The ever-growing use of social media — and the resultant Big Data– excites quantitative researchers. The potential to use social media to collect rich data that can generate new insights excites qualitative researchers. Quantitative methods allow researchers to reveal and follow patterns of posts and responses by users of social media sites. But at some point we need to ask “why?” in order to discern users’ motivation, understand the significance of behaviours and learn how the experience is significant to their personal or professional lives. Qualitative researchers have the ability to do so. Qualitative research approaches allow us to dig below the surface to explore how, why or what, and to explore relationships and connections not readily evident in Big Data—which is why I’ve taken to describing it as Deep Data.
While quantitative researchers typically collect data or track movements posted at a previous time, qualitative researchers can use asynchronous, synchronous and near-synchronous approaches. Social media sites allow researchers to develop new interpretations of classic qualitative data collection approaches: observations, interview and document analysis. (For more on social media communications and qualitative data collection, see my video blog here.)
We have a lot of options when it comes to the type of study to be conducted with qualitative research on, about or with social media. We can look at the online behavior as the research phenomenon itself, or we may look at the online behavior in relation to other thoughts, experiences or attitudes related to life on- or offline.
For example, as researchers we may be interested in how cancer survivors cope, and decide to conduct interviews with a text or video chat function in a social media platform because it allows us to select a more geographically dispersed sample. Or, we may be interested in how cancer survivors use social media to build networks that help them cope. In this case, to understand participants’ choices, communications and patterns of usage on that platform, we may use observations of community events, such as a webinar with a guest speaker, analysis of posts, and/or interviews with community members to collect data. In the first example the social media platform is a means for communication that allows us to understand a research phenomenon. In the second example, the social media platform itself is part of the phenomenon being investigated. This fundamental choice about the research purpose and researcher’s motivation for using social media influences the entire research design, sampling and mode of data collection: what data to collect from whom, how, using what synchronous or asynchronous communications (Salmons, 2012).
Clearly, varied combinations of social media tools and qualitative methods offer a wide range of options for social science researchers. There are many opportunities in the yet unexplored ways to think about qualitative research and social media—as well, there are many unanswered questions and challenges. A few intriguing areas for consideration are:
Ethical dilemmas. Qualitative researchers will always need informed consent for interviews and direct exchanges with research participants. But the situation is fuzzier when the researcher is conducting observations or drawing content from posted materials in online settings where it may be hard to distinguish public from private.
Diverse data types. Communication in social media settings may involve a mix of visual, verbal and text-based exchanges. Qualitative researchers need to decide which types to use, and how to analyze them. As well, they need to consider intellectual property rights of images, or pictures that include other people who have not given permission for their use by the researcher.
Non-neutral platforms: Most social media sites are commercially owned. They are designed to generate revenue, not simply for a social good. Features are designed to encourage users to navigate and participate in certain ways. This means participants—unless they program their own online sites or interactive spaces—are not functioning online independent of technical and other constraints.
What opportunities and obstacles do you see for qualitative researchers in the digital age? Please join NSMNSS in Methodspace, Twitter chats, virtual seminars and a coming Knowledge Exchange Seminar to share ideas and strategies.