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Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online

Chris and Fiona Stewart Mann
Sage Publications: London
0761966277 (pb)


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Front Cover
Some parts of sociology can be learned from books. A good grasp of research methods is not, I would argue, among them. The conduct of research projects is where our discipline becomes a craft practice that must be embodied rather than applied. Learning how to do research is a matter of taking broad principles and applying them in concrete situations. While it is important to have guidelines and lessons from past experience, there are no absolute rules to follow in order to produce the ultimate valid and successful research project. This is especially true where the researcher follows qualitative principles, and reaches its ultimate manifestation with ethnography, where the researcher adapts their approach to the situation encountered. Learning to be a qualitative researcher is then perhaps best done by having a go, under supportive guidance from an experienced researcher who is able both to head off the most obvious mistakes and to acknowledge that every project requires its own unique solution. Not every trainee researcher has such an experienced mentor, however, and even where one does exist they may be all too conscious of their limitations when new research settings and new tools come along. In such circumstances, a well-written text which reviews the issues can be of great use in extending the availability of experience and promoting discussions about best practice.

Such a situation has occurred with the advent of computer-mediated tools for the conduct of social research. Researchers experienced in face-to-face administration of interviews or focus groups may be intrigued by the possibilities offered by computer mediation, but unclear of the precise advantages or the new problems which the new medium may offer. Especially where a new tool, such as computer- mediated communication comes along, existing methodological solutions come into question, and researchers are faced with working out afresh problems which have become routine for established tools. The quantity of anxiety, reflection and innovation prompted by this particular new tool has been evidenced by a burgeoning literature which details the experience of individual researchers. It appears then that there is a need for synthetic works which provide considered treatments of the new tool. Mann and Stewart have set out to provide this in their recent book "Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: a Handbook for Researching Online".

With the goal of supporting researchers in setting out on their own projects in mind, it is my judgement that methods texts succeed best where they draw on the direct experience of their authors. It is when describing their own dilemmas and successes that methodological advisors are at their most persuasive and most helpful. Mann and Stewart have two key experiences of online research upon which to build. The Graduates of the Millennium project researched the experiences of undergraduate students, and used a combination of online interviews, electronic diaries and email contact to maintain contact with informants. The other main study reported on researched perceptions of health risk and practices among young people, and employed both face-to-face and online focus groups between Fiji, China, Australia and Malaysia. Given these two projects, it is not perhaps surprising that Mann and Stewart are at their strongest when discussing online interviews and focus groups. For these two approaches they are able to describe their own experiences, and draw on samples of data to illustrate the points they may. For two other methodological approaches which are considered, participant observation and documentary analysis, they are correspondingly less detailed and more tentative. For the most part, email and computer-conferencing systems are the technologies discussed. The World Wide Web enters consideration as a medium for the administration of questionnaires. This leaves the collection and analysis of web sites largely outside of the remit of this book, and Mann and Stewart focus largely on the more active means of data collection through active engagement with informants.

Having said that Mann and Stewart are at their most productive when talking about their own experiences, they do also provide very useful and reasoned review of the work of others. This is particularly so where they address concerns about the ethics of online research, the power issues which research media raise, and the quality of data gleaned through online methods as compared to face-to- face research scenarios. While the overt aim of the book is to review the use of online methods as a tool for social research in general, rather than researching the particular characteristics of computer- mediated communication as a social phenomenon in its own right, it becomes clear in these sections that the two are not mutually exclusive. In order to understand computer-mediated communication as a tool for social research, we have to pay attention to the ways in which people understand the use of the medium. The problem for a handbook such as this is that research into the phenomenon of computer- mediated communication is still ongoing, and the frameworks for understanding it are highly provisional. Mann and Stewart provide a fair review of the situation as currently understood, and cover a wide range of pertinent considerations, while being prevented by the current stage of research from giving a coherent set of recommendations. Indeed, a coherent framework in terms of the overall implications of the medium may never be possible: the more research is done on computer-mediated communication, the more it seems that there are multiple ways of using it, such that what appears to be the same technology is rather a rallying cry for a diverse array of understandings and experiences. In this context, advisors can best alert their readers to the potential range of that diversity, and here Mann and Stewart do an excellent job.

If qualitative research is about developing a sensitivity to social situations, then Mann and Stewart provide a rich source for nurturing that sensitivity in research using online methods. Where they are less strong, possibly, is in providing assistance in developing the technical skills to do such work. They provide a technical introduction to the Internet which, while perfectly clear and accurate, may still not allow the researchers who need it to turn their knowledge into action. Once again, the support of experienced researchers and the development of craft skills will have to supplement the written text, along, perhaps, with more technically biased research primers focused on particular skills and scenarios.

In sum, then, Mann and Stewart have done the field a great service in producing an accessible and very sensible review of the issues raised when research methods are taken online. They are at their most helpful and most persuasive where they describe projects in which they have been directly engaged. Their scope is thus inevitably limited by the methods and technologies they favour and by the exigencies of those particular projects. In this, their book fails to be the universal "Handbook for Researching Online" which the subtitle promises. As a guide to general issues raised by online research, and in particular in the detail which it gives on focus groups and interviews online, this is a valuable contribution in a field where accessible synthetic texts are much needed.

Christine Hine
Brunel University

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