Roundtable on the Status of Qualitative Internet Research

On Sunday, I attended a roundtable discussion at AoIR called "Broadening Options and Raising Standards for Qualitative Internet Research: A Dialogue Among Scholars." Speakers included Annette Markham, University of Illinois-Chicago; Nancy Baym, University of Kansas; Susan Herring, Indiana University Bloomington; Shani Orgad, London School of Economics; and Kate Eichhorn, York University. First, let me say that this was a PACKED affair: The chairs were filled (luckily, I got one in the front row), people were sitting on the floor in the center aisle and along the perimeter of the room, and there was even a crowd standing in the doorway. The goals of the roundtable were to build the strength of qualitative inquiry and to improve the state of credibility of qualitative internet research. Keep in mind that these are just notes I'm typing up from that discussion, and they shouldn't be cited as the absolute truth of what went on at the session; I'm paraphrasing when I represent what these people said.

They started out with this question: "What do we mean when we say 'qualitative internet research'?"

Eichhorn: It's not productive to place a rigid divide between discourse analysis, content analysis, etc. The humanities and social sciences have a lot to learn from each other with regard to ethics, responsibility, and reflexivity. As internet researchers, one problem we face is deciding between these questions: Are we studying texts? Or are we studying people? Also, issues of public/private are brought to bear.

Herring: Linguistics is in between humanities and social sciences. She thinks of qualitative research as rich description of data, rich with context and complexity. There's a commitment to engaging with the data at the contextual and theoretical levels. She mentioned the assumptions that underlie methods, and that the goal is a coherent way to explain phenomena, which systematic empirical rigor can help us do, and qualitative research can too, provided it is rigorous. What constitutes evidence in qualitative internet research? In linguistics, it's sentences, numbers, other sources. Even quantitative analysis requires interpretation.

Markham: Trained in critical ethnography, communication studies. She qualified the original question by saying that there's a difference between using the internet to facilitate your research--for example, online survey research--and using internet communication, texts, users, etc. as your object of study. Qualitative research is about writing culture. Knowing something and representing it to an audience (reflexivity and representation are vital). It's about making arguments (evidence--pastiche of stories, numbers in the case of social science). We need to think more about evidence.

Orgad: Trained in anthropology and sociology. Qualitative internet research is about meanings of the internet and experiences on the internet. What does the internet stand for in society? What is its application in different contexts? It is research that has to do with questions of why and how. Its concern is not with predicting and typologizing, but exploring how the internet is used. It's interpretive research with meanings and experiences at the core.

Baym: Qualitative research is subjective, and with that, there's an unwritten consensus that subjectivity cannot be wrong exactly, but it can be stupid. Above all, qualitative internet research shouldn't be a "postcard from my experience" on the internet; it needs to make a real contribution. It documents changes as they evolve. What makes it research is the credibility of the argument (even to quantitative researchers): thoughtful, evidence-based analysis that someone wouldn't see if he/she went to that chat room/discussion board/blog, etc. himself/herself.

Next question: "What are the challenges facing qualitative internet research?"

Markham: We need to place our research in history; ahistoricity is a problem. Go to other researchers' work even if you're working with a new technology--other researchers have already thought through epistemological and theoretical problems. There's a tendency in internet research to reinvent the wheel, or invent a method to use. Another important point is that we're not even talking about "the internet" anymore; we're talking about LIFE, mediated. We're studying social life, and we can use traditional methods. We need more training in methods.

Baym: There's a challenge of interdisciplinarity--learning theories and methods you haven't been trained in.

Orgad: Another challenge is the methodological implications of dealing with "online" and "offline." How does theory inform methodology--challenge is to create a theory that accounts for the rich complexity between online and offline. Orgad mentions an idea from Christine Hine's book Virtual Ethnography: Is the internet a culture or a cultural artifact? "Culture" assumes that the internet is a "placeless place," and "artifact" implies that researchers should go "behind the screen" into people's homes and lives.

Eichhorn: There's the challenge of privacy, especially "perceived privacy." There's an erosion of divisions between public and private, especially with blogs and privacy. Some people think of blogs as diaries. When you think of blogs as public, can you think of them as diaries anymore?

Herring: The rapidity of technological change poses challenges. There's a danger in chasing novelty, wanting to be the first to study _____. Emergence is important--emergent norms, linguistic conventions, etc. The danger is that we're driven by the technology, not the theory. Another challenge is keeping up with the literature. Just because we're studying a new technology doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to keep up with the literature. It's easy to be superficial when studying a new technology: "This is how blogs work," etc.

Questions raised by the audience:

Challenge of "critical distance": especially bloggers who study blogs (ouch!) Markham responded by saying that respect for participants will make the researcher reflexive. You need respect for the context. You do need to engage with the technology and community.

Challenge of kairos, timeliness: especially in the case of blogs and intellectual property/copyright law. I wondered if this person attended my presentation and was inspired :-), but I don't recall seeing her there. My session was packed, too, though. Anyway, this audience member said that if you want to have an effect on policymakers, you need to do your research in the moment that the technology is timely. She said that of course we still need rigor, though. "That's the challenge," Herring replied.

Markham concluded by saying that Denzin and Lincoln are coming out with a new edition of their Strategies for Qualitative Inquiry research guide, and they include a call to politicize qualitative research. She said we should reflect on our choices of objects of study, methods, theories, participation, and writing up the research. She cited Jane Fountain's advice: "slow down" and think about what you're doing when you do qualitative internet research.