Choosing Methodologies for Online Studies

Categories: Online Research, Qualitative, Research, Research Design

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explore design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We’ll continue to learn about the design stage in February with a focus on Choosing Methodology and Methods.


This post is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 2 of Doing Qualitative Research Online(2016). Please note that this book, as well as some of my other writings about online research, are available in the SAGE Research Methods database. Also note that a new edition is coming later this year!

First, let’s define our terms:

Methodology refers to the philosophies and systems of thinking that justify the methods used to conduct the research. The methodology is a framework that explains why you are conducting the study. Methodologies emerge from academic disciplines in the social and physical sciences. What we refer to here as methodologies may also be called research types or genres.

Method refers to the systematic and practical steps used to conduct the study. You will need methods for collecting data, and methods for analyzing and interpreting data.

In qualitative research the line between methodology and method, the why and the how of the inquiry, can be quite fuzzy.

Choosing Methodologies for Online Qualitative Research

Each qualitative methodology is a distinct school of thought, with its own philosophers and practitioners. Each offers a different vantage point from which to view the research phenomena, the environment or social context, the participants, and their thoughts, feelings, experiences or expressions. These vantage points may readily fit into a particular field of research or discipline; however, the sense of fit may evolve as research questions and contexts change. When you look at qualitative methodologies, don’t be constrained by previous uses of that approach.

For example, ethnography, a methodology associated with studies of culture, was previously the domain of anthropologists. Now ethnography is being conducted by business researchers to study organizational cultures, or by market researchers to study how products are assimilated into the culture. Several types of online and virtual ethnography have emerged for studying Internet cultures and users’ behaviors. Phenomenological approaches previously used in psychology or social work disciplines to gain first-person perceptions are now used in education or health-related fields.

Methodology and Unit of Analysis

Qualitative methodologies are quite diverse. Some offer detailed explanations about how to design and carry out every stage of the study from identifying the research question to determining the sample, collecting the data, and analyzing it. Others are broadly philosophical and offer only sketchy guidance for the novice researcher. Some have been widely used in online studies while others have not—offering opportunities for creative researchers to apply them in new ways that take advantage of the characteristics of the digital world.

What is the scope of your study?

One way to organize our thinking about these methodologies is to look at how the approaches correspond to the unit of analysis for the study. How does each respective qualitative methodology align with our interests in individuals, groups, crowds—or the global society which contains people who are not online? Some methodologies are more aligned to the study of the individual’s lived experiences, while others are more generally used to study community or societal issues.

Globe, Society or Crowd. At the broadest level are researchers interested in global, societal, or cultural issues. These researchers want to understand major trends and common or divergent experiences of a large group or crowd of people. They may be interested in systems or events that touch many lives. They are interested in regions of the world, in specific countries, or in social networking sites that engage people from across the globe. Topics might include political, social or environmental events or crises, poverty, epidemics, immigration, multinational business operations, economic developments, social movements or the environment. Data could include Big Data or social media data, census, government, or NGO documents, or interviews/focus groups with experts, thought-leaders, influencers, or representatives.

Community, Organization or Institution. At the next level of analysis researchers are interested in one or more communities, organizations, institutions, agencies and/or businesses. While this category may also involve large groups of people, they operate within some shared set of parameters. Researchers want to understand the systems, roles, policies, practices or experiences of those who are more working, learning or living together within some shared set of policies or norms. Topics might include reform efforts, social responsibility, management or leadership styles, or acceptance of change. Again, data could be drawn from document and records, archives, observations, or interviews/focus groups with key individuals.

Group, Family or Team. On a smaller scale, when researchers study groups, teams or families they are exploring relationships, interpersonal dynamics, and interactions among people who know each other. Topics might include communication or collaboration styles or practices, conflict resolution, parenting or family issues.

Individuals. At the most fundamental level, qualitative researchers study attitudes, perceptions, or feelings of individuals. Topics could include any aspect of the lived experience.

For studies where the units of analysis are small-groups or individuals, the researcher might want a methodology that allows for studying interactions, and data collection methods that include direct contact with individuals through observations and/or interviews, diaries or creative methods.

Salmons, J. (2016). Doing qualitative research online Doing qualitative research online. London: SAGE Publications.

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