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Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Methods

Editor: Annette N. Markham, Nancy K. Baym
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008
Review Published: June 2009

 REVIEW 1: Anne Beaulieu
 REVIEW 2: Yana Breindl
 REVIEW 3: Luca Tateo

Edited collections are often challenging to review, because it can be difficult to do justice to the diversity of materials they contain. In the case of this volume, there is the additional challenge of conveying the wealth to be found in the form of this collection. The first thing to note about this book is therefore that it is not necessarily what you think it is! While Sage markets this volume as a textbook for methods classes at intermediate levels (upper-level undergraduate, beginning post-graduate level), Internet Inquiry is structured in such a way that it has much more to offer, and to my mind, to a rather broader audience. This book is structured around questions and provides multiple answers to each one. Through this structure, it effectively evokes the tensions with which scholars deal in the process of research. As such, the structure stimulates a level of reflexivity rarely found in methods textbooks. Furthermore, rather than simply advocating reflexivity and critical thought, Internet Inquiry nourishes this reflexivity by "doing what it preaches." The various contributions and the way they are related to each other enact research methods as a series of motivated decisions, rather than as a canonical set of rigid recipes. Because this book stresses thinking through methodological decisions, and not merely learning about techniques and when to apply them, Internet Inquiry can count on a much wider readership than students enrolled in methods classes. It is therefore also a welcome source for those already familiar with internet research.

True to its title, the book foregrounds inquiry. The book is not only a useful resource to answer pedagogical needs, but also serves as an up-to-date and insightful guide to key issues in internet research. Most impressive, however, is the particular way it fulfils these functions. To expand on this element: the book is set up around a series of questions, and while it doesn't shy away from proposing answers to these questions, the answers are always multiple, containing dual responses to the main sections by other scholars. The juxtaposition of various contributions in each section further emphasises the importance of justification and accountability in pursuing particular methods -- rather than a view of method as a golden road to truth. The editors evoke their stance through Sally Jackson's (1986) aphorism: "method is not a recipe for success, but a means of argument" (xv). The responses, which take the form of conversations with the main text in each section, vary greatly in terms of the extent to which they engage with the main argument (some read as monologues) and in terms of the style in which they are written -- from the prescriptive, and indeed, nearly recipe-like, to "stream of consciousness." These differences are themselves thought-provoking, and will surely give rise to discussions in methods classes. The editors are to be praised for not giving in to the tendency to "streamline" contributions for the sake of formal consistency. What is furthermore precious about these differences and variations is that they help convey the important point that methods are not necessarily just one translation away from each other, and that differences in approaches are not just a matter of scaling up or down. Such polyvocality is not easy to pull off, and this book is impressive for the way it avoids both the "steamroller" that flattens interesting and irreconcilable differences, and the "fruit salad," where diversity overtakes coherence.

Unfortunately, the various sections are not equally successful in conveying diverse approaches. In the part of the book that deals with research ethics, the contributions seem to echo each other to a great extent, reiterating a focus on the public/private distinction and on the prescriptions that are assumed to follow from having assigned one of the two labels to one's research setting. While the regime of IRB approval does reinforce such a paradigm in thinking about research ethics, this is a missed opportunity to highlight other dimensions of research ethics besides privacy. Other ethical values such as accountability and mutuality could have been addressed, and other aspects of research and of research relationships, such as communicating and writing, or authority and authorship, could have been queried. By focusing so much on the moments of "consent" at the start of research and on plans for "data collection," there is a real danger of reinforcing the IRB view of research ethics. Backgrounding the multitude of other "ethical moments" that arise in the course of research relationships decreases the attention paid to them, and this means missing an opportunity to learn how to address them. These ethical issues unfold over the course of doing research, and they are equally deserving of careful attention on the part of researchers, though they may not receive so much institutional (and legal) scrutiny.

To return to the issue of the relation between methods and modes of knowledge production, Internet Inquiry does not shy away from examining the epistemology of internet studies. As the editors note: "What a surprise for us to discover that, although the main focus of the book is ostensibly the internet, the most important points contribute to nuanced and new understandings of qualitative inquiry in general" (viii). Indeed, it has proven very fruitful to take technology as an "experimental condition" for understanding knowledge production, in the course of our research programme on the humanities and social sciences at the Virtual Knowledge Studio. The "new" can therefore be a useful probe into current practice, much in the same way that utopian narratives reveal much about present conditions. While this book will undoubtedly play a role in canonising particular approaches to internet studies because of its deployment in pedagogical situations, it also performs important critical work in relation to particular themes in qualitative research. It problematizes how certain questions are framed in internet studies, and denaturalises the association between the framing of research, particular questions, and types of data. There are many instances of such interrogations in this book, but most original are those passages that ask:
Why would ethnography be in tension with the "global"?

Why is internet research seen as the "first" source of mediated data?

Why should sexuality, as part of the sociality through which fieldwork is pursued, be excluded a priori from the framing of epistemic claims?
Each of these questions is not simply answered by an attempt to counter the dominant accepted view, but authors also attempt to understand the conditions for their generation and persistence. Such a treatment provides the means to pursue very sophisticated discussions of what makes a method appropriate, and foregrounds what is at stake in changing the conditions of knowledge production.

A final point about this book relates to the changing views of the internet and to various ways of conceiving of the possibility of doing internet inquiry. Especially prominent in one section (though also found elsewhere in this volume) is the use of a vocabulary focused on "online/offline." These terms are presented as an analytic vocabulary, and orient an entire section. Shani Orgad, Maria Bakardjieva, and Radhika Gajjala do a wonderful job of demonstrating different approaches to this vocabulary, and in detailing the consequences of this distinction for articulating research. Bakardjieva uses a series of neologisms, such as on-media and off-page, as a way of demonstrating how terms invoke categories and naturalize differences. She also astutely queries which important distinctions might be glossed over by a focus on a purported online/offline distinction. Gajjala points to the dynamics of dichotomous thinking and relates offline/online to other sets of binaries that benefit from critical attention.

Rather than repeat the argument about the role that vocabularies can have in orienting research projects, I would like to raise the issue of why such a framing persists in internet studies. First of all, let us agree that there are different registers in which we speak about our work, and that researchers can and indeed at times, must, be able to handle a variety of vocabularies. There are times when evocative terms are useful, for example to signal departure or novelty (certainly, this is a register we have used and relied on, at the Virtual Knowledge Studio, and in the virtual ethnography collaboratory). But what is at stake when such terms are used in the pursuit of research, and in the characterisation of methods and data? In the words of Orgad, "In regarding the data as two set of distinctively different and separate data, we run the risk of reproducing the very idea that we aimed to challenge; that is, that the online and the offline are two separate distinguished realms" (45).

I will therefore frame my surprise at finding this section in the book by asking two series of questions. First, to what extent does internet inquiry rely on positing the "online"? Looking globally at the last decade of research presented at AoIR, if there is one thing that internet studies has shown, it is the fabulous range of what could be put under the label of "online." Does it really benefit scholarship to conflate under the label of "online" activities as diverse as reading the website of a newspaper, celebrating a virtual wedding in Second Life, sharing crime-scene evidence with colleagues via mobile phones, and studying for a medical degree via an e-learning platform? Surely internet studies has made a convincing case for the diversity of meaning and activities within what could be called "online." A common concern across this scholarship, if one is needed, seems to be the study of practices marked by digital mediation and networked settings and their consequences, rather than proving the existence of a separate realm, characterised by its online-ness.

Second, putting aside the coherence of the terms, the prominence of this discussion also made me wonder what it means that such a concern is (still?) so pressing in internet studies. Why do we think it makes sense to talk about "the two kinds of data," and ask for example: "Can I make a persuasive case with only one of the two kinds of data?" (51). Aren't there multitudes of kinds of data? Doesn't it always depend on what case you're trying to make and who you're trying to persuade? What does it mean to pose the question like that, as though the very possibility of online research had to be resolved in the abstract? Do other research methods textbooks ask: can you do research only based on interviews/on archival research/on surveys/on lab experiments? What is it about "online" that seems to signal some kind of lack, some kind of shortcoming, some kind of risky business about which we should really think twice before even embarking on it?

As my formulations above hint, I have a sense that these ways of arguing for internet studies may be best left behind -- which makes me guilty of endorsing a kind of developmental view of the field. But I do find myself thinking that part of the persistence of the terms online/offline may be rooted in the short history of internet studies, where, at least for a period, we were developing projects along lines where the internet signalled otherness, a disjuncture with the more familiar social domains. This framing enabled us to present our research as new and ground-breaking, exploratory and daring. This shaping of the field is documented by David Silver and others in a special issue of New Media and Society. Such a framing is not without consequences. For example, it created a context in which research that showed that geographical distance "still" mattered seemed to offer a novel finding: we had all been configured to understand the internet as a disjuncted setting, characterised by its break with the local. That geography did matter was surprising because of the vigour with which we conceptualised the internet as not being anywhere at all. When framing internet research as shaped by a purported foundational distinction of online/offline, we run the risk of reifying interactions with digital technology as essentially "other." And by overemphasising the role of these labels in distinguishing types of data, we are in danger of neglecting other aspects of our practices of knowledge production. We might also wonder whether internet studies might not have more to lose than to gain by foregrounding the possibility and desirability of "online" as its distinctive feature. As Internet Inquiry shows, scholarship is about paying attention to our ways of arguing, and this goes not only for the set up of individual projects but also for how we conceive of our intellectual domain.

Jackson, S. (1986). Building a case for claims about discourse structure. In D.G. Ellis & W. A. Donohue (Eds.), Contemporary issues in language and discourse processes (pp. 129-147). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anne Beaulieu:
Anne Beaulieu is Senior Research Fellow at the Virtual Knowledge Studio of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam, and Deputy Programme Leader of the VKS. She holds a BA and MA from McGill University (Canada), and a PhD from the University of Amsterdam, the result of an ethnographic study of the emerging field of cognitive neuroimaging. She has published extensively on the role of images in conveying knowledge about mind and brain. Her work since then follows two main lines: the role of databases and networks in knowledge creation, and the development of new approaches to study cultural and social processes in mediated settings virtual ethnography. Her research on the role of networks in the development of new practices (data-sharing) and the use of new infrastructures for research (databases, biobanks, mailing lists, websites) has also contributed to several international collaborations, and to policy-relevant work, including contributions to OECD expert group on data-sharing and to national and international committees on e-research and computational humanities. Together with Sarah de Rijcke, she is currently pursuing an ethnographic study of knowledge production around databases of images on the web.  <anne.beaulieu@vks.knaw.nl>

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