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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

Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Methods develops around six target chapters, formed as answers to fundamental questions about methodological and epistemological issues of the internet research. Each chapter's author provides his/her answer to a given question, by the light of the literature and his/her research experience. After the target chapter, additional commentaries are provided by other scholars, widening the range of theoretical and methodological perspectives. Finally, each chapter provides a list of recommended readings suggested by the authors. Therefore, the book's structure enables a dialogic and dialectic working out of the argumentation, and offers to the reader several cues to reflect upon research's practices. To give an idea of the book's content, I will now describe just the content of the target chapters, leaving the reader the pleasure of discovering the additional commentaries of the other scholars.

In the first chapter, Christine Hine addresses the question of how qualitative internet researchers can define the boundaries of their projects. The reflection upon boundaries in internet ethnography is related to the complex relationships between offline and online, to the trade-off between extensive and intensive, to the multi-sited virtuality of internet ubiquity, and, finally, to the challenge of making global sense of very situated studies, embedded in a given culture but shared by a worldwide community of scholars. Hine's reflection, like every contribution within this book, links the epistemological level to the methodological and practical ones, as well as to the researcher's individual self-reflection.

In the second chapter, Shani Orgad discusses how researchers can make sense of the issues involved in collecting and interpreting online and offline data. Starting from her own research experience, Orgad questions the two basic concepts of "qualitative internet research" and "online and offline data," concluding that these distinctions are not merely methodological but also epistemological. The type of study to be carried out is thus not defined by the use of online or offline data but rather by the research questions. In defining the relevance of online and offline data, the researcher should ask if these fit with the research questions and add something significant to the interpretation and understanding of the phenomena.

Malin Sveningsson Elm argues how various notions of privacy influence decisions in qualitative internet research in chapter three. This issue raises many questions concerning both ethical and theoretical aspects. Almost in every country, ethical guidelines have been developed and discussed in order to deal with the changing issue of privacy in internet studies. On the other side, the issue of evaluating whether something is public and private affects some theoretical questions that the scholars must face into internet research. Just think about the evolution of private-public boundaries' nature after the multifaceted, so-called Web 2.0. The main claim is that private-public is not a dichotomy, but rather a continuum with different degrees, implying a more complex and in-depth reflection by the scientific community.

In chapter four, Lori Kendall provides an insightful and critical discussion about the issues of gender and sexuality that influence the structures and processes of qualitative internet research. This chapter is actually illustrative of the book's approach. Kendall deals with some controversial issues such as gender, sexuality, power, and embodiment from the point of view of the relationship between the researcher and his/her informants through many examples taken from real studies. She claims that such issues must not be seen as diminishing the researcher's objectivity but must be reflexively taken into account, in order to understand their heuristic potentiality. In other words, sexuality, affect, and embodiment are some of the ways people know, understand, and make sense of the social world. The researcher should be aware of them as an additional tool for in-depth understanding.

The question of how qualitative researchers can produce work that is meaningful across time, space, and cultures is the focus of co-editor Annette Markham in chapter five. Sometimes, researchers think that if the internet is a global phenomenon, than research results should be somehow sound for every cultural or social context. But the internet is namely an occidental, developed countries' research domain, Markham argues, whose results cannot be considered global and uncritically applicable everywhere. Nevertheless, the problem is not whether the internet is only used in privileged western countries or also in developing countries. There's an epistemological question lying beneath: what does the term "global" represent. Global is neither a geographic nor a cultural concept. Global research does not mean that it has been conducted on a worldwide field, nor does it mean that its results are directly applicable to different populations. Markham instead calls for a global sensibility -- that is, the ability to reflect upon the limits and the incomplete nature of every research's process in order to deepen the understanding of others' local positions and of our own position in return.

The final chapter by co-editor Nancy Baym summarizes and discusses the fundamental question raised throughout the book, asking in particular what constitutes "quality" in qualitative internet research. Within the scientific community, the quality of research is assessed by evaluating the compliance with socially established and shared requirements. It usually means following procedures, practices, rules that will ensure the study will be more or less accepted, and, hopefully, published. The internet, Baym writes, is challenging many of these research rules, asking for a deep reflection upon what constitutes quality. It also happens that research results are the basis for social action and social policies, making quality issues relevant for people outside the scientific community, in the "real world" where different criteria, other than peer-reviewing, are established. In her chapter, Baym tries to describe the tension in qualitative research between "recipes" (not avoiding to provide some hints) and reflexivity. Such tension is always a dialectic one, and Markham, in her response to this target chapter, claims that it is also a dialogic tension. The scope of qualitative internet research -- the scope of qualitative research tout court, I would say -- is not to gain a Hegelian synthesis of such dialectic between normative approaches and idiographic, descriptive, and reflexive approaches. Rather, it is to show a horizon, which is something always in front of us but also something that widens when we go forward.

In the ethnographic approaches presented in this book there is a ceaseless tension and search for openness, while, in some of the social studies on the internet, for instance some psychological studies, I personally find a Gestaltic "need for closure." Rather then asking "where are we going," all the chapters' authors seem to ask themselves "which type of new perspectives are we looking at?" Another strong point is that we cannot take for granted any of the concepts we work on, such as global, ethic, objectivity, boundaries, field, etc. Every social researcher, not only ethnographers, should always question and reflect upon the meaning of the concept used. This is dramatically true for every social science, as well as for every qualitative research, no matter if focused on the internet or traditional real life field (but this is another concept that the authors for sure would put up for discussion!).

Luca Tateo:
Luca Tateo is research fellow at the University of Sassari (Italy). His main research domain is the social psychology of computer mediated communication. He is member of the GRIS-Research Group on Social Interaction at the University of Salerno (Italy).  <ltateo@unisa.it>

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