Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Sampling issues in online interviewing

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Open/close headingSampling, locating and contacting participants

A key concern for conducting both onsite and online interviews is the recruitment of an appropriate group of respondents. In many ways the internet simplifies matters as it provides access to groups of users with tightly defined and narrow interests. So, for example, for O'Connor and Madge (2001) whose interest was in new parents' use of a particular parenting website, contacting the website providers directly was a logical first step in accessing respondents. Murray and Sixsmith (1998) and Kivits (2004) used similar approaches. They began by carrying out web searches through a search engine such as www.google.co.uk to locate websites with discussion boards focusing on their area of research interest. Murray and Sixsmith (1998) went on to access respondents by contacting the 'moderator' of the boards and arranging access and permission to use the site for contacting participants. Similarly, Kivits (2004) used a range of search engines to compile a list of websites with a focus on her area of interest. She then selected the fifty most popular websites and contacted each of these to ask for permission and help in publicising her research. Fox et.al. (2008), whose study explored the appearance-related concerns of young people with skin conditions, elicited support from skin care charities and support organisations who advertised a link to the researchers' web site which included further information and contact details, ensuring that the young people who got involved were self-selecting. This, they felt, would increase the likelihood that those who came forward would have adequate technical access, knowledge and experience to take part, and would also help to inculcate a sense of control and involvement amongst participants.

For these studies the methods were effective in enabling access to respondents. Murray and Sixsmith (1998) suggest that having arranged access to potential participants care should be taken in finding the best means of making contact. For example, one possibility would be posting a general message to a bulletin board in which the research is introduced and volunteers sought. Alternatively, they suggest identifying email addresses from postings and contacting potential respondents directly, via email. Kivits (2004) used two approaches to contact respondents. First, she placed an advert on the relevant websites which linked to her project website and second, she posted to discussion groups. Whilst she did recruit a number of respondents from the website advert she found posting to discussion groups the most effective method of making contact.

Care must be taken, however, when posting to discussion groups to request participation. Hewson et al. (2003, 116) suggest that netiquette demands that postings to a newsgroup or discussion forum should be relevant- but most researchers' invitations to join a research project will not be relevant to the intended discussion. This raises ethical issues for the online researcher. The best practice is to approach the moderator of the list or newsgroup or discussion forum directly to get permission for the invitation posting but to be sensitive to the fact that such an invitation may be considered spamming and unacceptable (See the 'Ethics' module for further details).

Instant messaging may also provide an alternative to email as a means of contacting potential participants directly. Snieder and Goritz's (2006) study using instant messaging involved contacting respondents to a web survey to invite them to participate in an interview. The response to the requests sent via instant messaging were, they report, higher than similar studies involving email invitations. They put this down to the relative immediacy of instant messaging in which people are more likely to be solicited to participate while online rather than after the fact as is often the case with email requests. They admit, however, that further research is needed to confirm whether this is a generalisable feature of instant messaging requests and also point to the potential drawbacks brought by the fact that instant messaging invitations are lost if not answered quickly, unlike email requests which can be revisited at a more convenient time.

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Open/close headingRepresentativeness

Selecting research respondents from the online world raises issues of Representativeness, common to all social science research. For example, there is no central register of internet users and although some websites may have membership lists these do not include 'lurkers' or individuals who have chosen not to register. Likewise, a sample group drawn in the ways outlined above, will consist of individuals who responded to adverts or bulletin board messages, excluding from the sample are those who chose not to answer calls for respondents.

Despite these limitations, internet recruitment seems to offer particular benefits for qualitative researchers interested in locating an adequate number of participants with specific characteristics to allow a particular experience to be researched (Hamilton and Bowers, 2006). It should be remembered, however, that access to the internet, and to the technology required for synchronous communication in particular, often remains connected with economic status and online interviewing can thus potentially serve to exclude particular groups from participation (Fox et.al. (2008). Comley (1996) and Coomber (1997) have suggested that the internet is most suitable as a methodological tool when researching a particular group of internet users. Gaiser (1997, 136) is in agreement, stating that: '...if the research question involves an online social phenomenon, a potential strength of the method is to be researching in the location of interest'. Samples drawn from groups of internet users then can provide '... a valuable source of indicative as opposed to easily generalisable data' (Coomber 1997, 1). This may well be changing over time, but it remains an important consideration in deciding whether online interviews will provide an appropriate and adequate sample (Hamilton and Bowers, 2006).

 

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Open/close headingCase studies

Open/close heading1. Health information on the internet (Joëlle Kivits, University of Leicester)

Title

Health information on the internet: Researching information seekers and practices in a mediated health context

Aim

A doctoral research project focusing on the significance of information practices for individuals’ everyday health in which the role of internet health information in personal health and its implications for the contemporary definition and experience of health are examined. The project was based on one online questionnaire, email interviews and face-to-face interviews.

Recruitment of participants

Participants in the online questionnaire and email interviews were recruited through an advertisement of the research posted on a selection of general health, healthy eating and fitness websites, all based in the UK. The advertisement, either published as a web link or posted as a message in discussion groups, directed internet users to the research website where the objective and aims of the study were explained and the institutional affiliation of the project made clear. Information about the researcher and privacy issues was also available. Participants could then fill in the questionnaire and, if interested in participating in further interview, contact the researcher, either by phone, email or conventional mail.

The recruitment was most successful when messages were posted directly by the researcher in discussion groups and on personal websites where administrators or website editors directly presented the study to their internet users. In other cases, the advertised link on a web page was generally ‘lost’ among other sponsored links and was not easily identifiable.

However, the advertisement in different online spaces was revealed to be an advantage in recruiting study participants as the objective was to tap a large range of information seekers whether they were searching the internet for information about a specific health problem or ailment or for general health information.

Online questionnaire

The online questionnaire survey was first implemented. It consisted of twelve items. In an online questionnaire, respondents constantly have the possibility to cancel the operation. It was then decided to keep a simple format: the web questionnaire was available on one page, the question formulation was similar to paper surveys and the design was deliberately sober. A short introduction on how to respond was provided and a message of thanks was sent to respondents on submission. Privacy issues were addressed on the main research website and reiterated at the top of the questionnaire.

Email interviews

Respondents to the questionnaire were invited to fill in a form if they were interested in participating in further interviews. Thirty-four internet users initially responded and 31 interviews were conducted over a one-year period. The decision to do interviews by email was first motivated by practical reasons: as respondents were geographically dispersed throughout the UK, email emerged as an appropriate communication tool. Email was moreover assumed to be used by the majority of online health information seekers, therefore avoiding the exclusion of any potential interviewee. After three pilots that turned out to be exciting in terms of the three different individuals interviewed, and of the quality of the exchanges, it was decided to pursue email interviews with more participants, although telephone contacts or face-to-face interviews were not excluded.

Between 10 to 42 emails were exchanged between the researcher and each participant in the course of one interview; the average number of email exchanges was 25. Correspondence lasted between three weeks and nine months, with the average length of correspondence with each participant lasting 12 weeks. In addition to flexibility for the respondent, who may answer at her/his convenience, interviewing by email generates personal and thoughtful communication and matches the objective of conventional, face-to-face, in-depth interviews. Furthermore, the recurring email interaction reinforces the research relationship. In this study, the exchanges of emails over an extended period of time supported a more in-depth understanding of the everyday dimension of participants’ internet use in relation to their personal health.

All interviewees were asked to sign an informed consent form.

Sampling issues

Both the web-based survey and the email interviews were based on self-selection. As the objective of the research was to explore health information seekers and online practices, representativeness of online health information seekers was not pursued. Attention was however paid to the selection of websites for advertising the research in order to reach the population targeted.

Identity verification

It was not possible to verify the identity of the respondents to the questionnaire and of the participants in email interviews. For the questionnaire, it is therefore possible that some respondents may have played with their online identity. It is less likely in the case of email interviews: as it was based on a repeated exchange of emails, the disguise of identity would have been difficult to sustain.

Incentives

No incentives were used in the research.

 

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Open/close heading2. Teacher professionalism, teacher identity (Nalita James, University of Leicester)

Title

Teacher Professionalism, Teacher Identity. How do I See Myself?

Aim

A doctoral research project that examined how academics conceptualized their own beliefs, experiences and values about what it means to be an academic and the contexts in which they work, and explored their understandings of their experiences as lived and told stories. They were invited to comment on: the images they used to construct professional identity and shape professional practice; the way in which professional identity was managed within the communities in which they lived and worked; the values and knowledge-base of their work as teachers; and how fundamental these communities were to their teacher professionalism.

Recruitment of participants

There were 20 academics who took part in this study and they were all known to me, as I had worked with them on a professional basis over a period of three years. Hence, I already had access to their email addresses and used them to gain their consent in taking part in the interviews, which were conducted on an individual basis.

Email interviews

My prior relationship with the academics was an important aspect of the project as I wanted to capture and provoke in-depth reflection of their understandings of developing professional experiences and identity construction. Email offered interesting possibilities for the creation of an alternative site and a space for the academics to construct and reflect upon their narratives of experience, as well as to share narratives which shaped their thinking. It also suited this group of participants because they had access to and familiarity with email, using it on a daily basis in their working lives. A further incentive was the fact that I could overcome the practical constraints of traveling to and from interviews as the academics were located in higher education institutions across the country, as well as find a time and place that was convenient for myself and the participants.

Although I did not want to force the participants into a predetermined framework, I felt it important that the participants understood how the email interviews would be conducted and the timescale for responses. An interview guide was distributed as an introduction to the interviews, to explore issues relating to the aims of the research and for context setting. I deliberately chose not to send all the questions in one go, so as not to create a 'questionnaire.' Rather I wanted the participants to think about their response to each question in turn. The questions were, therefore, sent one at a time to each participant who would then respond by sending back their email reply. Participants were invited to email at length about what they had in mind in response to the questions and were probed further by supplementary questions, as necessary. This also allowed participants to return to earlier parts of the narrative with the aim of getting them to reflect on both the questions and responses before moving to the next question.

Sampling issues

The participants were selected using purposive sampling, based on my prior knowledge and their typicality. The aim of the email interviews was to explore meaning rather than survey the extent to which the academics agreed with my questions and response categories, and was grounded in the complexities of their lived experiences. This overcame the tension between analysing an online narrative that represented the experiences of the participants and creating a generalisable theory which meant that the richness of the narrative experiences would be lost.

Identity verification

Knowing the academics on a professional basis prior to the interviews eased the act of identification as the researcher, and helped me to gain rapport with them. The depth of their responses to my questions and lack of inhibition and frankness indicated that they had transmitted their experiences faithfully. Given my prior relationships and the fact that the email interviews involved a developing, reflective narrative between researcher and participants, it would have been difficult for them to sustain an identity that was divorced from the real self.

Incentives

No incentives were used in the research.

 

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