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Online interviews 1: Introduction

The qualitative interview is perhaps the most popular method in social science. But online interviews are still relatively marginal, especially ‘real time’ ones. In a short series of posts to be published within the next week, I will suggests ways in which the Internet both challenges and furthers the interview method.

Discussing the validity of online research raises basic questions: Are online methods merely extending offline methods, or should they be seen as departing from them? This is related to the fundamental challenge in social science of inquiring a constantly changing world. Are the offline methods that have been cultivated over decades still adequate in a complex information society?

Depending on what one believes to be the answer, different threats to validity are brought to the forefront. For example, if online interviews are seen as merely an extension in which rapport still needs to be built in the conventional way, media richness is a key factor. If, on the other hand, online methods are seen as a way to interrogate new social phenomena, learning the online “netlingo” or netiquette becomes key to research credibility.

Another good example is that of anonymity online. In the qualitative research tradition, face–to-face interaction is the gold standard. Not knowing the identity of the interviewee poses a major threat to validity.

On the other hand, the opportunity to remain anonymous online might result in more frank answers. What is more, the soundness of a face-to-face preference has been called into question by Walther (1995), who shows through experimental research that asynchronous text-mediated relationships can be just as intimate, sometimes even strengthening efficiency and trust, especially in continuous interaction.

O'Connor et al. (2008) identify ”interview design, the building of rapport, the virtual venue and research ethics” as four major challenges in online interviewing. Leaving ethics to be treated elsewhere, I will address the three other themes in blog posts to follow shortly. To my mind, however, the building of rapport has a lot to do with the configuration of the 'virtual venue', so my alternative headlines are sampling, textual mediation and shifts in temporality.

O'Connor, H., C. Madge, R. Shaw, and J. Wellens. 2008. “Internet-based Interviewing.” in The Handbook of Online Research Methods, edited by Nigel G. Fielding, Raymond M. Lee, and Grant Blank. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 

Walther, Joseph B. 1995. “Relational Aspects of Computer-Mediated Communication: Experimental Observations over Time.” Organization Science 6:186-203.