In our research methods seminar this evening at the Berkman Center, we got into a spirited conversation about the challenges of surveying bloggers. In this seminar, we’ve been working primarily from a text called Research Confidential, edited by Eszter Hargittai (who happens to be my co-teacher in this experimental class, taught concurrently, and by video-conference, between Northwestern and Harvard). The book is a great jumping-off point for conversations about problems in research methods.
The two chapters we’ve read for this week were both excellent: Gina Walejko’s “Online Survey: Instant Publication, Instant Mistake, All of the Above” and Dmitri Williams and Li Xiong’s “Herding Cats Online: Real Studies of Virtual Communities.” Both chapters are compelling (as are the others that we’ve read for this course). They tell useful stories about specific research projects that the authors conducted related to populations active online. In support of our discussion about surveys in class, these two chapters tee up many of the issues that we ought to have raised in this conversation. Gina also came to class to discuss her chapter with us, which was amazing. (Come to think of it, I would also have liked to have met the two authors of the second chapter; they wrote some truly funny lines into the otherwise very serious text.)
In a previous class, we started with Eszter’s Introductory chapter, “Doing Empirical Social Science Research,” as well as Christian Sandvig’s “How Technical is Technology Research? Acquiring and Deploying Technical Knowledge in Social Research Projects.” These two chapters were a terrific way to start the course; I’d recommend the pairing of the two as a possible starting point for getting into the book, even though they’re not presented in that order (with no disrespect meant for those who chose the chapter order in the book itself!).
While many of Research Confidential’s chapters bear on the special problems prompted by use of the Internet and the special opportunities that Internet-related methods present, the book strikes me as very useful read for anyone conducting research in today’s world. I strongly recommend it. The mode of the book renders the text very accessible and readable: unlike most methods textbooks, this book is a series of narratives by young researchers about their experiences in approaching research problems, some of them related to the Internet and others not so technical in nature. As a researcher, I learned a great deal; as a reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s stories.