Conducting online interviews: How-to guide

Posted: December 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, theory | Comments Off on Conducting online interviews: How-to guide

It goes without saying that technology-mediated communication is becoming increasingly common as both a locus and a tool for ethnographic research.  I find it exciting to observe how writers have responded by producing innovative teaching and learning materials for conducting online research. One recent addition is Online Interviews In Real Time, (2010) by Janet Salmons.  What I like about this book is that it provides a very thorough guide for thinking through the process of planning, executing, and reflecting on various types of online interviews — synchronous, asynchronous, with and without camera, one-to-one and one-to-many, interviews using Skype or Skype-like platforms, interviews in immersive environments, etc.

There are a couple of areas in which I’d like to add to the conversation.  First, how do we researchers go about preparing (or not preparing) our interviewees for meeting us on the platforms we choose for online interviews?  Second, how can we — and how should we — engage more deliberately in the process of choosing platforms for our online contact with research participants?  Any platform that we choose (whether as a subject of our studies or a means of studying our subject) will have communication affordances and constraints encoded into it.  How can we better reflect on these before, during, and after our research?

What guides do you turn to in thinking through your online research methods?

Free materials on Social Computing

Posted: December 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, theory | Comments Off on Free materials on Social Computing

As I have blogged about before, I am very interested in theories of social technology as well as research on the ways in which technology and communication are mutually constitutive.  How are technologies strategically designed to shape communication?  How can such designs be improved?  How can developers take social interactions into account as they plan, develop, and execute designs for technological interfaces?  If you’re interested in these questions, and you’d like to explore their answers from a developer’s/technologist’s viewpoint, then you’ll want to take a look at these free materials on social computing developed by Tom Erickson of IBM Research Labs. These materials are part of the growing collection being developed by, a venture driven by scholars and thinkers who seem wholly dedicated to sharing information and supporting conversations.

Strategies for ensuring validity and reliability in ethnographies of communication

Posted: October 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: research work, theory, writing | Comments Off on Strategies for ensuring validity and reliability in ethnographies of communication

When you are engaged in doing an ethnography of communication, how do you ensure that you are assessing your key concepts accurately?  How do you make certain that your readings of the data are correct? There are a number of strategies that can be used to test the validity and reliability of work done under the aegis of the ethnography of communication.

First, does the researcher make it a point to use key terms, concepts, descriptions, and explanations used and/or provided by the people under study?  (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49) One excellent model for this approach is an article on an Osage community by Pratt and Wieder (1993).  In this article, Pratt and Wieder provide readers with a step-by-step description of the speech events under analysis, including detailed information on who (gender, age, experience, role) can speak for others (and why); who participates in these speech events (speaking for others) and how; how these events start, proceed, and end; how they are regulated; how/where people sit/arrange themselves; how stages of the events are ordered; the underlying reasons for the events; how people prepare for the events; what expectations govern the events; may and may not be said; how listeners comport themselves; and the delivery (eye contact, gaze, volume, tone) of speakers.  In this way Pratt and Wieder use informants’ terms and also describe very carefully, down to the smallest details, how informants see these speech events playing out.

Second, does the report expound on something that the people under study would actually acknowledge as a facet of their lives?  In other words, would community members recognize the findings as something real and true about their world? (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49) One great example of this is Manning’s (2008) analysis of online forums for Starbucks baristas.  In the forums the baristas let off steam about “SCOWs” (stupid customer of the week), a local concept.  Manning uses the baristas’ own words to elucidate what, exactly, stupid customers are (what they do, say, etc.)

Third, does the researcher produce an analysis that actually helps people from the community under study to “better to understand [their] own social world?” (Philipsen, 1982, p. 49)  When sharing your work with your informants, do they report back that it helps them to analyze, understand, or deal with the issues better, more effectively, or more successfully?

Fourth, (how) does the researcher seek out checks and/or validation of the findings from members of the community under study?  (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002)  Such checks can do a great deal to validate the accuracy of the findings, because ultimately an ethnographer of communication seeks to discover the meanings and understandings of the informants themselves.  Two model studies of this are Baxter (1993) and Bailey (1997).  In both of these cases, the researchers test their findings by sharing them with informants, asking them if they got things right, and having them provide further explanations where necessary.

Fifth, having multiple researchers on the project can function to ensure validity.  Pratt and Wieder (1993) are a good example of this, with Pratt’s inside knowledge as a member of the Osage community working in combination with the experience of Wieder.

Sixth, another good strategy is to have comparative data at hand. Bailey’s (1997) article is a good model for this because he shares transcripts of typical service interactions from multiple perspectives.

Finally, intercoder reliability checks can be a very effective way of ensuring reliability in the data analysis.  To do this, one must engage a second (or third, etc.) person to look over the data not only to make sure that the codes and categories seem logical, but also to test whether or not they code it consistently with the primary researchers.

What methods do you use to ensure the validity and reliability of your qualitative work?


Bailey, B. (1997). Communication of respect in interethnic service encounters. Language in Society, 26(3), 327-356.

Baxter, L. (1993). “Talking things through” and “putting it in writing”: Two codes of communication in an academic institution. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 21, 313-326.

Lindlof, T. R., & Taylor, B. C. (2002). Qualitative communication research methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Manning, P. (2008). Barista rants about stupid customers at Starbucks: What imaginary conversations can teach us about real ones. Language & Communication, 28, 101–126.

Philipsen, G. (1982). Linearity of reserach design in ethnographic studies of speaking. Communication Quarterly, 25(3), 42-50.

Pratt, S., & Wieder, D. L. (1993). The case of saying a few words and talking for another among the Osage people: ‘public speaking’ as an object of ethnography. Research on Language and Social Interaction 26(4), 353-408.

Social technology

Posted: August 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, theory | 1 Comment »

What is the relationship between technology and social life?  How do our technologies shape us, and how do we shape them?

These questions have been hotly debated for ages, and it’s a testament to their importance and complexity that they still continue to dog researchers, scholars, and laypeople alike.  In fact, it’s safe to say that studying the relationship between technology and society will never go out of style.

So where do we start, and how do we frame, set up, and execute our studies?

My choice is to utilize a perspective called social technology.  Social technology is a “soft-line” deterministic perspective which holds that “technology has structures in its own right but that social practices moderate their effects on behavior.” (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994, p. 125)  In other words, the social technology perspective assumes a dynamic relationship between technology and society in which each shapes – and is shaped – by the other.

The social technology perspective is a logical middle ground between the extremes of technological determinism on the one hand, and social constructivism on the other.  Technological determinists believe that technologies will result in particular (social, cultural) outcomes.  In other words, technologies exert a force on us, but not vice versa. Social constructivists, on the other hand, study technologies from the perspective that they are entirely shaped by us, but not vice versa.

In contrast, social technologists believe that the ways in which people use technologies are not predetermined, but nor are they random or unshaped.  Rather, there is a constant push and pull between the technological and the social.  Social technologists believe that people create and engage deliberately with technologies and use them to reach goals, fill needs, and generally achieve things in the social world.  At the same time, social technologists are sensitive to the ways in which technologies do exert a force on us by limiting our choices, propelling us to select certain paths, and shaping our perspectives and our reasoning.

What does this mean for social technology researchers?  Three important implications come to mind.

  1. We never look at technologies in isolation, because doing so will never give us a complete understanding of their use and significance, or anything close to it.  Rather, we need to look at the social contexts of which technologies are a part.
  2. We accept that neither social life nor any technology is ever static, but always a work in progress.  Because of this, we have to pay attention to the ways in which both technologies and societies evolve and (more often) co-evolve.  In this way, we must look at the historical/social development of technologies over time.
  3. We recognize that while technology exerts a force on social life, it is only one of the many other influences, including institutional structure, member knowledge, social hierarchies, social rules and traditions, and others.

What social technology studies are you currently conducting?  What social technology studies inspire you?

Works Cited

  • DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121-147.

Additional Sources

  • Barley, S. R. (1986). Technology as an occasion for structuring:  Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31(1), 78-108.
  • Latour, B. (1991). Technology is society made durable. In J. Law (Ed.), A sociology of monsters:  Essays on power, technology, and domination (pp. 103-131). London: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation:  Philosophy, sociology, genealogy. Common Knowledge, 3, 39-64.
  • Neff, G., & Stark, D. (2004). Permanently beta:  Responsive organization in the Internet Era. In P. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online:  The Internet in context (pp. 173-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (1994). Genre repertoire: The structuring of communicative practices in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(4), 541-574.
  • Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects:  Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-420.
  • Yates, J. (1989). Control through Communication:  The rise of system in American management. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.