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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM


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Open/close headingCritical online reflexivity

According to (Hine 2005, 9): 'New technologies might…provide an opportunity for interrogating and understanding our methodological commitments. In the moments of innovation and anxiety which surround the research methods there are opportunities for reflexivity. Seizing these moments for reflexivity depends, however, on not taking the radical capacities of the new technologies for granted, nor treating them as poor substitutes for a face-to-face gold standard'. Evidence of such reflexivity exists. Hall et al. (2004), for example, propose the use of a feminist communitarian approach which prioritises the online community, roots the research in neighbourliness (care and understanding), is participant driven, ensures accurate and sufficient interpretation of data and above all, is conceived of as an online community service. Madge (in progress) further suggests that online research methods do hold some postcolonial potential which involves internationalising these methods to work towards 'inclusions beyond the mainstream'. This approach would both embrace differences and expand access to privilege and power, through involving participants from the outset through the production of bottom up theory and by sensitive and ongoing online reflexivity which respects the dignity of participants. Finally, postcolonial online methods would aim towards contributing to society and human well-being through global ethics of care and fair distribution of the benefits of the research (Madge, in progress). Here, Thomas' (2004, 198) view would be endorsed that internet research ethics cannot be separated from the broader social and political milieu. Hence, a global, rather than a parochial, view of the problems must be taken in an attempt to 'think outside of the ethical box' (Thomas 2004, 198).


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[Open/close heading]A concluding note of caution

Given the growth and impact of the internet in recent years, the ability to utilise online research methods is both timely and of utmost significance to many social scientists. Their use, however, must be carefully considered. As Denscombe (2003, 41) suggests: 'A decision on whether it is appropriate to use 'e-research' should be based on an …evaluation of the respective advantages and disadvantages in relation to the specific topic that is to be investigated.' Indeed, although the data collected by online methods can be rich and valuable to the researcher, the potential of online research should not be exaggerated: many of the issues and problems of conventional research methods still apply in the virtual venue. As Smith (1997, 4) concludes: 'The new technology offers a spate of problems layered over the old.' This is surely true for consideration of ethical issues. It must be remembered that ethical issues are often superficially considered by more conventional onsite researchers so care must be taken not to inflate ethical issues in the virtual venue. We should not have higher expectations for online researchers than we do for onsite researchers! As Thomas (2004, 200) so rightfully reminds us 'ethical conundrums are never easily solved, and dialogue, critique, constant vigilance, and accountability seem far preferable to more rules and increased oversight.' Indeed, if online/offline worlds are mutually constituted, and we carry our real-world assumptions, norms and behaviours into cyberspace, then we can clearly draw on onsite ethical guidelines (see support for this viewpoint from Boehlefeld 1996; Jones 2004; Thomas 2004). But, further than this, if there is a dialectical relationship between cyberspace and geographical space, then what does a consideration of online ethics have to offer conventional onsite understandings of ethics? This is the future for online ethical research enquiries.


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