Online Research: Holistic Thinking and Qualitative Design

Categories: Qualitative

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We make choices each day about how we communicate electronically. Think for a moment about the choices you have made this week, and why. Did you send one person a text message, an email to another, write a note or upload a picture to someone’s wall in a social networking site, read posts and comment to a closed discussion in an online class, and/or arrange for a video chat? Why did you select a particular mode of communication? Did you think about which tools the other person has access to, or prefers to use? Did you prefer a private one-one dialogue to a public one? Why was the written exchange adequate in some cases, whereas in other cases you wanted to see the other person and converse in real time? While making the appropriate communication choices is important in our everyday lives, these considerations are essential when we are planning to conduct empirical research online.

Janet Salmons

MethodSpace blogger Janet Salmons

We need to make strategic decisions whether we are communicating directly with consenting participants, or indirectly with writers of material that has been posted online. Each decision has implications for other aspects of the research design, including, methodology and methods, sampling and recruiting, data collection and analysis, and research ethics. While all researchers need to demonstrate a coherent plan, far-reaching implications of selected technologies mean the online researcher must be particularly alert to alignment of design elements.

The Qualitative E-Research Framework (Salmons, 2015, 2016, 2012) offers a way to think holistically about the inter-related facets of online qualitative research. It is displayed as a circular system because examining design decisions in isolation is inadequate and it is not a linear process.

Salmons' Qualitative E-Research Framework

For example, if the purpose of my study is to develop an understanding of voters’ perspectives on the usefulness of news pages and social media, I could elicit data online through in-depth interviews with individuals who frequent such sites. If I decide to collect data by conducting interviews using a video chat, then I need to recruit participants who have computers or devices with web cams, who know how to use web cams, and are comfortable being viewed by me as the researcher. I need to think about my own position as a researcher and the way I present myself: how do I want the participants to see me? Should I present myself as friendly and casual, or as a professional? How will the way I present increase the potential for building trust and rapport? How can I create an environment that encourages frank and honest responses from participants?

I also need to think about what I want to observe since I can see the participant. Am I interested in the setting, attire, digital artifacts, or do I simply want to see a face? Do I want to use a shared screen so the participant can show me the news sites she prefers? If so, will I need additional permission from those sites if I want to use screenshots in my reports? Will I ask for the participants’ permission to include video clips or screenshots in reports from the study– thereby removing anonymity? How will I analyze the visual data I will collect using this method?

With the same purpose in mind I could have chosen a written format such as an extended email exchange over the course of an election or a single qualitative questionnaire — and all of the other questions would need to be reframed to consider implications for recruiting participants, collecting and analyzing data, positioning myself as a researcher, and conducting the study ethically.

Alternatively, I could decide to simply observe comments and interactions in online news discussions, without direct participant contact. That might mean I would have to revisit the purpose of the study, since I would not be able to ask voters about the news sites influenced their perspectives.

When we take a holistic view using the Qualitative E-Research Framework, we are reminded that research design is a dynamic, living process. We have to keep asking questions, but of course that’s what makes it so intriguing!


Salmons, J. (2015). Qualitative online interviews. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publishing

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

Salmons, J. (Ed.) (2012). Cases in online interview research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publishing



Some researchers expect to import methods used in face-to-face studies into the online environment. Others look for ways to utilize the unique characteristics of information and communication technologies to apply qualitative principles in new ways. Either way, a holistic approach to design is needed when these technologies are used for research purposes.
Why conduct a qualitative inquiry, and what is the rationale for doing it online? What kinds of design and ethical issues do qualitative researchers need to consider when planning to collect data online? These are some of the questions an interactive webinar hosted by MethodSpace and featuring Janet Salmons, author of the new SAGE book Doing Qualitative Research Online, will explore. (For a taste of her new book, see Chapter 1 here.)
The webinar will take place on Wednesday, June 15 at noon EST/4 p.m. GMT. Ample time for audience questions will follow the presentation, and an archived version of the webinar will be posted at MethodSpace several days after the live event, along with answers to some of the questions that may not have been answered during the event proper. To register, click here.

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