Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Methods
Editor: Annette N. Markham, Nancy K. Baym
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008
Review Published: June 2009
Annette N. Markham and Nancy K. Baym's Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Methods is a welcome addition to the literature on qualitative internet research. Structured around six questions, each discussed by three experienced scholars, the book aims at making more explicit the different stages of qualitative internet research. Students and researchers interested in examining the internet should not expect final statements from this conversation; it is rather an invitation to reflect upon one's methodology as the questions progressively dig deeper into the qualitative research process. All chapters are based on the research experiences of the authors. While the internet plays a central role in all reflections, the discussions inevitably lead back to crucial issues and challenges encountered by qualitative research in general. In this sense, Internet Inquiry certainly contributes to bringing these discussions one step further. The only regret after reading the book is that no references are made to quantitative methodologies and to the ways in which these might complement existing qualitative methods. Indeed, the reader misses a critical reflection about the gap that still separates these "worlds" while many internet related research-projects tend to use a mixed-method approach.
Chapter one attempts to answer the basic question: "How can qualitative internet researchers define the boundaries of their projects?" Sociologist Christine Hine, Library and Information Scientist Lori Kendall, and Information Scientist danah boyd point out that doing qualitative internet research challenges the researcher in terms of setting boundaries to their projects. As the internet is both a "cultural artifact" and "a place where culture is formed and reformed" (9), the notion of the field site placing a boundary onto the project becomes increasingly fluid. The solutions proposed by the three scholars are to follow general principles of qualitative research as it is the relationship with the field that will lead the researcher to define the boundaries of the project. Indeed, as danah boyd points out, qualitative research is emergent by nature, urging researchers to be reflexive about their own biases. The metaphor of a gem proposed by Lori Kendall is very appealing as it highlights that by focusing on one aspect of a research project, one can also view other facets.
Addressing the question "how can researchers make sense of the issues involved in collecting and interpreting online and offline data?" communication scientist Shani Orgad starts by examining the distinction between online and offline data, a dichotomy that is increasingly deconstructed. As for qualitative researchers, human actions are necessarily situated; it is crucial to understand the context in which they are taking place. But when you examine online actions, do you need to gather offline data in order to make sense of what is happening in the digital realm? Thankfully, the three authors insist that online and offline worlds are increasingly intertwined and that it is the particular research goals that determine what kind of data needs to be collected. Radhika Gajjala reminds us of the fact that it is very possible to rely exclusively on online data. As she is interested in understanding the specificities of online communities, she does not need offline data in order to answer her research questions. Yet, scholars need to acknowledge that there is a certain gap between the offline traces left by internet users and their actual selves. As Gajjala resumes, "cyber subjects are always at least double" (65).
The chapter focusing on "How do various notions of privacy influence decisions in qualitative internet research?" highlights the question of research ethics in protecting the privacy of participants -- generally via informed consent or procedures of confidentiality. As the Internet blurs the distinctions between private and public spaces, the sense of privacy that can be felt through the internet may be more close to illusion than to reality. Malin Sveningsson Ekm invites us to view "public and private as a continuum, not a dichotomy" (74) and adapts Patton's (1990) degrees of openness in participant observation to various degrees of privacy online, distinguishing between public, semi-public, semi-private and private environments. The use of offline guidelines remains helpful for deciding on how to study these environments. The researcher should ask him/herself which kind of real-life environment would correspond to the online realm that is studied. As internet environments are multi-faceted, their content upholds different degrees of privacy. Hence the importance for researchers to not only take into account the kind of content being studied, but also the context -- for example, the way the content is perceived by its producer. Using the differentiation between sensitive/not sensitive content proposed by the AoIR ethics group can therefore constitute a useful solution as proposed by Ekm. Elizabeth A. Buchanan adds that research in online environments calls for increased responsibility -- and therefore reflexivity -- on behalf of the researchers. Whether online or offline, scholars need to question themselves on what the researched get out of it. While ethics committees are useful, she criticizes them for remaining locked in a binary thinking; instead, Buchanan argues, "both informed consent and privacy must be considered as process, not static" (91). Or, as Susannah R. Stern formulates in her contribution: "it all depends" on the research project.
Chapter 4, or the question "how do issues of gender and sexuality influence the structures and processes of qualitative internet research?," is certainly the most intriguing chapter of the book and my personal favorite. Who would suspect that a methodological textbook about internet research would examine questions of gender and sexuality? Kendall's account of how she dealt with feeling sexually attracted to research participants is not only brave but unveils a real taboo. Indeed, while gender issues are increasingly addressed by the research community, taking into account sexual aspects of the identity of the researcher often remains a hidden issue. However, as the researcher is the principal research instrument in qualitative methodologies, I agree with Kendall when she argues: "I make the case for doing qualitative work with the whole body, and not cutting of certain types of experiences as irrelevant or inappropriate, even in situations, such as wholly online social interactions, in which the body might seem relatively unimportant" (101). By taking into account the erotic in the field, one can gain access to new insights, especially in online environments. Indeed, as Campbell argues, not discussing sexuality in qualitative internet research is "particularly problematic in light of the abundance of sexual representation in cyberspace" (124). Yet, Jenny Sundén makes a point by highlighting the risk scholars face when integrating sexual aspects into their research. They risk putting their credibility at play. Yet, researchers should benefit from unveiling in which ways issues of sexuality and gender might affect the research process.
In chapter 5, co-editor Annette Markham addresses the question of "how can qualitative researchers produce work that is meaningful across time, space and culture?" If the internet connects local and global spheres, so does qualitative internet research. Placing, once again, the accent upon reflexivity as a "method of finding the local(e) so as to place it within the global" (140), Markham, Elaine Lally, and Ramesh Srinivasan address the fact that not only are we receiving more and more global stimuli that influence our research, but, more importantly, our research needs to be understandable to a large variety of audiences informed by different assumptions. In order to solve this tension, the three scholars propose a set of very useful tips and questions to address for novice researchers. If research is always situated, reflexivity should help us not to feel too much at ease within our own comfort zones.
In chapter 6, Baym and Markham, the book's co-editors, reflect upon "what constitutes quality in qualitative internet research?" This last question resumes the objective of the entire collection: increase the quality of internet research. Baym offers clear guidelines for handling the tensions qualitative research induces by addressing major methodological dialectics that will certainly be helpful for one's research. While Markham agrees with her that many of these tensions are irresolvable, "the process is less about finding the answers than asking good questions" (196). In this sense, the discussions provided in this book are essential reading for any researcher who seriously thinks about conducting qualitative inquiry on the internet. They offer a fruitful ground for reflections about one's own research, provide insights into research projects that propose answers to these issues, and start a conversation that qualitative internet researchers need to uphold.
Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Yana Breindl is a doctoral student at the Department of Information and Communication Sciences at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. Her research deals with online activism aiming to influence European decision-making. She is particularly interested in the articulation between traditional politics and so-called "life-politics" and the link between online and offline realms. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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