ON QUALITATIVE RESEARCH
What follows is an extensive set of notes on this morning’s discussion, entitled “Broadening Options and Raising Standards for Qualitative Internet Research: A Dialogue Among Scholars.” The panel was convened by Annette Markham (UIC), and included Nancy Baym (Kansas), Susan Herring (IU Bloomington), Shani Orgad (London School of Economics), and Karen Eichhorn (from a Toronto institution whose name I missed). These notes are a bit elliptical, but hopefully they capture some of what was useful about this discussion.
Q1: What do we mean when we say qualitative research?
Karen: from English dept., odd to think about what qualitative research is; trained in textual analysis, but surprised by malleability of text on Internet; had to ask whether she was studying text per se, or something else; took course in qualitative methods — felt she needed to address ethical questions (public or private text? text or people?), and thus needed to turn to qualitative methods common to social sciences; not useful to create divide between discourse analysis and interpretive work; our backgrounds allow us to ask different kinds of questions; humanities scholars can learn from social sciences issues of ethics, reciprocity, etc.
Susan: teaches information technologies; used to teach linguistics, at crossroads of humanities and social sciences; work on discourse analysis evolved from being qualitative to being quantitative; qualitative research involves rich description of data that takes into account complexity and context, a commitment to theorizing; thinks of herself as using quantitative/empirical methods to address qualitative-type questions; need to think about what constitutes evidence (why should we believe claims?); even doing quantitative analysis requires doing interpretation
Annette: comm. studies, esp. critical ethnographic studies; vital to make distinction between qualitative inquiry OF internet phenomena and qualitative study USING internet (she does former); qualitative research is about writing culture, about trying to know something about a phenomenon and trying to say something about it to others; how we understand culture makes a difference; always thinks about reflexivity and representation, in an ethical sense; need to understand how we intersect with the field and with the disciplines we come from; we make arguments and use evidence to support those claims, whether the evidence is a pastiche of stories or empirical data; must think about how we use evidence
Shani: background in anthropology and sociology; qualitative research concerns meanings of internet, experiences that emerge around and through the internet; what does the internet stand for (in individual lives, in networks and organizations)? — these questions link very different kinds of work; suggests there is no “internet,” but rather “internets”; qualitative internet research has to do with questions of why and how, implication being that the concern is not with predicting or typologizing, but understanding how and why internet is used in different contexts; qualitative research is interpretative, but this doesn’t mean anything goes — interpretation has to be contextualized, theoretically and empirically grounded — but interpretation indicates that there is no transparent meaning of phenomena
Nancy: what they said. (Okay.) background in speech communication, now in communication studies; qualitative methods is about searching for meaning, about constructing arguments that people will believe; some suggest that qualitative research is about subjectivities, and therefore can never be wrong, but she says that subjectivities can’t be wrong but they can be stupid; qualitative research is not easy; it’s about grappling with messiness; doesn’t view herself as a qualitative researcher, but as a researcher who chooses the methods to fit the questions; qualitative brings ability to look at how things happen, which other methods don’t; we think of qualitative research as a particular set of methods we can choose from, but instead she thinks of it as being a larger strategy for approaching a problem; what separates qualitative research from anecdotal evidence is its convincingness — challenge is to come up with something that gives people a sense that you’ve told the reader something more than what they could have come up with themselves
Q2: what do we consider to be a great challenge to doing good internet research?
Annette: a great challenge is placing our inquiry in history, and understanding that it works not just at this moment in time, because of the internet arising, but because we have evolved and have a great tradition of thought that can help us understand; ahistoricity is a problem; there has been a tendency in internet studies to recreate the wheel, in part because many people come to internet studies from disciplines not trained in qualitative methods; need to confront this, place our inquiry in history, understand that many have said things that should inform our work; we’re shifting away from “the internet” as a place of inquiry to a sense of “internets” — when we do qualitative research about the internet, we’re not so much talking about a thing as about life; when we shift back to thinking about social life in an internet-mediated world, we can see the history of ideas we’re working in
Nancy: challenge of interdiscplinarity; organization came into being around frustrations of attending disciplinary conferences and reading disciplinary journals and realizing that most work was being done in other fields; how do we bring in all the relevant things from all these different disciplines?; must learn to draw on theories of fields that are not the one in which we were trained; this organization must facilitate those interdisciplinary connections
Shani: challenge of dealing with connections between online and offline; recognition that these are not dichotomous worlds; real challenge to how this theoretical recognition translates into methodology — how to construct a methodology that recognizes these complex connections between online and offline; often a contradiction in that design of research enhances the dichotomy rather than blurring it; seem to be two methodological schools of thought, treating internet as culture (bounded space — online) v. treating internet as cultural artifact (medium — offline); this divide remains active methodologically; need to think about combining these methods (and not just using offline data to contextualize online, as though online is phenomenon and offline is context; need to think in both directions) — we never thought this way about television or the telephone (television space v. everyday space), so hopefully we can get rid of the distinction around the internet
Karen: notion of privacy — particularly “perceived privacy” — highlights problem; interesting to note that our ideas of privacy are quite recent; many argue that privacy is a product of print culture; sense of private and public as designating spaces is caught up in print technologies; not entirely surprising that we’ve seen with the internet an increasing erosion in those divisions (Habermas would say all across the 20th c., but internet highlights and exacerbates); panels on blogs — many see blog as online diary, but diary is totally linked to history of privacy; can blog thus really be connected to the diary? notion of perceived privacy suggests we’ve already abandoned privacy, so why do we persist in focusing on it? we’ve connected privacy to ethics (anonymous status of participants) — need instead to think about what are the qualities of privacy that we value as internet researchers; where are these qualities once associated with privacy already located online
Susan: ten years ago, could count all internet researchers easily, no organization, certainly no one else doing gender issues; good news is that growth has made many of our careers, but now, the rapidity of change presents challenges; rate of change of both internet technologies and of internet studies; every year there seems to be a new killer app, but there’s a danger in chasing novelty in this field; there are legitimate reasons for focusing on emergence, but danger is that we’re driven by technologies rather than by theories or broader understandings; by looking at a range of technologies, how do we understand computer mediation in a broader sense; w/r/t growth in field, challenge of keeping up with the literature (can someone invent an intelligent agent that can read all the literature?); we know one another, and thus can make contact over ideas, but have to be careful not to get lost in the sea of research out there; need for innovation because phenomena we’re dealing with are often unfamiliar, and thus methodologies or paradigms can’t just be taken off the shelf and plugged in; provides opportunities for folks to be creative, but also challenges us to hold ourselves to high standards of rigorousness; as new phenomena come along, there’s a need for more descriptive research — on the one hand, that’s a great opportunity, to be the first to describe a new phenomenon, but it’s also easy in that initial work to wind up being really superficial — how do we provide useful and rich descriptions, and not just new ones
open floor to discussion
audience member 1: qualitative research benefits from researchers being involved in phenomenon under study (see blogging panels), but that creates additional problems of finding right critical distance; how do we deal with issue of being involved in community of study while trying to maintain distance
Annette: it’s about having respect for context and for participants; if we narrow it down to respect, we’ll start to be reflexive about how we understand phenomenon; about preserving autonomy of human subjects and respect for context
audience member 2: something peculiar about phrase “critical distance” — for me, not a matter of “distance” per se, must participate in phenomenon, but “critical” is right — must be able to have perspective
Nancy: my experience of technology and “virtual” community is one source of data, but for me to assume that my experience is all, enough, is incredibly egotistical; good to know how I view things, but also need to know how others do, too
audience member 3: complaint about terminology off/online — though considers terms a victory over “virtual”/”real” — we’ll get better terms; thought about keeping up with latest fad and rapidity of change — technologies are embedded in social relations; if we’re trying to make critical commentary about policy (for instance, copyright acts), that’s changing just as fast; need to comment as it’s happening, at the time it matters — not just tech that changes, but also rapidly changing social conditions, with which we need to keep up
Karen: thinks of herself as a kind of historian; when printing press came out, folks talked about the rapidity of change, and how much stuff was coming out that we’ll never get to read; actually, social practices change more slowly than tech
audience member 4: idea of taking technology and shaping it hasn’t really been dealt with here; we tend to respond to technology rather than functioning, for instance, as anthropologist/designer — is anybody else mixing it up in this way — transdisciplinarity that’s about getting larger, not smaller
Susan: workshop that brings together CMC researchers and CMC designers every year; very exciting event in its broad interdiscplinarity
Annette: Norm Denzin, et al, putting out new version of handbook next year calling for more political approaches to qualitative research, calling for research that seeks to make change
Nancy: but theoretical tension that needs to be acknowledged: germane to theoretical argument (as about online community) is sense that you can’t predict what’s going to work; can’t just take results of qualitative research and “apply” them in design
audience member 5: noticed much lately that increasing numbers of sites are becoming proprietary; discursive formation in Foucauldian sense; proprietary databases; CPSR (comp prof for social resp) addressing issues
audience member 6: when talking about breaking down boundaries between on/offline, need to think about what participation is! consider myself a professional lurker — creative approach/reflexive approach; need to rethink the notion that participation is only providing text, and understand that one can participate from multiple positions
Karen: where I come from, a lurker is just called a reader!
Annette: Jane Fountain’s call yesterday for slowing down: important at critical junctures to stop and reflect on our choices of theoretical grounding, tools of analysis, and writing methods; if we slow down and reflect, we can create the kind of reflexive balance that we need
Nancy: project is continuing; email ideas