Participant Observation: How does it work online?

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The world is changing and so are your research plans and options. We’re answering questions you post on MethodSpace, and related online events. Find the whole Q & A series here, and post your own questions.

The questions discussed in this post were asked at the webinar, When the Field is Online. The recording from this webinar, hosted by Nvivo, is available for viewing.

Many researchers who have little or no experience with online methods are now trying to figure out how to move studies they planned to conduct in-person. This set of questions reflects their curiosity about the qualitative data collection methods involving observation.

  • How can participant observation can be conducted online?
  • Originally planned for observations – looking at interactions between participants.  So, thinking about how to observing online interactions between participants. 
  • In the research environment, can I research just like “lurking”? If possible, how can I do this? Because I understand the process like participant, but there are phenomena that are delicate to convey that a researcher doing inside some online places.

Participant Observation or Unobtrusive Observation?

The term participant observation describes a type of research where the researcher is a member, or has access to engage, with the phenomenon under investigation. The researcher can ask questions, engage in discussions with individuals or groups, and/or “do” the activity being studied. Because the researcher is openly collecting data, they have an agreement with the organization or setting for the study and consent from participants. In contrast, with unobtrusive, covert or passive observation, the researcher collects data without the knowledge of the people or the setting. Unobtrusive observation is also called lurking.

While language may vary in different research traditions, I have updated definitions articulated in the book Qualitative Online Interviews (Salmons, 2015):

  • Unobtrusive Observation: Researchers collect posted but not personally identifiable information or look for patterns in such posts on websites, blogs, or social media sites, or in discussion group interactions. In this form of observation, the researchers do not create posts, ask questions, respond, or otherwise involve themselves in interactions with the online community, group, or social media site.
  • Participant observation to collect data in a process that includes the researchers’ involvement in communications—for example, posting to forums, blogs, or walls in online communities or on social media sites. The researcher responds to others’ posts, engages openly with the group, and might share knowledge gained from study or experience. Participant observers can have both informal discussions or formal interviews with group members. (p. 152)

Online, a researcher using participant observation might contact the manager or moderator of an online discussion to request permission to study the group as the participant. Depending on the nature of the group and the nature of the study, the researcher may or may not disclose that they are collecting data as a participant in the group. The participant observer might post information about the study and an opt in or opt out consent protocol. (Note: I will focus in more detail about ethical and consent issues in another MethodSpace post.)

An unobtrusive researcher is a bystander, collecting data without interacting. They might use archives and/or posts to a public site. Whether or not this is considered acceptable depends on the type of data and expectations of the group. While it might seem simple to say that a post is “non-identifiable data” because you left the name off, anyone can put the comment into a browser and find it. Metadata might still be attached that identifies the person making the post. Some sites and some members-only groups have their own guidelines or norms, which should be respected.

Once you interact with people you are observing, you have crossed into an “elicited” style of data collection and will need informed consent.

The difference between the types of online observation is not always hard and fast. Sometimes a participant observer might step back to view larger trends or cultures in an online setting. Sometimes an unobtrusive observer might arrange for interviews in an organization, they’ve been looking at. However, when it comes to ethics and requirements for agreements or informed consent, I point to the distinction between questioning or prompting people to talk (or write) about their experiences and viewing (or reading) what they might say about themselves. (For more on ways researchers mix qualitative/quantitativemethods in observational research: Salmons, J. (2015). Conducting mixed and multi-method research online. In S.-H. Biber & B. Johnson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Mixed and Multimethod Research. Oxford: Oxford Press.)

To some extent, the decision to be a participant or unobtrusive observer might relate to the position of the researcher vis-à-vis the topic of the study. For example, if I want to study experiences of academic writers, I would be an insider since that is my current line of work. I might want to choose a participant observation approach because I want to engage in the conversations and have knowledge and experience about the topics being discussed. Also, I might have credibility with the group manager, or moderator because they can see I am a published academic writer. On the other hand, if I wanted to study ways people engage online to discuss conspiracy theories and share disinformation, I might prefer to do so unobtrusively, since I would be an outsider and would not be able to authentically participate.

There’s a great deal of scholarly literature and excellent books about the many variations of online observational research and about ethnography, a methodology that historically has relied on observations. Here are a few resources you might find of interest. Feel free to post any follow-up questions in the comment area.

Resources about Types of Ethnography that use the Internet

entanglements, an open access journal about multimodal ethnography https://entanglementsjournal.org/LSE Digital Ethnography Collective Reading List SHARED DOC – March 2020
https://zoeglatt.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/LSE-Digital-Ethnography-Collective-Reading-List-March-2020.pdf

LSE Digital Ethnography Reading List

Kozinets, R. V. (2019). Netnography: The essential guide to qualitative social media research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Sample Chapters 1 and 2

Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., & Tacchi, J. (2015). Digital ethnography: Principles and practice (Third ed.). London: SAGE Publications.
Sample Chapter 1


Open Access Articles

Forum: Qualitative Social Research
Special issue on Virtual ethnography (2007)

Introduction. There are those who consider that virtual ethnography involves a distinctive methodological approach and those who consider that researching the Internet ethnographically forces us to reflect on fundamental assumptions and concepts of ethnography, but that it doesn’t mean a distinctive form of ethnography. The articles in this FQS special issue on virtual ethnography show a selection of the diverse approaches among researchers who study the Internet from an ethnographic perspective


Akemu, O., & Abdelnour, S. (2020). Confronting the Digital: Doing Ethnography in Modern Organizational Settings. Organizational Research Methods, 23(2), 296–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1094428118791018

Abstract. Digital technologies pervade modern life. As a result, organizational ethnographers must contend with informants interacting in face-to-face and digitally mediated encounters (e.g., through email, Facebook Messenger, and Skype). This overlap of informants’ digital and physical interactions challenges ethnographers’ ability to demonstrate authenticity and multivocality in their accounts of contemporary organizing. Drawing on recent theorizing about the nature of digital artifacts and two cases of ethnographic fieldwork, we argue that digital artifacts afford ethnographers different modes of being co-present with research participants: digital as archive and digital as process. We offer guidelines to researchers on how to deploy these modes of co-presence in order to improve authenticity and multivocality in ethnographic studies of modern organizations. We also explore the implications for methodological concerns such as ethics, analytical choice, and reflexivity.

Beneito-Montagut, R., Begueria, A., & Cassián, N. (2017). Doing digital team ethnography: being there together and digital social data. Qualitative Research, 17(6), 664–682. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794117724500

Abstract. With the digital availability of social data helping reshape ethnographic research and thus broadening the mainstream understanding of ethnography, this research proposes a set of strategies to overcome current limitations in doing ethnography. Based on a two-year online and offline ethnographic project on social media use in later life, insights are provided into how the practices and meanings of ethnography are being reconstructed and negotiated in response to the explosion of digital social data and through team practices. This paper reviews how collaborative and interdisciplinary ethnographic reflection is sustained and extended by digital tools, creating a live source of data that can be analysed within the framework of ethnography. As a contribution to current debates on the ’Social Life of Methods’, it also reviews epistemic issues associated with digital data and team ethnography, such as the role of the ethnographer(s), the field(s) and computational data analysis. The article reaches the conclusion that digital team ethnography is a viable option for undertaking thick and descriptive studies about the use of social media, which in turn favours a collaborative, non-hierarchical and dialogue-driven knowledge production process.

Burles, M. C., & Bally, J. M. G. (2018). Ethical, Practical, and Methodological Considerations for Unobtrusive Qualitative Research About Personal Narratives Shared on the Internet. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406918788203

Abstract. As Internet research grows in popularity, attention to the ethics of studying online content is crucial to ensuring ethical diligence and appropriateness. Over recent years, ethical guidelines and recommendations have emerged to advise researchers and institutional review boards on best practices. However, these guidelines are sometimes irrelevant, overly rigid, or lack recognition of the contingent nature of ethical decision-making in qualitative research. Furthermore, varied ethical stances and practices are evident in existing literature. This article explores key ethical issues for qualitative research involving online content, with a focus on the unobtrusive study of personal narratives shared via the Internet. Principles of informed consent and confidentiality are examined in depth alongside practical and methodological considerations for unobtrusive qualitative research. This critical exploration contributes to ongoing discussion of ethical conduct of Internet research and promotes ethically aware yet flexible approaches to online qualitative research and creative methodological efforts to overcoming ethical challenges.

Caliandro, A. (2018). Digital Methods for Ethnography: Analytical Concepts for Ethnographers Exploring Social Media Environments. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 47(5), 551–578. Open access here.

Abstract. The aim of this article is to introduce some analytical concepts suitable for ethnographers dealing with social media environments. As a result of the growth of social media, the Internet structure has become a very complex, fluid, and fragmented space. Within this space, it is not always possible to consider the “classical” online community as the privileged field site for the ethnographer, in which s/he immerses him/herself. Differently, taking inspiration from some methodological principles of the Digital Methods paradigm, I suggest that the main task for the ethnographer moving across social media environments should not be exclusively that of identifying an online community to delve into but of mapping the practices through which Internet users and digital devices structure social formations around a focal object (e.g., a brand). In order to support the ethnographer in the mapping of social formations within social media environments, I propose five analytical concepts: communitypubliccrowdself-presentation as a tool, and user as a device.

Costello, L., McDermott, M.-L., & Wallace, R. (2017). Netnography: Range of Practices, Misperceptions, and Missed Opportunities. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406917700647

Abstract. This is the first article to describe how broadening of the term netnography in qualitative research is leading to misperceptions and missed opportunities. The once accepted need for human presence in netnographic studies is giving way to nonparticipatory (passive) approaches, which claim to be naturalistic and bias-free. While this may be tenable in some environments, it also removes the opportunity for cocreation in online communities and social media spaces. By contrast, participatory (active) netnographers have an opportunity to conduct their research in a way that contributes value and a continuity of narrative to online spaces. This article examines the ways in which netnographies are being used and adapted across a spectrum of online involvement. It explores the ways in which netnographies conform to, or depart from, the unique set of analytic steps intended to provide qualitative rigor. It concludes by advocating for active netnography, one which requires a netnographic “slog” where researchers are prepared for the “blood, sweat, and tears” in order to reap rich benefits.

Nørskov, S., & Rask, M. (2011). Observation of Online Communities: A Discussion of Online and Offline Observer Roles in Studying Development, Cooperation and Coordination in an Open Source Software Environment. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(3). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.17169/fqs-12.3.1567

Abstract. This paper addresses the application of observation to online settings with a special focus on observer roles. It draws on a study of online observation of a virtual community, i.e. an open source software (OSS) community. The paper examines general and specific advantages and disadvantages of the observer roles in online settings by relating these roles to the same roles assumed in offline settings. The study suggests that under the right circumstances online and offline observation may benefit from being combined as they complement each other well. Quality issues and factors important to elicit trustworthy observational data from online study settings, such as OSS communities, are discussed. A proposition is made concerning how threats to credibility and transferability in relation to online observation (i.e. lack of richness and detail, risk of misunderstandings) can be diminished, while maintaining the level of dependability (which is potentially high due to a greater degree of anonymity and “isolation” in online settings). The paper thus suggests that the less participative the researcher’s online observer role is, the more s/he should consider introducing offline data collection techniques rather than adopting a more participative role in the observed online setting. This methodological discussion forms the basis for making a well-considered choice of online observer role rather than passively sliding into a role assigned by the setting.

Schimkowsky, C. (2020). Seeking Seclusion, Embracing Decline: A Qualitative Enquiry Into the Long-Term Development of a Private Online Community. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305120907949

Abstract. This article analyzes the development of a message board–based online community between 2002 and 2016. It examines a private online community that actively secluded itself from online publics and has welcomed no new members in over a decade. Drawing on online participant observation, offline fieldwork, online and offline interviews, as well as archival research of 12 years of online interaction, the article provides an in-depth qualitative account of the “aging” of an online community that focuses on its internal dynamics and member narratives. A portrait of a community that survived years of apparent “decline,” it enquires into the durability of online socialities and cultures. Specifically, the article identifies three interlinked factors that shaped the long-term development of the community: (1) structural and cultural continuities, actively achieved through user and administrator efforts, established the online community as a coherent and recognizable social aggregation that persists over time; (2) forum members do not uniformly perceive decreasing levels of community interaction as negative but reframe it as an expression of in-group familiarity and side-effect of a consolidation process; and (3) interweaving of online and offline interaction is a primary source of familiarity among members and factor benefiting community longevity. As study of a message board tracing back to 2002, the article examines a remnant of an earlier online culture and speaks to increasing scholarly interests in online pasts. As a study of a closed forum, the article further contributes to an emerging body of research on private and secretive modes of online interaction.

Salmons, J. (2015). Qualitative online interviews. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Salmons, J. (2015). Conducting mixed and multi-method research online. In S.-H. Biber & B. Johnson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Mixed and Multimethod Research. Oxford: Oxford Press.

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