Digital methods: risks, challenges and opportunities for qualitative research
Political and Social Sciences European University Institute San Domenico di Fiesole (FI), Italy
The processes by which knowledge is constructed, that is to say the methods and the researcher?s epistemological commitments, as well as the means and the kind of interactions in which the researcher engages, have an impact on the knowledge that is generated. Computer-mediated communication offers unprecedented opportunities for qualitative researchers. It allows to increase the number of people that one can reach, cuts down travelling costs, reduces transcription time. However, conducting an inquiry in an online environment presents also a substantial number of risks and challenges.
In my Ph.D. dissertation I have used both face-to-face and online in-depth interviewing. The aim of the research was to understand how meanings are socially constructed in the field of communication and media activism: in other words, how social actors? discourses, motivations and identities are created and developed on a continuous and interactive basis and in relation with the social context in which they are embedded. Cases included community radio practitioners and ?radical techies? (cyberspace activists).
I assumed that methods are not neutral tools, and therefore need to be adjusted to the ways social actors experiment reality. With the group of radical techies, very familiar with online interactions, I conducted online interviews and online focus groups, in order to create ?an atmosphere in which the subject feels safe enough to talk freely about his or her experiences and feelings? (Kvale 1996: 125).
This paper critically explores my experience with digital methods, focusing in particular on the method of ?online asynchronous interviewing?, pinpointing opportunities that the method offers (increased intimacy, virtually no costs attached, removal of geographical barriers?), but also the challenges (such as the duration of the interview, that can last over a year, a diluted process of trust building, the need for the researcher to disclose more about him/herself?).