Proceedings of the AoIR-ASIST 2004 Workshop on Web Science Research Methods























Locating internet research methods within five qualitative research traditions

Denise N. Rall, School of Environmental Science and Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore NSW 2480 Australia. drall @ scu.edu.au http://www.scu.edu.au/schools/rsm/staff/pages/drall/index.html [Full Talk]

Every academic today uses the internet as a 'general-purpose' research tool - to make inquiries of peers, students, and experts; to look up research in online databases; or to search the 'Net for subjects of interest via publically available search engines like google, or search directories for information, such as in yahoo.com (among others).

Rather than using the internet as a general-purpose research tool, internet researchers seek answers to a
particular set of problems. These scholars pose their questions in a variety of ways, and to particular ends. Internet researchers vary greatly in their theoretical approaches, (ethnographic, demographic, or critical, as in feminist, or post-colonial), in their methods (quantitative vs. qualitative, or hybrid methods) and in their data collection.

Data collections will also vary. Some internet scholars mine the rich narrative sources provided by blogs or email discussion lists to undertake a linguistic analysis. Whereas other internet scholars collect data over the whole population, such as, ethnographies that seek to describe a group of users in online fantasy gaming."

For these reasons, it is important to distinguish between the serious scholar who makes extensive use of
the 'Net in their area of interest vs. an internet scholar, who takes the internet, its use and users, as their object/ subject of research

Recently, internet researchers have studied academics, grouped within specific disciplines, and measured their use of the internet. Overall, these studies were designed to highlight either disciplinary differences (Fry, 2003)or to establish the consistency of internet use among a particular group of scholars as part of their disciplinary identity (Beaulieu, 2002).

While internet use can differentiate among scholars in different disciplines, there are several other problems of interest. The first problem of to reconcile the use of the internet, as a general-purpose research tool, within a single disciplinary approach to knowledge. Some authors (Rall & Boyd, submitted) have maintained that internet studies and research, in the process of organizing itself as a new field of study, must first successfully locate its place within current approaches to inter- and trans-disciplinary theory. Similarly, Palmer (Palmer, 2001) has employed inter- and transdisciplinary theory to analyze communication pathways among researchers working on multi-disciplinary, problem-based research areas. Klein (2001) has framed problem-solving among multi-disciplined teams as the future of science and technology, so much so that the pursuits of e-Science and e-Social Science as well as other internet-based areas of study are assumed to work across disciplinary perspectives.

What follows from these inter- and trans-disciplinary research models is to challenge the assumption that the internet, as stated above, is a “general purpose research tool.”

One approach is that researching the internet remains outside of any disciplinary perspective. For example, Downing and Sosnoski (2000) state that their online cultural studies unit moved outside of ‘disciplinary protocols’, making it impossible to collate the new, interactive, and multi-perspectives that emerged during online discussions. For the authors, building a new epistemological framework was one of the key outcomes of the unit. The internet, as a set of research tools must be elaborated within the context of its use, in this case, within an online classroom.

However, another approach might prove interesting. The approach suggested here is, first, that the qualitative internet researchers should reject the notion of the internet as a general purpose research tool. But the approach also suggests that qualitative researchers need not rebuild their methodological platform anew for each internet-based inquiry. To enhance their online methods, qualitative internet researchers might consider the five traditions of research inquiry as a set of philosophical frameworks suggested by (Creswell, 1998). In this way, internet researchers could enrich their methods by considering five established qualitative research philosophical traditions as standpoints. Researchers could then align their internet-based research methods from a standpoint of theoretical assumptions. While some internet-based research will still require purpose-built methods, this paper offers Creswell’s five research traditions and their philosophical assumptions as standpoints which could assist scholars to locate their specific internet research methods within established research tradition. Creswell (Creswell, 1998:75) states these five assumptions as:

  1. ontological
  2. epistemological
  3. axiological
  4. rhetorical; and
  5. methodological.

In a well-established table, Creswell lays out the philosophical tradition, the overriding research question, the characteristics of the tradition, and finally, the implications for practice. While all of these issues are vital, it is the purpose of this paper to reframe these research traditions into standpoints for internet-based research, with the emphasis on the implications for practice within qualitative research traditions.


Beaulieu, A. , 2002. Tracing networks of trust in scholars' internet use: connectivity as ethnographic and formal object. Presented at: Internet Research 3.0: Net/Work/Theory, Annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, 13-16 October, Maastricht, Holland.

Creswell, J. W., 1998. Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, Sage.

Downing, D. B. and J. J. Sosnoski, 2000. Coming to terms with terms in academic cyberculture. In: The emerging cyberculture: Literacy, Paradigm, and Paradox. S. Gibson and O. O. Oviedo (Eds). Cresskill, NJ, Hampton Press: 99-127.

Fry, J. , 2003,. Academic Research Cultures and Computer-mediated Communication. Unpublished PhD. thesis, University of Brighton.

Klein, J. T. and et al., (Eds.) 2001. Transdisciplinarity: Joint problem solving among science, technology, and society - An effective way for managing complexity. Basel, Birkhauser.

Palmer, C. L., 2001. Work at the boundaries of science: Information and the interdisciplinary research process. Dordrecht, Kluwer.

Rall, D. N. and W.E. Boyd (submitted). “Can the internet be disciplined? Part I. Using internet protocols to reframe disciplinarity for the field of Internet Studies & Research” to: The Information Society.