experiences may, in many cases, be transformed into a form of inverse surveillance through its dissemination on YouTube, thus raising questions about the actions of the police officers captured on camera.

The visibility of campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter illustrates how the use of social media by advocacy groups can help shape public debates about policing and human rights in democratic states. Yet, not all such online campaigns have the same impact. Recent research has suggested that the use of YouTube to share sousveillance footage may reinforce pre-existing attitudes towards protesters. One study of 52 videos purporting to show police brutality in Northern Ireland found that the ambiguous nature of the footage raised as many questions about the behaviour of the protesters, as it did the police (Reilly, forthcoming). However, further empirical research is needed in order to explore the ways in which citizens respond to this use of social media for sousveillance.

I am very interested in supervising a PhD project that examines:

  • How social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in particular) are used by protesters for sousveillance purposes in the United Kingdom and United States
  • How citizens engage with footage purporting to show alleged police brutality that has been shared on these sites
  • The extent to which the responses of these citizens appear congruent with the media framing of these protests
University students' perception of the feedback and assessment

Contact: Dr Peter Stordy

Various student satisfaction surveys (e.g. National Student Survey - NSS) have arguably brought about improvements in UK Higher Education. However, universities have struggled to improve students' perceptions of the assessment & feedback they have experienced. Why is this area proving so intractable?

What are the regulatory and social challenges raised by personally identifying information in a digital environment?

Contact: Dr Jonathan Foster

What challenges does the digital environment pose for the ethics of information and data handling?

Contact: Dr Jonathan Foster