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Author: Robert C. H. Sweeny
Title: Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart's Internet Communication and Qualitative Research A Handbook for Researching Online
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2001

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Source: Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart's Internet Communication and Qualitative Research A Handbook for Researching Online
Robert C. H. Sweeny

vol. 4, no. 2, August 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart's Internet Communication and Qualitative Research A Handbook for Researching Online

Robert C. H. Sweeny

  • Chris Mann & Fiona Stewart. Internet Communication and Qualitative Research A Handbook for Researching Online. London: Sage Publications, 2000, x-258 p.

At first, I thought it was wrong for me to read this book. After all, handbooks are reference books. They are not read, they are used. You pull one down from the shelf to answer a particular problem or perhaps, if all else has failed, to aid in planning a project. So, a good handbook is not linear. It is not designed to be read from cover to cover. Instead, it provides ready access to topically specific answers. With the aid of a detailed table of contents and a good index, the user can go directly to the relevant section, which should stand on its own. In short, handbooks are less than the sum of their parts, precisely because they have no holistic argument to tie the work together.

Mid-way through my reading this very well constructed handbook, which surpasses all the conventions of the genre, I realised I was wrong. The authors of this handbook have an important argument that is, I suspect, quite controversial. They believe the Internet transforms qualitative research in the social sciences. They argue computer mediated communication produces a new hybrid language, akin to, but distinct from, both oral and written texts. Furthermore, they think the Internet relationship between researcher and subject is so different, that it redefines the meaning of field research. They conclude, since data "are not already coloured by the researcher's theoretical and methodological choices" (p.192) and the "virtual venue is, in effect, culturally neutral" (p.200), that the transformative powers of qualitative research on the Internet are emancipatory, if not down right liberating. Now I am a socio-economic historian, not a social scientist, so allow me a dose of professional scepticism in the face of this newest transformative technology; but first, how do the authors construct their handbook to support these remarkable conclusions?

The handbook's ten chapters develop through four conceptually distinct levels. First, practical and technical introductions explain in clear terms what computer-mediated communication involves for the social scientist. Here, they do an excellent job of explaining not only the jargon of computerese, but what types of problems a researcher might expect to encounter. To their credit, the authors do not assume any prior expertise on the part of the user. This is a good short course in both computer literacy (supported by a handy glossary) and qualitative social science research.

Second, they devote a thought-provoking chapter to developing an ethical framework for on-line research. They start with the substantive problems of fair information processing, informed consent and confidentiality. Only towards the end of the chapter do they deal with the niceties of netiquette, which in my experience is what passes for the entire ethical discussion in most computer books. In this chapter, they propose an important synthesis of complex issues, one which stimulated me to rethink some of my own pre-conceptions. A motivated teacher could use this chapter as the basis for many a fruitful classroom discussion.

The heart of the handbook is three chapters on on-line methods, focus groups and interviewing. In each chapter the format is the same. Composed of concise sections, each starts with a brief overview of the literature and the better known problems raised by face to face qualitative research and is followed by a discussion of how these problems affect computer mediated communication, concluding with the problems specific to Internet research. Clearly the idea is to provide the user with ready access to topic specific information. I particularly appreciated their integration of recent literature into each section, which encourages an effective use of their very substantial bibliography of close to 400 titles. The authors also make extensive use of examples, drawn in part from their own research in England and Australia. Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors conclude that while computer mediated communication may raise slightly different problems, it is not substantively inferior to face to face techniques.

Despite the merits of these discussions, for readers of this journal, I suspect the authors' privileging of email and their neglect of the Web will disappoint. Instead of critically examining how qualitative research on-line permits new methods and approaches, they chose to concentrate on focus groups and interviewing. These are two techniques already well established in the social sciences. Perhaps, as the handbook's structure suggests, the authors preferred to establish the respectability of on-line research, rather than explore its unconventional possibilities. Certainly, this respect for traditional methods establishes an academic legitimacy to support their explicitly political fourth and final level.

On this level, they start with a discussion of power relations, using gender as their illustration. The Internet experience of women is presented as being qualitatively different from that of men, largely due to the pervasive sexist attitudes and actions of male users. These problems are real, but as they point out, they are also not unique to on-line communities. They then shift focus to the more disciplinary concerns of language, mode, analysis, virtuality and reliability of data. But these too are political, albeit more academic discussions, for they challenge deeply entrenched ways of thinking in the social sciences.

Politically I am sympathetic to their critique, why then my scepticism? Two points will have to suffice. Despite the mass participation by First World youth in chat rooms and on the Web, the Internet has become important primarily because of corporate support. Dominated by trans-nationals, this support continuously refines both the software and the hardware we use daily. Although I have my doubts that computer-mediated data may not be ‘coloured by the researcher's theoretical and methodological choices,' there is no doubt that this mode of communication bears the mark of the singularly non-transformative interests controlling this technology. Second, this corporate imprint is also cultural. The virtual world can only appear culturally neutral to native speakers of English. Now, not a single title in the authors' extensive bibliography is in another language, but, in all non-English-speaking countries and regions, concern about the computerised imposition of English has been raised. Ironically, these concerns have often been voiced by social scientists worried about the present and future quality of their societies.

Robert C.H. Sweeny
Associate Professor History Department
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St John's, NF, A1C 5S7 Canada