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Online Social Research: Methods, Issues, and Ethics

Editor: Mark D. Johns, Shing-Ling Sarina Chen, G. Jon Hall
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2004
Review Published: June 2006

 REVIEW 1: Jakob Linaa Jensen

The internet as a medium is growing more mature. Online Social Research: Methods, Issues and Ethics, edited by Mark D. Johns, Shing-Ling Sabrina Chen and G. Jon Hall, illustrates that so are the research methods and relevant methodological, theoretical, and ethical questions we use to approach the internet. Throughout the book it becomes apparent that distinguishing these areas is difficult as ethical questions are tightly related to those of the method and the theoretical framework.

Online Social Research falls in three parts: methods, issues, and ethics of online research. The book contains a range of fascinating chapters and presents a lot of the really "big" questions for online researchers, including those that address the distinctions between public and private, questions regarding whether online life is true social interaction, questions related to the level of involvement of the researcher, and many others.

Theoretically, the book's contributors subscribe to a variety of approaches although the majority relate closely to social constructivist ones. For the methods, the book presents an interesting array -- from focus groups to interpretive interactionist approaches. However, I find that quantitative methods are a bit under-represented. One of the reasons might be that Norman K. Denzin, author of the introduction, defines surveys, graphs and numbers to be qualitative approaches.

Denzin gets the book started with an introduction where he advocates for an open-minded view. The researcher's position is always contingent, he claims. Objective science is an illusion as there is no God-eye position and no hopes of "the grand perspective." This is particularly true when studying the online world where postmodern ideas of decentering and disembodiment might seem to have come true. However, instead of adhering to this general openness towards all perspectives, Denzin falls into the trap of defending specific perspectives such as post-marxism and communitarian feminism. No matter how useful such approaches might be in some respects, online life is much richer and more diverse than these perspectives allow accounting for. Further, in my view such a perspective is to give up all ideals and hope that some kind of an objective social science is possible. That would be a shame!

The first part of the book is devoted to specific methods of online social research. The first chapter, written by Clifford G. Christians and Shing-Ling Sarina Chen, is a neat little story on how research has always been dependent upon the dominant media matrix. Internet represents the latest stage in that development, and although the research possibilities are radically eased and expanded by the advance of electronic communication, one should remember that existing methods do not necessarily apply to the internet. One should take into consideration the specific status and characteristics of the medium. This is the first and important point of the book, and it is hard to disagree!

Next Matthew Williams and Kate Robson discuss focus group research on the internet. The authors start the chapter by discussing examples of traditional focus group research that departed from the method's early years. From that perspective, online examples are discussed. Obviously, the medium poses new possibilities as the research process has become easier. You no longer need to place your focus group in the same physical location and the time-consuming procedure of transcribing the discussions are often avoided to name just two examples. However, new challenges arise. For instance, focus groups are based on textual communication where phatic language maintaining the context of the group might be impossible. However, Williams and Robson illustrate that textual communication can be as rich as visual. Further, they list a range of various technologies, allowing for all kinds of focus groups online -- textual as well as visual, synchronous as well as asynchronous. They sum up that in setting up an online focus group, three elements are important to decide upon: technical form, rhetorical style, and content.

Three chapters address the question of researching online communities or groups. First, Sharon Kleinman demonstrates how a multi-method approach is necessary and useful in order to grasp the complexity of an online community. She explains how participant observation, content analysis of communication, interviews with the participants, and more overall quantitative studies of the group give a more full account of the group's life and dynamics than each of the methods used alone. She uses method triangulation in the true sense: findings from one of the research methods are used in order to validate the findings from the others. Personally, I would have liked to have read this article prior to the beginning of conducting my own Ph.D. project -- as it addresses a lot of questions that all online communities researchers have to wrestle with: the need for method triangulation, the question of ethics as engaged in a combination of experiments and participant observation, and the question of the level of personal involvement and interruption of the researcher.

In the following chapters, Kathleen LeBesco and Mary Walstrom both take their point of departure in studies of communities with weight related problems: overweight and anorexic/bulimic communities, respectively. LeBesco raises a number of important questions for online ethnographers, based on her own research in two forums discussing overweight-related issues. A vital strength of the chapter is that she defends online ethnography against the "traditionalist" claim that true ethnography cannot happen when the researcher is not physically co-present with his or her research subjects. It is obvious in this and other texts of the volume that by all standards, online communities can have just as great a meaningful significance of the individuals as traditional communities. I agree with LeBesco that the strong "traditionalist" claim "undermines ethnography's great usefulness for interpreting communication in our fastest growing arena, the online world" (71).

At the same time, LeBesco sketches some pressing dilemmas for the cyber-ethnographer. First, there is the question of the researcher's visibility. The participants interact more freely when they are not aware they are observed. On the other hand, this raises ethical questions. In the case of LeBesco, the participants actually state explicit content about her presence. Further, they claimed that the researcher's overt identification and presence made them act more freely; they did not feel like "laboratory rats." Second, there is the familiar problem of data overload. One might acknowledge that the online ethnographer is able to get complete and accurate field notes as the complete amount of information can be recorded and saved. However, this raises a well-known problem for online researchers -- namely, that of information overload. The online ethnographer has a great challenge in selecting the relevant information. One strength of LeBesco's chapter is that she discusses these questions in a detailed manner and provides rich examples. However, I disagree with her claim that coding and analyzing her data by hand makes her live with the data in "a fuller way" (72). In my opinion, the question of doing full justice to the richness of the data depends on the work and the enthusiasm of the researcher rather than the specific method.

Walstrom argues that an interpretive interactionist approach is useful when studying high-risk groups -- in her case, participants with anorexia and bulimia. Walstrom uses her own experiences to help her as a researcher. In the chapter, she demonstrates how such an involved and motivated approach helps to make access and research possibilities in the group easier and she shows how various specific methods like grounded theory, conversation analysis, and discourse analysis have proved useful. However, she seems to ignore the danger of the blind spot of the highly motivated researcher: that he or she may not be able to assert distance from the group. Prior expectations easily guide the research and, in the worst case, the findings. Although the involved and emotionally attached researcher might gain interesting insights otherwise not available, true online research, in my opinion, should struggle hard for objectivity and critical distance.

The second part of the book addresses issues in online social research, especially the dilemmas around issues of the public versus the private, published versus unpublished material, and identified versus anonymous participants. Mark D. Johns, G. Jon Hall, and Tara Lynn Crowell discuss strategies for surviving the IRB review, the American process of approving research as ethically correct. Although such a review situation is specifically related to an American context, the authors point out that some of the inherent dilemmas are relevant to all online researchers.

Next, Lori Kendall discusses the roles of participants and observers in online ethnography. By identifying five different roles -- the narrator, the reviewer, the audience, the newbie, and the ethnographer -- she presents an interesting discussion of the dilemmas and multiple roles of the online researcher, showing that these dilemmas are similar to those of the "traditional" ethnographer. Especially interesting are Kendall's descriptions on how she has been treated by the MUD she studied: from hate and scepticism to a mixture of respect and irony. Ethnographers, online and offline, have to withstand a lot during the research process!

Annette Markham brilliantly addresses the question of representation. Leaning on social constructivist approaches, she distances herself from the illusion that the observer does not affect the subjects studied. Thus, questions about representation and critical reflection become extremely important. In particular, Markham mentions four aspects of the research process where these issues are at stake: in the definition of the field studied, in the process of data collection, in the researcher's basic dilemma of observation versus participation, and in the process of writing up the findings. No matter how reflective we are, the researcher can not overcome the fact that description and research is always part of a social construction. By defining the field, the research question, the participants, and the way of presenting, he or she contributes to the social construction of the subject, thus omitting other possible perspectives. The fact that the observer and the subjects interact, however, in my opinion, does not defend the view presented elsewhere in the book that the researcher ought to be emotionally involved in order to get a deep understanding of what is going on. Rather, I agree with Markham's conclusions of being critical as well as sensitive towards the phenomena studied.

In the final chapter of the second part, Chen, Hall, and Johns turn around the general perspective of the book and analyze how list moderators and other potential "research subjects" look at the research process and the role of the researcher. This dual perspective is an important contribution to the book and leads nicely to the third part where some of the ethical questions mentioned in other chapters are discussed more in detail.

In the third part's first chapter, Steve Jones provides us with an interesting overview of apparent ethical issues in internet research. He addresses a number of questions discussed elsewhere in this part of the book. For example, he discusses at length the question of the IRB review institution. On the one hand, Jones argues that since participants online are human beings, some research guidelines are necessary. On the other hand, the IRB often has a negative discourse on researchers, sometimes treating them automatically as ruthless manipulators.

In other chapters, Jim Thomas, Susan Barnes, and Catherine Smith discuss some of the relevant ethical dilemmas presented throughout the book. Thomas examines a number of ideological underpinnings behind some dominant ethical concerns -- for example, in relation to questions of privacy and hacking, thereby setting up discussions of the two following chapters. There, Barnes returns to the online blurring of private and public spheres and the abundance of related ethical questions. Similarly, Smith discusses the question of electronic eavesdropping and whether or not to seek informed consent from the participants studied. She concludes by discussing strengths and challenges in online participant observation.

In the final chapter, Hall, Frederick, and Johns return to Denzin's feminist communitarian approach from the introduction. They argue that the researcher should not generate findings but community transformation; that he or she should active make a difference in the life of people and help citizens groups and communities to flourish. Although some of the emerging guidelines might seem useful, sympathetic and appropriate, I still find that such a perspective puts well-known ideals and standards of objective social science in jeopardy. Instead of objective reporters which might contribute to societal change, social scientist are transformed specifically into social workers.

The volume is concluded by a short epilogue by Charles Ess. Clear and engaged as always, Ess sketches some of the most important ethical challenges in online research and addresses the work done by, for example, the AoIR Ethics Working Committee. Ess concludes by discussing some differences in American and European approaches to online research ethics.

These differences might explain and enlighten my own final comment about Online Social Research: Methods, Issues and Ethics. Although I find the ethical questions raised throughout the book important and relevant, from my European perspective the book seems to be overly focused on ethics and too little on methods and issues. However, despite my slightly critical remarks, this is an important and relevant book which should be read by all researchers of online communities, online conversations, and other social activity emerging "out there."

Let me sum up by referring to one of the general lessons learned from this book. Even though the researcher need to establish pre-defined categories to guide the research, one should be prepared to deviate from the chosen course when new and unexpected insights and revelations crop up. Drawing from the ideas of Kathleen LeBesco, it is like carrying a road map when driving unfamiliar roads, but that one keep open the possibility of turning off course should an exiting opportunity for new sights presents itself.

Jakob Linaa Jensen:
Jakob Linaa Jensen received his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He is an assistant professor at the Department of Media Studies, University of Aarhus. Among his particular interests are internet and democracy, online research methods, virtual tourism, and the social life of online communities. He has contributed to two books on democratic dialogue online and several articles in international journals on these and related topics.  <linaa@imv.au.dk>

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