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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Inequalities 1: International inequalities

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Open/close headingDigital divide

One difficulty in writing about the digital divide is the rapid pace of change in internet use may soon render any discussion obsolete. Additionally care must be taken that any discussion surrounding the digital divide does not become embedded in notions of technological backwardness or deficiency based on deep set notions of cultural and racial difference for which externally generated solutions must be devised. However, it is still broadly agreed that a major limitation with the use of online research methods is that the 'digital divide' means that some regions of the world and some social groups are less 'connected' than others. This is because some individuals, by virtue of their circumstances (nationality, income, age, ethnicity, gender), may not have access to computer equipment, software and literacy or internet connections (Janelle and Hodge 2000). Internet-mediated research may well then involve sample bias and be non-representative of large swathes of the global population. As Jankowski and van Selm (2005, 203) correctly observe 'most research on the internet is centred in Anglo-American cultural contexts'.

For example, at present it is clear that there are still stark inequalities at the global scale with respect to technical infrastructure, computer facilities and training, speed, bandwidth and cost. In 2001 it was estimated by the United National Development Programme (2001) that 90 percent of internet use occurred in rich countries, accounting for only 15 percent of the global population. But although northern users have dominated internet usage to date, this is rapidly changing. In 1995, 70 percent of internet users were based in US but this had fallen to 50 percent in 1999 and 23 percent in 2005 (Thurlow et al. 2004, 122; [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). Recent figures (November 2005) from the internet world statistics consequently show that southern users are increasing (for example, 34 percent of the total world internet users are now in Asia compared to 29 percent in Europe, 23 percent in north America, seven percent in Latin America and Caribbean and only two percent in Africa, Oceania/Australia and the Middle East). Thus the greatest usage growth in the internet between 2000-2005 has been in Africa (429 percent), Middle East (305 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (291 percent) compared to an overall world average of 165 percent ([External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). However, the actual proportion of the population within each region using the internet still remains by far the greatest in northern countries (for example, 68 percent 'penetration' of internet use in north America, 53 percent in Oceania/Australia, 37 percent in Europe compared to 13 percent in Latin America and Caribbean, eight percent in the Middle East, nine percent in Asia and only three percent in Africa), which suggests an ever shifting picture regarding access to the digital divide.

Therefore a key ethical issue that the online researcher must address is who one can communicate with online. So despite the suggestion that online research methods have the possibility of increasing the scope and range of social science research, the digital divide ensures that in reality these online research methods are very geographically specific, limiting who can we 'speak' to and whose lives we can engage with. The potential to be involved in a study using online research methods is therefore partial, so any grand claims of the utility of such methods for internationalizing research must be treated with some caution.


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[Open/close heading]Censorship

Censorship is a further ethical issue worthy of mention in relation to international inequalities. The online researcher cannot assume everyone has the ability to speak freely on the internet. Online censorship has proliferated as use of the internet has grown and is often aimed at protecting children. It does also mean that sometimes contentious and unsavoury sources may be censored for adult use on the internet. However, one must not fall into the trap of regarding the internet as a particularly dangerous source of scandalous material. It must be remembered that onsite researchers can get access to extreme and deviant publications via archives, special library collections and public sources. Moreover, censorship is also a significant issue with regard to the potential reach and internationalization of online research. Particular governments are involved in internet censorship which means that access to the internet is itself restricted. For example, in Singapore, all websites and discussion groups are controlled by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (Rodriguez 2000) while government controlled censorship is also practiced in China and the Gulf states (Grossman 1997). In Namibia the government has tried to quash internet use and Syria has agonized over whether to introduce it (Mann and Stewart 2000, 33). Hence, issues of censorship take different forms in different countries and will therefore influence the possibilities of online research viability.


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Open/close headingLanguage issues

Digital space is still largely characterised by ethnocentrism, in terms of the dominance of the English language. Additionally, the 'newbie snobbery' of netiquette, acronyms and emoticons can produce an 'unwelcome terrain' for marginalized cultures and erect barriers to membership. English currently predominates as the language of the internet and the majority of webpage content is also in English (84%), although some changes are apparent. In 1996, 80% of users were English speaking but by 2000 this had fallen to 54%, with 7.1% Japanese, 5.4 % Chinese, 5.0% German, 4.7% Spanish, 3.9% French (Thurlow et al. 2004, 121). Recent figures (2004) suggest that non-English speakers now predominate (63.5%) in accessing the internet and the greatest growth in internet languages is predicted to be in Japanese, Korean and Chinese (Thurlow et al. 2004, 121). But this raises ethical issues for online researchers. What languages are we going to use to communicate? Who can we speak to? Do we have an ethical compulsion to communicate our online questionnaires and virtual interviews in a multilingual format? Online research methods are at present characterised by ethnocentrism, in terms of the dominance of the English language, so decolonisation of language is another key ethical issue.


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[Open/close heading]Implications for online ethical practice

AoIR ethical recommendations recognise that a central goal of their document 'is to present internet research ethics that are intentionally pluralistic…..to preserve and foster the often diverse ethical insights of the world's cultures' (Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee 2002, 2). It welcomes suggestions and additions from national cultures and in languages not well represented in the current literature. It also draws attention to the ethical traditions of researchers' and participants' culture and country as this may be significant when considering risks to subjects, including violation to basic human rights, self-determination, privacy, informed consent and the benefits of the researcher (Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee 2002, 8). Following from this, a special conference organised at Lancaster University December 2001 on Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquires, attempted to '…articulate values and guidelines for internet research that are genuinely global in their validity (as required for a global medium) while acknowledging important cultural and national differences in values that might require specific ethical codes and guidelines for distinctive cultural groups' (Ess 2002a, 177).

As Ess (2002a, 185-186) summarises in relation to online ethics, '… the literatures, laws, polices and discussions still represent a limited framework- i.e., that of the North. …. To further expand these frameworks into genuinely global ones clearly requires new dialogue and engagement with the traditions and value systems of Central and Southern America, Middle- and eastern European, Francophone countries, the Middle East, the Islamic world, Africa, Asia, and the many indigenous peoples of First World nations who have survived the colonization of recent centuries- especially as these domains represent the most rapid growth of CMC and thus some of the most interesting domains for internet research.' This is a goal of genuinely encompassing global perspectives into internet research ethics. From the relative paucity of published work on this topic, clearly much remains to be done.

There are, however, moves in this direction. For example, some attempts have been made to explore the cultural diversity in use of communication and technology (Ess 2002b; Ess and Sudweeks 2001; 2002), in the use of cross-cultural research teams (Foot et al. 2003) and non Anglo-American centred research (see, for example, The World Internet Project, Bridges.org and Digital Divide Network). Indeed, Jankowski and van Selm (2005, 206), in summarising a future agenda for methodological innovation in online research note the importance of developing cross-national studies, preferably longitudinal in nature which involve ‘designs of engagement’ whereby '…researchers take an active role in the formulation of policy and action within concrete settings', including action research and participatory forms of inquiry.


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[Open/close heading]Learning activity: Guided reading

[?] The activity that follows provides guided further reading on inequalities in internet use and the digital divide.

International inequalities in internet use

Although Northern users have dominated internet usage, this is changing. In 1995, 70 percent of internet users were based in US but this had fallen to 50 percent in 1999 and 33 percent in 2002. The greatest recent increase in internet users has been in the Far East/Pacific regions (Thurlow et al. 2004, 122).

Visit Internet World Statistics at [External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.internetworldstats.com /stats.htm to determine the current geographical variation in online users. What are the key geographical features that are apparent? How and why does this vary with your perceptions of internet use?

The digital divide

Read the following texts and account for international inequalities underlying the digital divide. How and why do the perspectives on the digital divide vary in the two documents? What can be done to overcome the digital divide?

Bridges.org (2001) Spanning the digital divide: Understanding and tackling the issues.
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.bridges.org/publications/65

United National Development Programme (2001) Making New Technologies work for human development.
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2001/


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