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Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet

Editor: Christine Hine
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2005
Review Published: July 2006

 REVIEW 1: Susan Keith
 REVIEW 2: Nils Zurawski
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Christine Hine

Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet is a welcome resource for scholars studying online communities from the perspectives of sociology, communication, media studies, and other fields. It both clearly explains broad-picture debates about the nature of the Internet and offers specific examples of researchers' experiences, which should be especially useful to graduate students and newer scholars. The book, edited by Christine Hine, author of Virtual Ethnography (2000), is composed largely of case studies first presented from 2001 to 2003 during seminars at universities in southern England. It is divided into two parts: six chapters on research and online relationships and six chapters and an epilogue on research sites and strategies. Short essays by Hine introduce the collection and each section.

The first section opens with an essay in which Hine confronts what has sometimes been seen as a problem for online social research: the need to develop the trust on which qualitative methods depend. In subsequent chapters, contributors explain how they or others have met this challenge. Adam N. Joinson discusses how the literature on online behavior can inform research design and online disclosure. Joëlle Kivits reports on her experiences building rapport in online interviews about Internet health information seeking, while Shani Orgad explores the challenges of creating trust online with breast cancer patients before interviewing them face to face. Then, in one of the book's most interesting chapters, Teela Sanders discusses the ethical and methodological challenges of using Internet bulletin boards to recruit participants engaged in illegal activity for a study of sex workers' online and offline identities. The first section closes with two chapters that form a bridge to the book's second section. Jason Rutter and Gregory W. H. Smith outline the multifaceted process of creating an ethnography of a UK online newsgroup whose members meet both on the Internet and in the physical world, and Maximilian C. Forte examines co-production in the construction of an Internet portal for information on Caribbean Amerindian studies.

After a short introduction by Hine, the second section of the book begins with a chapter by Martin Dodge on how maps can be used to chart social connections in cyberspace. The idea implicit in Dodge's work, that cyberspace constitutes a "place" independent of the physical world, is challenged in the following chapter by Hugh Mackay. He maintains that online ethnographers miss important context when they ignore how cyber activities are integrated into study participants' offline lives. Another important aspect of doing online ethnography, discerning the boundaries of a group, is examined by Mário J. L. Guimarães Jr., who recounts experiences creating an ethnography of users of The Palace, a Brazilian multimedia Web site on which members interacted via avatars. The last three chapters before the book's epilogue explore how the structure of the Internet can be exploited by online ethnographers. Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot introduce Web sphere analysis, Han Woo Park and Mike Thelwall caution researchers hoping to use a simple counts of Web hyperlinks as a tool for online network analysis, and Anne Beaulieu discusses how hyperlinks can provide more complex evidence of social connectedness.

Several strengths of the book will be evident from the descriptions above. First, it challenges scholars researching virtual communities to make explicit their conceptions of the Internet and its relationship to the physical world. Second, the volume brings together scholars whose online research interests have connections to a broad range of offline communities, from scientists to sex workers, centered in geographical locations from the United Kingdom to the Caribbean and South America. Finally, the chapters implicitly define several types of online ethnography as within the realm of scholarly acceptability, something that is useful in an emerging field. A less obvious strength is the fact that the book as a whole emphasizes the adaptive nature of social research. As Hine notes, "When we set out to research social interactions, we cannot specify in advance just what form those interactions will take, nor how we will be able to participate in or observe them" (2). As a result, this book is highly descriptive rather than prescriptive, leaving adequate space for what Hine calls "methodological imagination" (2).

This book's major shortcoming is one common to many edited collections borne out of conferences or seminars: It lacks methodological breadth. Rather than present the comprehensive survey of online social research methods that some might expect from the title, the book focuses on online ethnography. As Nicholas W. Jankowski and Martine van Selm note in the epilogue, "Methodological Concerns and Innovations in Internet Research," this is not surprising: "It is entirely understandable that delegates at the seminars from which these chapters emerged felt affinity with the work in the area performed by Hine (2000), the organizer of the seminars" (203). In addition, it is worth noting that at least three of the chapters report on methods used in studies conducted during the 1990s. Although those studies would have been relatively new when the first of the seminars from which this book draws took place, readers may wonder what methods have been used in more recent studies. Another small quibble concerns the placement of references, which are in a single list at the back of the book rather than at the end of each chapter. While this might have saved the publisher space -- some works are cited in more than one chapter -- it makes finding a particular citation more cumbersome.

In their epilogue, Jankowski and Van Selm point out that most chapters in Virtual Methods focus on micro-level issues, and they present that focus as something of a limitation. However, the attention this book devotes to specific methods and techniques may actually be a boon to many readers. Graduate students and newer academics will find useful models in Joinson's discussion of online survey question design, Kivits' examples of e-mail correspondence with her informants, Rutter and Smith's account of how they presented themselves offline to newsgroup members, and Guimarães' explanation of how he was guided through The Palace by well-placed informants riding virtual motorbikes. In fact, these concrete glimpses behind the scenes of research projects may prove more valuable than discussions of epistemological issues would have. In short, this volume clearly meets Hines' stated purpose: "To offer precedents as a confidence boost for researchers developing solutions to their own research needs" (2).

Christine M. Hine. Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage, 2000.

Susan Keith:
Susan Keith is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick, N.J. Her interests include the intersections of old and "new" media, media ethics, research methods, and media management. Her work has been published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, and Newspaper Research Journal.  <susank@scils.rutgers.edu>

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