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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

Five years after publishing Virtual Ethnography, Christine Hine has edited another book, Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet on virtual research, its methods, and some of the developments in a rapidly evolving field. The focus and outlook of the book are consequential and are the result of a series of seminars held in Great Britain between 2001 and 2003. These seminars stem from a continued interest in the field, following the success and impact of Virtual Ethnography. Like that book, Virtual Methods can be seen as an important contribution to the field of online (virtual) research, especially qualitative methodology. The book gives an overview on current methodological threads and the emerging discussions in the field by "addressing the air of innovation and anxiety around virtual methods head on [and] by providing examples of innovation and by setting precedents to quell anxiety" (9).

The book contains fourteen chapters divided into two parts: a) research relationships and online relationships and b) research sites and strategies. Each chapter presents a particular research project, though it is less the various projects that stand in the center of attention, but rather the reflections upon the methods employed and the experiences during fieldwork. Two chapters fall out of this pattern. First, there is Christine Hine's introductory chapter, which presents the book's contents and the idea behind the book itself, as well as the need for a general review of virtual methods -- something she terms the Sociology of Cyber-Social-Scientific Knowledge (SCSSK). Second, the last chapter by Nicholas Jankowski and Martine van Selm presents some reflections on the subject matter of virtual research and the book as a whole. Here, the authors attempt to give a first review of the book and discuss the more general problems connected with internet research as a whole. Although this chapter provides somewhat of a review in itself, it does not go into detail concerning individual articles and, hence, does not render a review like this obsolete.

Conceived as a guide for researchers, Virtual Methods discusses a range of different methods. Originally, the initial idea for the book was "to offer precedents as a confidence boost to researchers developing solutions to their own research needs" (2). This is certainly achieved through a collection of practical examples from the field. But more than that, Hine also uses the opportunity to discuss two major issues within online methodology itself: innovation and anxiety. Internet research in itself is an innovation. The amount of articles that deal with this field are immense and so are the opportunities for new and innovative forms of research and reflection. But Hine is also aware that this also represents a source for anxiety, as part of the innovation is to bring down old, reliable, and established modes of research, leaving open a field of experimental settings and non-proven methods. Anxiety in internet research most often arises from the notion "that nothing can be taken for granted" (5), especially since the ethics of online research -- as a new form of social interaction, both for researchers and the researched -- seem to be a prime issue in which anxieties do play a role. While ethic guidelines such as the Association of Internet Researchers Ethics Committee's paper may be one assistance to researchers, the contributions to Virtual Methods certainly can be seen as another, as there is not one single position on ethics of Internet research, but many (6, 9). Also in her introduction, Hine returns to her notion of Internet as cultural context (developed in Virtual Ethnography). This concept represents the continuous use of her approach of a reflective and innovative methodology. The contributions to this collection will further illustrate this and at the same time serve as examples of innovation and precedents to quell possible anxieties among other scholars.

The book's first part is devoted to the research relationships between researchers and their objects of study. The most important issue here seems to be the establishment of trust over a medium that leaves the researcher mostly distant and faceless. From this follows that the boundary between online and offline should not be a default setting, but a contested item in Internet research. In conclusion, this means that Internet research is not defined solely by the technology, but also includes research about the cultural processes generated through the Internet. Indeed, most of the chapters reveal that Internet research is a complex endeavor and a social practice itself.

In "Internet Behaviour and the Design of Virtual Methods," Adam Joinson discusses the design of virtual research in detail, paying special attention to issues of social interaction in general and via the computer in particular. He presents an analysis of various strategies to enhance the response rate of participants, using findings from social psychology on privacy, intimacy, and degrees of self-disclosure. His arguments show that differences in social behavior between face-to-face and those mediated by a computer interface do occur -- sometimes in favor for the latter. This would suggest that in some scenarios of virtual methods, feelings of intimacy and privacy may be enhanced and generate better results. In other words, the faceless quality of the computer does not have to be a disadvantage (34).

In her chapter "Online Interviewing," Jöelle Kivits gives a practical example of how the issues discussed by Joinson are of concern. Her study on information seekers of healthcare was mainly conducted by e-mail. The study lasted over a year and revealed some of the problems concerning issues of trust and self-disclosure. Her account shows the difficulties and advantages of e-mail based interviews and the variety of responses and social interactions with different participants. Rich transcript excerpts illustrate the process of e-mail interviewing and the differences in style, temporal dimension, and the trust and intimacy established throughout the process. It is worth noting that Kivits expanded her planned research period from three months to a year because of the different communication behaviors of the respondents. However, her example "demonstrates the feasibility of creating personal rapport online but also highlights a method for collecting rich, in-depth interview data" (49) and thus supports Joinson's findings on the design of virtual methods and its consequences.

In "From Online to Offline and Back: Moving from Online to Offline Relationships with Research Informants" and "Researching the Online Sex Work Community," Shani Orgad and Teela Sanders, respectively, explore the role of offline interactions for their online research and the advantages and pitfalls of moving between the two spheres. Both chose rather difficult and sensitive areas for their studies: breast cancer-related online forums (Orgad) and an online sex work community (Sanders). Both authors discuss at length their strategies to establish trust and rapport with their informants, strategies that move freely between online and offline contexts. To understand an online context, such research should have an offline component, claims Orgad. Sanders raises some important issues on the ethics of covert non-participant observation, an important aspect that might be the source of anxieties or difficulties in research settings. Her reflections on this topic give good guidance for researchers in any field with precarious and difficult contexts. In essence, both feel that moving between the spheres of on- and offline is a research advantage, for it provides different levels of explanation, thus adding depth to a given study.

Contexts are of vital importance for Internet studies. Three contributions that deal with the anthropology and ethnography of online research point this out quite clearly. As pointed out by Orgad and Sanders, online texts and offline contexts are important for many forms of internet research, especially ethnographic and qualitative ventures into cyberspace and beyond. In "Ethnographic Presence in a Nebulous Setting," Jason Rutter and G.W.H. Smith reflect on their experiences researching an online community, where they found that "the definition of the research setting becomes not a starting point but a primary research question requiring careful and continuos examination by the virtual ethnographer throughout fieldwork" (85). The chapter offers a set of interesting thoughts on net presence, on "being in the field," and on issues that deal with the researcher's role before, during, and after the actual research -- and his/her impact on the field of study itself. In "Doing Anthropology in Cyberspace: Fieldwork Boundaries and Social Environments," Mário Guimarães Jr. explores the boundaries of fieldwork and the social environments in which an anthropological research may take place. The research site, a Brazilian multimedia platform, presents itself to him as essentially a community that was predominantly a matter "of boundary construction through identity and shared systems of meaning" (146). Guimarães seems to be very cautious of an online/offline dichotomy that relate to each other. He is stretching the influence of his own personaes that were considerably different in both spheres -- online and offline. In other words, as he was using participant observation, he was also creating an online self inside the internet research site, which became in turn an agent of interaction and part of the ongoing construction of the very community he was researching. Boundaries, as he sees it, are difficult to draw -- something which the researcher must be aware of at all times. (154) In "New Connections, Familiar Settings: Issues in the Ethnographic Study of New Media Use at Home," Hugh Mackay contributes a third ethnographically-orientated study that expands the idea of contexts and studies the settings of new media use at home, especially examining the context of Internet consumption and uses where it is practiced. Following Miller and Slater (2001), he sees no real boundaries between the spheres and looks at Internet usage as a form of social and cultural praxis (130). This account is especially interesting as it looks at patterns of consumption and usage in a socially and culturally important setting, which sheds light on issues of class, gender, and cultural practices.

The dynamics of fieldwork and the social construction of web sites are the focus of Maximillians C. Forte's chapter, "Centring the Links: Understanding Cybernetic Patterns of Co-production, Circulation and Consumption," which looks at cybernetic patterns of co-production, circulation, and consumption. While researching a web site, Forte was interested in the social links and relation of those people involved in producing the site: "a descriptive ethnography with relevance to theory and concept (re)building where virtual anthropology is concerned" (94). Similar to the other ethnographic/anthropological orientated studies, Forte experienced that online activities were important elements to consider in order to understand offline social and cultural dynamics. With attention to links, their production, and their social and cultural embeddedness, Forte offers intriguing reflections on method and theory regarding Internet research and possible new ways to understand the social dynamics of online behavior and discourses.

Links and connections are also the main focus of three chapters that research connectivity, hyperlinks, and web spheres. In "Web Sphere Analysis: An Approach To Studying Online Action," Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot study online action using web sphere analysis as it enables to look "at the relation between web producers and users developmentally over time" (158). Their definition of a web sphere introduces a concept of space and provides a framework for analysis of connections and "shared thematic or event orientated contexts" (159). In particular, Schneider and Foot identify three sets of approaches to study online action: a) discursive or rhetorical analysis, b) structural/feature analysis, and c) sociocultural analysis of cross-site action on the web (165). Although web sphere analysis seems to be confined to the online sphere rather than moving between the two "worlds" (as other contributions have highlighted), their approach focuses on the embeddedness of online action in a larger sociocultural setting and context and focuses on the interactions between users and producers -- as Hine (2000) did in Virtual Ethnography.

In "The Network Approach to Web Hyperlink Research and its Utility for Science Communication," Han Woo Park and Mike Thelwall employ a classic network approach to analyze the web hyperlink structure in order to research social networks on the Internet. Their contribution stresses the role of network analysis for the study of science communication. In "Sociable Hyperlinks: An Ethnographic Approach to Connectivity," Anne Beaulieu offers thoughts for an ethnographic approach to connectivity by concentrating on sociable hyperlinks. Taken together, the contributions of Schneider and Foot, Park and Thelwall, and Beaulieu demonstrate that hyperlinks can be seen as meaningful structures that display social links and user-producer relations. However, none of the contributions so far have explicitly reflected on space or concepts of space -- though some have discussed the role of research settings and the role of the scientist within.

Martin Dodge's chapter, "The Role of Maps in Virtual Research Methods," is concerned with how to visualize the connections, hyperlinks, and patterns of circulation that the volume’s authors talk about. His contribution is very much a stand-alone piece as it is the only one that does discusses space and ways to display spatial patterns as a tool for research and analysis. Mapping as a method of inquiry and knowledge creation also can be useful for Internet research, argues Dodge. The spatial settings in the virtual environments that provide the field of research are hard to grasp and differ immensely according to research and cultural background. Dodge is making a point of using mapping techniques in online research -- as CMC has meaningful spatial structures (117). Mapping seems a good way to visualize a terrain that consists entirely of immaterial software (codes and lines) but has -- as was shown by others in this volume -- embedded and meaningful social structures and relations between various actors (e.g. users and producers of web sites). Dodge provides a good overview of how and why mapping is indeed an important tool to help visualizing research results, using it as a research tool, and displaying the relations to social and physical spatial settings that are often the basis for online actions. As Dodge notes, "Mapping is a cultural process of knowledge creation" (127) and therefore is essential to the social research of the Internet, where the analysis of meaning embedded in structures is of paramount importance. I consider this chapter to be a centerpiece of the volume as it reflects on space and provides an important methodology to actually display spatial patterns that are inherently important in many of the studies presented.

In conclusion, Christine Hine presents a diverse collection of chapters that provide an excellent and comprehensive overview for established researchers as well as those new to the field. The issues of innovation and anxiety which are raised in her introduction are indeed well discussed throughout the volume, offering help and solutions to research problems that might occur. Although divided into two sections, the chapters bear much more relations that this division suggest at first glance. If I would have to identity the most important threads of the entire book they would be the following:
  • The importance of the social embeddedness of the Internet as a cultural practice. Beyond the Internet being a cultural artifact, I believe it is more about doing than being.

  • From this it follows that a distinction between an online and offline sphere is conceptual and has to be seen as merely two aspects of the social.

  • Internet research is not confined to the technology and involves reflections about what it means to be "in the field" -- which Rutter and Smith state may also become a primary research question in itself (85).

  • Although social contexts and cultural settings are discussed at length, space as a social and physical concept with many intersections between the two should receive more attention.

  • Ethnographic methods in Internet research are important and valuable tools. Even when applying seemingly more quantitative methods such as hyperlink analysis, it became clear that the overall qualitative and ethnographically-orientated approach produces interesting results and insights.
As noted above, Jankowski and van Selm have already provided a review of the volume and they critique the lack of macro-level oriented studies and reflections (203). This, however, does not dilute the individual articles, their results, and their contribution towards an overview of the current state of internet research methodology, especially as a volume that also wants to give guidance regarding practical issues of research.

Daniel Miller and Don Slater, The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2001.

Nils Zurawski:
Nils Zurawski is a senior researcher at the Insitute of Criminological Social Research at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is currently working on cognitive mapping and surveillance.  <nils.zurawski@uni-hamburg.de>

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