Thursday, 31 January 2013

A bright new look on people’s opinions

Vanessa Torres van Grinsven is a researcher at the University of Utrecht.

Opinion surveys: they are all around us. Who hasn’t received a request – by mail, telephone, email or through one of those annoying pop-up windows on websites? 

But, why do researchers even bother? Why are our opinions, our feelings and experiences even important for researchers?

Our opinions matter for a whole lot of purposes: brands perhaps would like to know if and how we appreciate their products. Decision-makers would like to know how we feel about certain policy issues. Social researchers would like to find out, how, for example, people that are ill experience the healthcare system, or how elderly feel about the care they are receiving at retirement homes. One way to find out about these opinions, feelings and experiences is to ask people, like by sending out surveys or doing interviews. 

There are though also other possible ways for doing opinion research. Nowadays, more and more people are becoming increasingly active on social media, like with platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and fora on websites. They write, for example, about what they are doing (“Trying a new recipe for a delicious pie”), what they have experienced (“Guess what happened to me today…”), how they feel (“I feel lucky today”) and what caused those feelings (“…because I got promoted at my job J”). Much of what people write is publicly available – open for anyone to read.

These writings closely resemble day-to-day communications. The same way we have a chat with our neighbour in the morning when we rush out to school, our jobs, etc., we write things on our Facebook and Twitter accounts - small, casual, day to day chats.

Taken all together, these writings have become a useful source for social researchers that want to find out how people really feel and think about things, and how they experience them. I recently undertook research to explore people’s feelings and ideas about, and experiences with, a national semi-governmental organization. I wanted to do that without burdening them with the job of filling in a survey or having to take time to have an interview with me. Doing an analysis of postings on social media gave seemingly relevant insights into these feelings, ideas and experiences.

For my analysis, I was able to use all public posts for a period of about two years. Like this, I could apply the “principle of total accountability” [1], that is, accounting for all the instances of the phenomena under investigation, which aids in its objectivity and representativeness.

Though being an innovative approach, recently more and more researchers are using social media as an important data source. These data may not be representative for a whole society. But, at least, using and analyzing these new types of data can offer us a first image upon which to further construct our research.

On the other hand, social media postings may possibly be an even more realistic account of people’s opinions than surveys or interviews, as all these posts were written down spontaneously, without anybody asking for it. There is no influence of the researcher on what is posted. Besides, according to media researchers, the modern social media can be seen as a new cultural forum, and as such they may be a repository and a resource articulating and negotiating meanings and world views on behalf of the culture at large.

Modern social media open up new doors as a datasource for researchers, and create additional possibilities to listen to people and what they really want.

[1] Leech, G. (1992) ‘Corpora and Theories of Linguistic Performance’, in J. Svartvik (ed.) Directions in Corpus Linguistics: Proceedings of the Nobel Symposium 82, Stockholm, 4–8 August 1991, pp. 105–22. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Calling all participants! Recruitment through LinkedIn

Wilma Garvin is currently undertaking research into organisation development and the role of women in business in the 21st century and lectures at the Docklands Business School, University of East London. 

My research was to review approaches to organization development in multinationals and government departments in order to create specific case studies. The method used was to undertake face to face and telephone interviews. Sampling using probability sampling seemed a logical approach since the objective was to interview Heads of Organisation Development (OD) or similar i.e. senior people responsible for Organisation Development.

Linkedin was used as the social media. I use Linkedin on a regular basis and I am a member of several OD networks. It seemed like the ideal way to identify and make contact with potential participants. Therefore, the opportunity was already being in OD networks and having contacts either in OD or with contacts in their networks in OD. The challenge was using these in order to find potential participants. These methods of making contact with people through Linkedin were as follows:

- Posting a message with some details of the research in the group area and asking people to contact me

- Asking direct contacts to make an introduce me to a specific person in their network

In using Linkedin, as one source of participants the challenges were:

Ethics: while people voluntarily post their business details on Linkedin, it did seem as if it might be seen as a low level form of stalking by using Linkedin to search for potential participants. Waskul and Douglas (1996 p131) have identified online interaction as neither public or private but as the ‘privately public’ and the ‘publicly private’.

Another challenge was the expectation that there would be a positive response from each of the people in my network to introducing me to their contacts. Some contacts took action immediately even though the contact was on a 3rd level. In a few instances, my contact did not respond and took no action. Where people did try to introduce me to their contacts, the contact declined to participate.

Sampling: Using Linkedin for the sampling frame might be seen as valid although only those who have been a conscious decision to be on Linkedin will be found. This means that the list will be incomplete as it will not represent the whole community of OD specialists.

Linkedin is a public environment and so the people there have chosen to present certain information publicly and so this overcomes some of the ethical issues. It was only being used as a way to contact experts in the field and therefore there would be informed consent. The message posted on the discussion boards provided enough detail and then further details were provided as follow up and in advance of the interviews. However, posting a message on the discussion boards might have been seen as an inappropriate use of the community (Eysenbach and Till 2001).

With regard to ethics, there was also the personal feeling that looking at people’s profile before asking a contact to make an introduction seemed like invasion of privacy may be the change from the ‘old’ attitudes to the new public environment of the internet.

With regard to sampling, it seemed as if self- selection non-probability sampling had to be accepted. On the positive side, it might have been difficult to identify a database of OD specialists since the job titles of OD practitioners can be very different and so using Linkedin does provide a way to identify who these are by drawing on knowledge of the job titles used and the access to Linkedin groups.

The resources used were the knowledge of OD, contacts and specialist groups and the knowledge of using social media.

Linkedin and other social media platforms provide a way to make contact with professionals in specific categories who are willing to take place in research. While self-selection does take place, this can be seen as a positive aspect since the people who did volunteer were passionate about their subject area and were keen to share but also saw it as a way to learn from others.


Bakardjieva, M. and Feenberg, A (2001) Involving the virtual subject, Ethics Information Technology, Vol 2:4, p233-240

Eysenbach, G. and Till, J.E. (2001) Ethical issues in qualitative research on internet communities, British Medical Journal, Vol. 323, p1103-5

Waskul, D. and Douglass, M. (1996) Considering the electronic participant: some polemical observations on ethics of on-line research, The Information Society, Vol 12:2, p129-139

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Qualitative Research and social media: webinar 5th Feb 2013

If you can't attend our knowledge exchange seminar on Jan. 28th why not join us the debate by registering for our 'Qualitative Research and Social Media' Webinar on February 5, 2013. The time is: 16:00 GMT/UTC, 17:00 CET, 12 pm EST, 11 am CST, 10 am MST and 9 am PST.

Please to reserve a space and receive log-in information.

New Social Media, New Social Science? The project title suggests a number of questions. “New Social Media?” While the big commercial networks of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In are generally thought of as synonymous with “social media,” what are the emerging new media sites, communities and approaches and how are they being used, by whom, for what purpose? And, how can scholars use social media as modes of communication with participants or as research sites?

New Social Science? In recent years we have seen “new” interdisciplinary social science fields emerge, such as Sustainability Studies (science, management, public policy) or Gender Studies (literature, language, history, political science, sociology.) Do we need new fields of social science study that recognize just how integrated technology is with professional, personal, cultural and social life? And… or…do we need new ways to generate new knowledge in the social sciences?

Qualitative approaches have long been recognized as appropriate for exploring new questions that may stretch methodological and theoretical traditions. This being the case, it is entirely fitting that NSMNSS include opportunities to explore qualitative research approaches online and hear from qualitative e-researchers.

In addition to the Knowledge Exchange Seminar 3 on January 28th, the webinar on February 5 is open to anyone who registers. This webinar will include presentations that examine opportunities, challenges and changes for qualitative researchers, and a panel of researchers who have conducted studies in and about Facebook. 

To join the conversation, send an email to to reserve a space and receive log-in information.

Webinar Agenda:

Opportunities and Challenges of Qualitative “Deep Data” Janet Salmons, Core Faculty, Capella University School of Business, USA and author, Online Interviews in Real Time and Cases in Online Interview Research.

The Changing Role of the Qualitative Researcher Online Kandy Woodfield, Head of Learning and Development, NatCen Social Research, UK

Facebook: Research Setting and Phenomena

Panel of Researchers:

• Allison Deegan

Deegan, A. (2012). Stranger in a strange land: The challenges and benefits of online interviews in the social networking space. In Salmons (Ed.), Cases in online interview research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

• Mike Behan

Behan, M. (in press). Study on the efficacy of Facebook friends on the perception of the brand in a Small to Medium Size Enterprise (SME). (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University)

• Dale Buckholtz

Buckholtz, D. (in press). Classifying virtual collaboration skills: A case study of social network site users’ skills and transference to virtual teamwork. (PhD), (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University)

Panel Discussion and Q & A

Local government and online networks of influence

Paul Hepburn is from the Institute for Social Change, Manchester University, you can contact him at 

Questions about researching the Internet are as old as arguments about its potential for democratic renewal. A case study into how the online network was used by those contesting the Manchester Congestion Charge referendum hits both these nails on the head.

Using an innovative research approach this study explored the question: Can online engagement enhance local democracy or will it be another route ‘… for the sad, the mad, the bad and the very, very rich’ to exert their influence on the policy making process?

The research design drew upon both quantitative and qualitative analysis to explore the online network in question. Firstly the web crawling software VOSON ( was used to capture the online hyperlinked network of interest. The network was then mapped and analysed using a variety of statistical techniques, such as Exponential Random Graph Models, associated with Social Network Analysis (SNA). This revealed websites of prominence in the network and an interesting pattern of online connections. Here a network ethnography approach was applied to illuminate how civic and political activists use the online network and to explain why this pattern of connections should have prevailed.

This approach identified a number of actors associated with sites that were prominent on a series of basic SNA metrics. In all 17 actors were interviewed. Their narratives served to explain the pattern of connections in the online network. They revealed a lack of trust in the leading local governance and most authoritative site in the network. This was mirrored by an almost sclerotic local government institutional anxiety about use of the social media fuelled partly by the anonymity of much online engagement. This contrasted with the innovative, and risk-averse, use of the new media by the traditional media. They also provided evidence of how powerful economic interests could influence politics online but they also showed how some civic activists were able to use the network to get their voices heard as well.

These findings whilst underlining the local democratic potential of the Internet also point to a requirement for policy intervention if this potential is to be fully realised. Local government in seeking to empower communities should act to ensure that local citizens’ voices can be heard in these online networks above those that have traditionally dominated political discourse. Issues of trust and civic identity should be tackled in ways that encourage participation but also preserve the integrity of local representative democracy.

For more details on this case study and the particular methods used please see:

Hepburn, P. (2012) Local Government and the online networked public sphere- A case study. Journal of Information Technology and Politics Vol 9(4) 370-387

Hepburn, P (2012) Is this local e-democracy? How the online sphere of influence shaped local politics. Empirical evidence from the Manchester Congestion Charge referendum. Journal of e-Democracy and Open Government 4 (1)

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Qualitative E-Research on E-Entrepreneurs

Not long ago entrepreneurs depended on financial capital to build the physical stores and factories needed to launch a business. And while costly physical operations are still important in some lines of business, 21century entrepreneurs see social capital as essential to a new venture. “Social capital” is the ability to build mutually-beneficial networks of partners, allies and customers (Adler & Kwon, 2002, p. 214; Carolis & Saparito, 2006; OttÓSson & Klyver, 2010; Xiong & Bharadwaj, 2011). Free or cheap technologies make it possible for start-ups to build social capital and sell products and services without huge initial investments. How do women entrepreneurs perceive their opportunities given the availability of these technologies and how do they use them to build networks that generate business? How have their choices vis a vis use of technology influenced the types of businesses they chose to run– and the goals they have for the future? This set of questions drove a study I conducted last year (Salmons, in press), and continued research.

Scholars have studied women entrepreneurs, and online entrepreneurs, but little research has explored the bootstrap, creative, small-scale woman entrepreneur who uses the social web to do her own thing. As well, it was apparent that much of the literature on women entrepreneurs is quantitative—and many studies draw on the same Big Data sources. A prominent one is the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) which publishes excellent reports and offers access to dataset downloads. Such data allows us to look at the gap between men and women entrepreneurs, the rate of start-up activity, the growth of women-owned firms, and other topics. Robust as this resource may be, it does not offer exemplars that allow for in-depth exploration of entrepreneurs’ motivations and purpose or to ask why they succeeded (or not), what they hope to achieve and how they feel about it. And the data collected by GEM and others makes little reference to the specific uses of social media and online communications by these entrepreneurs. To probe below the surface, qualitative methods are needed!

Using an exploratory grounded theory and situational analysis approach (Charmaz, 2006; Clarke, 2005), I studied a group of women e-entrepreneurs by following their digital footprints and by interviewing them online. Charmaz points out that in interviews the researcher "starts with the participant's story and fills it out by attempting to locate it within a basic social process" (Charmaz, 2003). Inthis study, participants' stories were located within the social process of business start-up and the entrepreneurial situation. The situational analysis approach allowed me to look closely at the situation by exploring inter-related human (entrepreneur, partners, allies, customers etc) and non-human aspects (technologies) of each entrepreneur’s unique case (Salmons, in press).Social Capital theory (Alfred, 2009; Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998) offered a view of the "situation" that focused on the beneficial effects of electronic networks comprised of trusting relationships with partners, online followers or friends, and customers.

Half of my sample included women whom I defined as real-world e-entrepreneurs and half were defined as digital e-entrepreneurs. Real-world e-entrepreneurs use online communications with vendors and customers, partners and allies, and for promotions and advertising. However, products and services are physical and in some cases inherently face-to-face, delivered or purchased on location. Real-world e-entrepreneurs for this study included a jeweler, a designer for an architecture firm and a therapist. Digital e-entrepreneurs similarly use online communications, but are in the business of selling electronic products and services. Electronic products and services online writing, teaching, training, consulting, web design or programming.

Participants created online presence for their businesses using diverse approaches that aligned with business activities. Websites, blogs, wikis and a variety of social media sites allowed for communication, product sales, training, events, networking, advertising, or crowd-source funding. For this study I was not interested in the traffic or the content of a quantity of posts. I was interested in the unique characteristics of each case and through review of participants’ online activities I was able to learn about each respective business, and to generate specific questions for each interview.

Findings for the study include a set of themes which will provide the foundation for the next stage of research. While I gained understanding about ways entrepreneurs can use social media and online communications to build successful businesses from scratch, the study also offered new insights about the ways researchers can use online tools at every stage of the study. I used social media (Twitter, Linked In, Facebook, Kickstarter) to recruit participants by posting a link to a description of the study posted on my own website. I used Survey Monkey to create an electronic consent form (see discussion of this approach and example). Interviews were conducted online in Adobe Connect, using text, verbal and visual modes of communication. While the resulting chapter will appear in a book, I have used excerpts in various posts and presentations to disseminate some of the findings. One reflection is that online interview research concerns more than the interview, that online qualitative research is inherently multi-modal involving inter-related and overlapping participant and outsider observations, document and records analyses. Now I want to build an intentionally multi-modal approach into next phase of the study—stay tuned!

Janet Salmons, PhD


Academy of Management Review, 27, 17-40.

and learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education(122), 3-12. doi:

entrepreneurial opportunities: A theoretical framework. Entrepreneurship: Theory &
Practice, 30(1), 41-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6520.2006.00109.x

qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

turn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

organizational advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242-266.

capital among entrepreneurs. Journal of Enterprising Culture, 18(4), 399-417.

the digital age. In L. Kelley (Ed.), Women Entrepreneurship: New Management
and Leadership Models. Westport: Praeger.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Researching the methodologies of crowdsourced research

Chris Williams is a visiting fellow at University of London (IoE) and a visiting professor at Chubu University Japan. You can contact him at

I’m researching the fast-evolving methods of crowdsourced research, especially among civil society groups and innovative academics. This is for a methods book-in-progress for Sage, called ‘Doing international research’.

Over the past 2-3 years, crowdsourcing research has become significant in diverse areas - astronomy, archaeology, epidemiology, environmental activism, state crime. Bird watching is one of the oldest examples. The RSPB uses thousands of volunteers to map sightings on a website.

Syria Tracker is a very pertinent current example. Evidence from within Syria - mobile phone photos, videos, emails - is sent to a Facebook site. Volunteers around the world compare this, with satellite images of Syria. Signs of state military action - like square objects which have a projection at one end, and are probably tanks - can be compared, for example, with the on-the-ground reports of hospital causalities. The comparisons are the key to ensuring the reliability of the evidence.

But there is no systematic understanding of this emerging methodology, so I'm investigating it through web searches, email contacts with activists, and interviews with technical experts.

I need to find out the underlying structures of this new approach to research, which means finding the exciting new e-enabled initiatives, but also identifying the historical precursors. For example, few people know that the Oxford English Dictionary, and museums like Pitt Rivers in Oxford, were products of crowdsourced research.

Understanding manual and e enabled strategies can suggest ways to develop future e-enabled methods, perhaps combined with manual methods.

For example, Google earth is being used as a basis for people in remote African communities to create detailed maps of their region. The data from numerous individuals, who are doing micro maps of their locality, can be compiled into a big regional map.

One of the in-progress findings is about sampling, and this is being discussed avidly by epidemiologists, who would normally use very robust random samples. The argument is that if they can collect very large amounts of crowdsourced data, can they then take a random sample from that mass of crowd data, and get robust results, even though the respondents are self-selecting?

Another outcome is that, generally for international research, we have to rely on state data - dubious statistics that are endlessly copied and rehashed. Crowdsourcing can get data about states that completely by-passes the state, as in the Syria example.

One significant difficulty is that relevant initiatives - old and new - are not all termed and tagged as 'crowdsourcing'. It took me ages to discover interesting initiatives, beyond a Google search on ‘crowdsourcing’ which mainly throws up boring commercial endeavours using the Amazon Mechanical Turk platform.

In Japan, since 1985, a high school teacher, Masatoshi Yamashita, has been collecting data from elderly fishermen who were affected by radiation from the Bikini Athol nuclear tests. He has used schoolchildren to identify and talk to them. Of course, the Japanese government has colluded with America to cover-up this problem, so it requires an effective ‘crowd’ endeavour to get the evidence before these victims die.

The reason this relates to the ‘termed and tagged’ problem, is that I know Mr Yamashita. A few years ago I sat in his house and saw him work on his maps. But I didn’t make the link that this was a form of crowdsourcing. And…Mr Yamashita is the uncle of my wife!

So I need to create constantly evolving typologies of crowdsourcing research designs and data collection methods, and then revisit the data, and my memory, to see if something reminds me of other hidden examples, like my uncle-in-law. So the key qualitative ingredient is actually a sort of reflexive personal brainstorming - matching what is happening in the world with what might be happening, hopefully, in my memory.

Further reading;

Williams, C. (2013) Crowdsourcing research: a methodology for investigating state crime, State Crime, 2:1.

Williams, C. (2-12) Researching power, elites, and leadership. London: Sage, p140.

Williams, C. (2014) Doing international research. London: Sage (In-progress)

Videos from our last Knowledge Exchange Seminar

During our last Knowledge Exchange Seminar we looked at three key issues for quantitative researchers using new social media:

Big Data

Populations and sampling

Data visualisation

We asked some of our participants to give a short presentation to open up the discussions on these issues. We filmed each of our presenters and you can find each of their presentations in the links below:  

Panos Panagiotopoulos

Carl Miller

Luke Sloan

Patty Kostkova

Scott Hale

Grant Blank

Ralph Schroeder

Thursday, 24 January 2013

What lies beneath the digital surface of our screens: Tunisian Revolution Case Study

The second in our series of blog posts looks at new social media and the Tunisian revolution. Cyrine Amor is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The issues raised by online research are numerous as we all know, and so are the new opportunities it provides. When it comes to the qualitative exploration of social media, the picture can be complex. Social researchers might seek to immerse themselves in a social media space in the way that traditional ethnographers would approach a physical space, but this is not a simple issue. Beyond issues with determining the boundaries of a space online and the relations between its inhabitants, we need to bear in mind that their online interactions cannot be isolated from an offline context and from the mediated structure that shapes their digital presence.

The ability to overcome spatial restrictions in online research should not distract us from placing social behavior within the social and cultural context of the spaces that online subjects physically inhabit in their everyday lives. Of course, not all social explorations of an online space demand involvement with these different layers of online, offline and mediated digital space. But an awareness of their respective implications can be crucial to attend to at an early stage of online research designs.

This awareness was demonstrated in my mixed methodological approach to the study of online social networking in Tunisia after the start of the revolution. This research provided not only a more nuanced understanding of the social and political role of a platform like Facebook, but an altogether different picture than what the study of that online space in isolation might have revealed.

Much attention was given to the role of social media during the wave of unrest that started to sweep across the Arab world at the end of 2010. Some Western academic circles were too swift to draw linear correlations between digital media and their revolutionising potential. I believe that this was partly due to an assessment of the online space in isolation in some of these countries and, at times, of the English-speaking online space only.

My research is ongoing and I certainly haven’t yet resolved all the methodological issues it has so far raised. However, preliminary findings certainly support the case for an engagement with social media space in conjunction with a physical immersion in the local community for prolonged periods of time and face-to-face interviews with participants. Amongst the most valuable of these insights may be the important role played by offline networks of kinship and friendship, the translation of their influence to the networked online space, and the implications of social norms that govern online activity and its visibility.

This is not to say that social media played an insignificant part in shaping the outcome of these protest waves, and they certainly do continue to play a fascinating role in the social and political landscape in some of these regions. But it is only to highlight that our eagerness to decipher social media spaces should remain wary of seeking answers that overlook what may lie beneath the digital surface of our screens.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Challenges and opportunities of Twitter as a corpus

In the run up to our next Knowledge Exchange Event we'll be posting a series of blogs on new social media and qualitative research methods. The first is by Amy Aisha Brown, a research student in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at the Open University. 

I won’t deny it, I am another one of those researchers who has been wowed by the idea of using social media in research, but I’d argue that it hasn’t been without good reason. I am interested in the ideologies of the English language in Japan, and I am looking to find out how these ideologies pan out in everyday discussions. The hope is that a wide scale investigation will complement research in the area that takes a more ethnographic approach (see Philip Seargeant’s work). So, what really pulled me into the idea of using social media, and Twitter specifically, were the possibilities for accessing a large body of relevant, naturally occurring discourse on everyday topics.

A quick search for “英語” (Japanese for ‘English’, as in the language rather than the people or the muffins) brings up new tweets every few seconds. While this shows just how much potential data is out there, ways of getting hold of tweets and getting them into a format that I can work with for the corpus analysis element of my study, are not as easy to find.

NVivo 10 and the associated browser plugin NCapture are two of-the-shelf tools I have used so far. NCapture lets you use Twitter’s simple search feature to find relevant tweets, and once you import the search results into NVivo, they appear alongside their metadata as a searchable data set that is ready for qualitative coding. This has been a useful way of getting an initial idea about what I can expect to get from tweets, but NVivo is unlikely to be a long-term solution for collect and corpus analysis for two reasons:

      1. Collecting tweets 
    • Using Twitter’s basic search function only gives access to a selection of the public tweets produced, a selection that is “optimized to serve relevant tweets to end-users” rather than a random sample or a sample based on any published definition. 
    • This way of collecting tweets also only allows you to collect around 1500 at a time, making it difficult (or at least very time consuming) to collect most of the relevant tweets accessible through the search function. 
      2. Corpus tools 
    • NVivo has lots of nice tools for visualizing text, such as word frequency lists and tag clouds but neither is it a tool built for corpus analysis nor one that is optimised for Japanese text. 
    • NCapture does not capture tweets in a way that makes them easily processed by software other than NVivo. 
In many ways, these are not just the limitations of the NVivio/NCapture combo, they are the technical challenges of my research in general. It might be that I have to compromise on what I hope to achieve, but for the time being I am enjoying looking into other options. If you have any suggestions, I'd be happy to hear. Otherwise, I’ll be getting back to it …