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The saying goes, “If a farmer fills his barn with grain, he gets mice. If he leaves it empty, he gets actors.” Like actors, researchers are always looking for an opening. If a means for communication opens, intrepid researchers will find a way to adopt it to their own objectives, shaking up the academic status quo along the way. (Salmons, 2010)
That is how I prefaced my first book, Online Interviews in Real Time* and since then qualitative and quantitative researchers have blown the roof off the proverbial barn. We’ve discovered diverse ways to use technology to inspire or further research. We’ve seen various types of e-research emerge, with their own approaches, variously called Internet research, online research, virtual research or digital research. I’ve categorized approaches by the way information and communications technologies (ICTs) are used as the medium, setting, and/or research phenomenon.
Some researchers use ICTs as a medium through which they reach and interact with participants, be it in 1-1 or group interviews, or online questionnaires or surveys. Researchers use ICTs as a medium through which to access archives, datasets, and other contemporary or historical records.
Other researchers are interested in communication via a platform, program, social networking site or online community, virtual world or game. These researchers use ICTs as the setting. Within an electronic setting users could be discussing experiences or events in the “real” world or the connected world.
A third type of researcher are interested in the programs, sites, or platforms themselves, in the ways humans use technology, how the features or characteristics of the ICTs work. For these researchers, the technology itself is central to the research phenomenon they want to understand.
For example, let’s say a researcher is interested in local grassroots politics. She could use the Internet as a medium, a communication channel for interviews or surveys with activists. She might access archived posts, pictures or videos, meeting minutes, or Big Data records documenting the movement’s evolution or the historical foundations from earlier grassroots political efforts. If she sees that activists are using particular channels to inform the public and generate interest, she might decide to focus on a particular setting for activists’ mobilization, perhaps studying patterns of use with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Medium, or WordPress blogs. She might use an electronic setting for an experiment, or for experiential or creative methods. Alternatively, she might be interested in the user interfaces and features that allow users with no knowledge of programming to create and promote their own content. She might want to compare uses of text-based versus multimedia posts, the process of virality, linkages across platforms, use of mobile devices, or other ICT phenomena related to activists’ uses of technology. This researcher or research team might combine one or more options, and mix qualitative and quantitative approaches to gain a comprehensive perspective on the research problem.
Learn more about E-Research
Doing Qualitative Research Online and Cases in Online Interview Research are available in SAGE Research Methods. See the broad E-Research Reading List, Social Media Research Reading List and the E-Interview Research Reading List. Interested in more about the SAGE Reading List feature, and how to use it when teaching methods or supervising research? See these related Methodspace posts.
*The second edition, Qualitative Online Interviews, was expanded to include a wide range of synchronous and asynchronous online interviews and observations. Doing Qualitative Research Online goes a step further, with inclusion of methods that use extant, creative and performative ways to use technology in data collection.