Thursday, 17 July 2014

Book Review: 'Qualitative Online Interviews' by Dr Janet Salmons

Jenna Condie is a Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Salford. She is also the network's avid Twitter Manager. Contact her on @jennacondie.

Although an advocate of both digital communication and qualitative methods, I am yet to combine these two interests to carry out qualitative interviews online. The timing therefore seemed right for me to review ‘Qualitative Online Interviews’ by Dr Janet Salmons, as I do want (or need!) to learn more about this growing approach within social science research.

‘Qualitative Online Interviews’ guides the novice researcher through the entire research process from start to finish. Not to be “shelved after a single reading” (Salmons, 2015, p. xviii), this book is designed as a ‘go to’ resource to consult as and when a particular research issue arises. The updates in the second edition reflect the increasingly mediated nature of our social lives since the first edition was published in 2010. An e-interview research framework (see figure below) has been introduced to structure the book and to link the various issues involved in using an online interview research design (e.g. ethics, sampling). A second update broadens out what constitutes an online interview as the previous edition focused on synchronous interviews alone. This edition incorporates the use of near-synchronous and asynchronous interviews. A third change is that the book addresses additional online data that may be available to a qualitative researcher such as user-generated content including written posts, images, and other shared texts.

e-interview research framework

With those changes in mind, perhaps a more appropriate title could be ‘Online Qualitative Research’ as Salmons (2015) points out, the boundaries between what is an interview and what is not are seemingly less clear in an online context. I felt that the concept of ‘interview’ was perhaps restrictive due to its dominant meaning as observations, notes, and user-generated content are included. That this book goes beyond interviews could also go some way to broadening its appeal to those embarking upon online qualitative research in general. Granted, the book’s focus may then be diluted given the vastness and creativity that digital communication tools and user-generated content present to the contemporary researcher. However, the underlying principles of qualitative research – whether online or offline, whether interview or another type of online data – are also covered in this book. To give an example, a segment of the above e-interview research framework focuses on how the researcher must take a position in their research. Such principles apply to most qualitative approaches.

As a lecturer, I could use ‘Qualitative Online Interviews’ as an introductory resource for my undergraduate psychology students, particularly those about to start their dissertation research. I do feel that this book is perhaps ahead of us in terms of teaching undergraduate psychology. I can only speak from my own experiences of undergraduate supervision where the ethics process is challenging enough without throwing issues of researcher-participant online interaction into the mix. In terms of masters dissertations and PhD theses, this book could be a great companion to a researcher navigating the ‘swamp’ (Finlay, 2002) of online qualitative research. Salmons (2015) also points to further reading that the researcher may need for deeper discussions around epistemology, ontology, and theory.

What this book did for me as an early career researcher was open up the option of carrying out qualitative interviews online through practical examples and solutions for taking the next step. The default does not need to be face-to-face these days. I haven’t carried out interviews online before as the people I need to speak to are often close by, or in many cases, do not have access to ICT resources. Salmons (2015) recognises that online is not always the most appropriate option but also highlights the greater reach and potential of going digital to learn more about human experiences and to engage a wider audience in research.

It would be great if the book cover and the presentation/layout inside (e.g. diagrams, font, etc.) were more modern in design to reflect the potential contained in this edition. Because this book is one for the future, my future work, and the future work of social science students who are likely to engage in online research more and more.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Exhausted, intrigued and all about social media!

Kelsey Beninger is a researcher at NatCen Social Research and can be contacted through Twitter @KBeninger.

Attending two conferences related to social media the past three days took me on a long journey, and not just from the 6 train rides, nonexistent mobile reception or from navigating my way around overly complex campus layouts! My journey also included the reflection on different approaches to talking about social media research and the need, now more than ever, to be transparent about what we do, why we do it and what is wrong with our approaches (because we aren’t perfect- it’s too early days!).

At the European Conference on Social Media in Brighton I was fortunate to meet and learn from some of the people from the 35 different countries represented. While I wont shy away from saying that I think the strongly academic focus was a wee bit theoretical for my applied social policy mind, I did learn about very different types of projects, from e-health platforms in Lithuania and online civic participation in Egypt and Malaysia, to keynotes including the evolution of social media and the feasibility of moving knowledge cafes to the online space.

The enthusiasm and excitement for social media was palpable throughout the conference and inspired hope for future innovations. I wondered, though, about how presentations I attended focused more so on the research outcome- the findings. What lacked was clarity on what means led to the end- the design and methodology. Indeed this emerged in discussions with participants who were also student supervisors. A reoccurring theme was what theory should I tell my kids to use who are wanting to use social media in their dissertation? Or, what’s the best tool, the best approach? What issues do my students need to be aware of from the beginning? There are no right answers but, yes, it would be quite handy to have an idea of the approaches, tools, considerations and adjustments researchers have used to succeed in their work so we can inform future work.

I led a roundtable on just this, one of just two roundtables in two full days of lectures. I was a bit worried there wouldn’t be dialogue but participants quickly opened up about challenges they are facing and it very much echoed the work we at @NatCen and @NSMNSS have been doing this year (see this post and this one too). Challenges of distinguishing between what is legal or allowed with research using social media brought an engaging debate amongst attendees to the roundtable. This provoked alot of discussion as some attendees initially viewed this point in black and white before the discussion turned to the grey area perceived by social media users- while T&Cs of a platform or country digital technology laws may make the use of data for research legal, the expectations of some users view it as the moral obligation of a researcher to still gain consent or anonymise data.

Also flagged up was the difficulty of defining social media (by far the most heated topic!), knowing what questions to ask to know what to do next in your design, how to sample ‘properly’ online, understanding big data collection tools and their weaknesses. Yet none of this came up in the other sessions of the day that I attended. The session may have left some people feeling at a loss for solutions and I believe that it is ok to not have a strict answer. What the session made obvious for me was the importance of researchers talking, sharing, questioning. Without more of that, then research will stagnate and researchers will get complacent.

The Research Methods Festival in Oxford was equally diverse and engaging, yet provided what I felt was missing from the ECSM2014- the methods! I presented at and attended a panel on the opportunities and challenges of social media research (See slides here) and it was so refreshing to have all people in the room be open and honest about what they can and can’t do with their research. @Donna_Peach of @SocPHD discussed how she created a community of practice on twitter and on a website, sharing examples of collaboration between different groups. The guys at CASM discussed Natural Language Processing and shared a great discrete example that even my teeny mind can comprehend! COSMOS also gave us a sneak peak of their new platform. I was intrigued about the Visual Media Lab discussed by Farida Vis, a new collaboration with the aim of tapping into the visual data online (often overlooked for the text that is more commonly the focus of research).

 Basically there is one moral to my ramblings: as a researcher don’t be afraid to bare your research design soul. Without more of that how can the field persevere and innovate, gain credibility from the skeptics and avoid reinventing the wheel?

Check out #ECSM2014 and #RFM14 twitter feeds for a roundup of both conferences.

 Papers and slides from ESRC Research Methods Festival 2014 are here:

Review the sessions at European Conference on Social Media 2014:

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Book of Blogs update - July

The World Cup is almost over and the summer holidays are imminent so we thought it would be helpful to update you all on progress with the Book of Blogs. We now have eleven blogs uploaded to the book, 40 people who’ve committed to writing a blog and lots of wider interest. So to those of you who’ve already written and posted your blogs to the Press Books site thank you. For the rest of you we thought it would be helpful to remind you that the instructions for uploading to the Press Books site can be found  here and general guidance on the book here.

We do need you to sign up formally so if you haven’t already please go to this Google Docs spreadsheet and sign up: We’ll remove your email address immediately.

Our goal is to have 60% of the content uploaded by the end of this month so please do let us know if you’ve written your blog and are ready to upload it now, we’ll send you a login as soon as you’re ready. We are on a tight timetable and if possible would like to avoid all of the blogs arriving in one go at the end of the writing period. As you know the network is run on a voluntary non-funded basis so everyone is contributing their time and resources for free, it’s really wonderful to have so much support.

We’ve had lots of offers to help with the light touch advice and editing we are offering to contributors so thank you for that. It’s not compulsory to have anyone look at your blog before you upload it. Once we have them all uploaded we’ll be ordering the blogs by themes and contacting authors directly if we feel there’s anything that needs slight editing but the aim is keep editorial control light touch.

We’re still looking for suggestions for people to write the foreword and titles for the book, Blurring the Boundaries is a front-runner simply because it’s the subtitle of the network but we’re keen to hear other ideas.

Please do continue to promote the book of blogs to your network we need to keep a buzz going during the writing stage to ensure that we have an audience for it when it launches in Sept. 

You can use the #bookofblogs when tweeting and please do tweet or post about the book and send links to the #NSMNSS blog site for potential contributors to explore.

If you have any questions or want your log in now please contact the team at

Happy writing!

Thursday, 3 July 2014

#NSMNSS The Facebook Experiment: Upcoming Tweetchat, 07 July 2014

This week has seen a lot of coverage, and controversy, around the 'Facebook Experiment', where users' news feeds were filtered and the impact on their own posting habits analysed.

For a bit of context, you can find the original paper here, an initial article on the research from the Guardian here, a legal perspective here, and a response from the lead author of the paper here

We thought this would be a great issue to frame another Tweetchat around as it raises a number of interesting questions for social researchers:
  • Is this any different from the regular 'A/B testing' that websites routinely carry out, and how?
  • Is accepting 'Terms and conditions' a sufficient indication of consent? If not, what should Facebook (or other researchers) have done? What elements of this research do you think the public are more concerned about?
  • What was the role of academics involved in the study? Despite not collecting the data themselves, did they have an obligation to consider the ethics of they way it was being collected?
We'll be hosting the Tweetchat on Monday 7 July at 4pm (London time), or 11am New York time (See for your time zone), and you can follow the conversation on #NSMNSS where we will be discussing the above questions and related issues.

Please remember to include #NSMNSS and @NSMNSS in all your posts to help us capture all of the discussion. We will provide a transcript of the Tweetchat on our blog following the event.