Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet

By Christine Hine | Go to book overview
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Research Sites and Strategies: Introduction

Christine Hine

Defining contexts for social research

Among the uncertainties which new media have introduced into the social research process is where to go to in order to carry out a study. Given that we now see the Internet as a cultural context in its own right, it seems clear that we can view that context as a place in which to carry out social research. The success of ethnographers in claiming the Internet as a field site attests to acceptance that the Internet is a form of social space. At the same time, however, it has become apparent that mediated communications can only provisionally be bracketed off as objects of study for social researchers. Uses of the Internet, the telephone, the mass media and the printed word permeate face-to-face social settings, and disrupt any easy assumptions about the boundedness of social life.

For many social researchers, then, the definition of the site for an investigation is not a straightforward issue. As the case studies in Part I showed, the decision whether to conduct research relationships online or offline is situated in the demands of a specific research goal. In Part II we address this concern in more depth, exploring some different ways of defining the field site and exploring socially significant aspects of its organization. The Internet has frequently been understood by social scientists as providing a new space for social interaction and for the development of social formations, and innovation in research methods is needed to address these new spaces. However, this does not mean that the traditional sites of research into everyday life become irrelevant. Where to begin, when to stop and how to combine research into online and offline contexts are the problems which Part II addresses.

The Internet can also challenge us to break down the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods. The traces which online activities leave provide a valuable resource to social researchers who wish to understand both what people do online and what significance these actions have. The sheer amount of traces that online activities can leave, and that the researcher can amass, tend to lead even hardened (or softened) qualitative researchers towards more quantitative methods


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Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet


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