Challenges and Choices in the Study of Internet Mediated Interactions (IMI): Ethnographic Experiences from Bangalore

 This post is authored by Anuradha Rao who is an Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Communications and  New Media (CNM) at NUS

The #SelfiesFromTheField session at IRC17 appeared to be the ideal venue for an early career researcher to discuss the methodological and practical challenges encountered while conducting her PhD fieldwork not-too-long ago. So, when my abstract was accepted, I was excited at the prospect of sharing my experiences, as well as learning from, other emerging and established Internet researchers in India. A key motivation was that the session allowed me to tap into the detailed Methodology section of my dissertation, and reflect on the experiences and challenges of conducting the research. While some issues had been discussed in the dissertation, others had not been formally documented, but had been noted down in memos and field notes. Mostly, however, these challenges were etched in my memory, as they represented the real trials and tribulations of doing research about and on the Internet. The session represented a way to formalise these observations, to put ‘out there’ some scenarios that Internet researchers may encounter, and to highlight the ways in which the methodological challenges were dealt with.

The presentation was based on the experiences of conducting fieldwork for my PhD dissertation, titled: Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and civil society in an ‘IT City’: Experiences of civic and political engagement in Bangalore (2015, National University of Singapore). The dissertation focused on the interactions between civil society, new technologies, and democratic engagement in Bangalore. Bangalore was chosen as the site of the study due to its IT context, its global connections, and its vibrant civil society, as reflected in collective actions in physical and virtual spaces. Fieldwork included one round of preliminary information gathering and two rounds of formal ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2010-2013.

The key challenges of conducting the research are presented below in chronological order: (1) the paucity of theoretically-informed and grounded research on the Internet and civil society in India at that time; (2) the difficulty of accessing up-to-date information about ICT-based groups and initiatives; (3) the difficulty of accessing online participants; and (4) scepticism among some traditional civil society participants about the value of ICT-focused research in the Indian context. These challenges in turn determined the methodological choices and the final research framework, which was emerging in response to the events on the ground.

The exploratory visit to Bangalore in 2010 provided the first indicator of the challenges I would face in conducting the research—viz., the gap between information available on the Internet and the actual situation of projects or events on the ground. Thus, as I grappled with the realization that previously identified cases were no longer viable or relevant (role of techno-elites in ABIDe), or over-researched (Janaagraha’s ICT-based initiatives), I was faced with the challenge of identifying and selecting new case studies. The final cases—environmental network Hasiru Usiru and blog-based discussion platform Praja.in—were identified through a combination of preliminary Internet searches, online observation, and recommendations from informants and participants themselves. In this way, qualitative research allowed for the inputs of the people whose life-world and meaningful actions were under study (Bergold & Thomas, 2012), and provided flexibility to make decisions based on the changing research context and situation (Mason, 2002; Patton, 2002).

In choosing the final cases, as well as overcoming the difficulties of accessing online participants, personal contacts—professional and private—played an important role in gaining access to new participants directly or indirectly. Hence, snowball sampling became the most effective way of locating interviewees that were hard to reach because of the anonymity or pseudonymity of online spaces, making them ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ to some extent (Baltar & Brunet, 2012; Browne, 2005). This was true in the case of both Hasiru Usiru and Praja, as their online spaces revealed limited information about members, and only partially identified who the key actors were. Further, in Hasiru Usiru, it was a challenge to identify important members, as (I discovered later) most were less active on the online spaces, whereas in Praja, the high level of activity by different members on the platform made it difficult to identify who the key actors were.

As the fieldwork progressed, qualitative offline interviewing proved to be the most effective method of data collection for the following reasons:

i. as online engagement entails multi-site communications, what is communicated online could differ from what was communicated offline by the same person or organisation (Soriano, 2012), and

ii. observation of online interactions provided only a glimpse of the relationships between participants.

Offline interviews were supplemented by mediated (email, Skype and telephone) interviews, which provided additional rapport building opportunities and allowed for focused follow-up questioning once I had exited the field. Finally, interviews allowed for the emergence of participants’ narratives regarding the value of the Internet and IMI research in the Indian context. Of particular interest was the dichotomy that emerged between “traditional” civil society, and newer civic actors whose activities were supported by the Internet. While the latter attempted to leverage the Internet as an additional space for civic engagement, the former tended to view IMIs as spaces of elitist interactions, which would exacerbate existing inequalities in the city. The skepticism among traditional civic participants—while not a barrier per se—necessitated they be convinced further about the significance of the research and the meaningfulness of their participation in it.

These experiences that I discussed at the session highlighted a mere handful of the methodological and practical challenges, and choices and innovations that arise in conducting research on IMIs (see Karpf, 2012). With the changing nature of social science research methods to accommodate the pervasive role of information and communication technologies (ICTs), discussions vis-à-vis the Internet are required now more than ever. In doing so, I concluded that the role of context, and the unique circumstances surrounding Internet use in developing countries must be brought to the forefront of such methodological conversations.

Through frank and reflective deliberations of the problems and possibilities of IMI research, including an extremely informative and interactive Q&A with the audience, the #Selfies session achieved its objective of allowing us to better understand the practical aspects of doing Internet research. Additionally, the conference as a whole allowed for the emergence of bottom-up perspectives and new dimensions of Internet research in India, and provided ample spaces for discussions and forging connections among the increasing tribe of Internet researchers in India. Special thanks to Kavitha, Onkar, and Oindrila at IIIT-B, and Sumandro and Sneha at CIS, for giving me the opportunity to be part of the conference, and for being wonderful hosts and organizers!

References:

Baltar, F., & Brunet, I. (2012). Internet Research. Social research 2.0: Virtual snowball sampling method using Facebook, 22(1), 57-74.

Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012, January). Participatory research methods: A methodological approach in motion. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 31(1). Retrieved from Forum: Qualitative Social Research.

Browne, K. (2005). Snowball sampling: Using social networks to research non-heterosexual women. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 8(1), 47-60.

Karpf, D. (2012). Social science research methods in Internet time. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 639-661.

Mason, J. (2002). Qualitative researching (2nd Edition ed.). London: Sage Publications.

Patton, M. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd Edition ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Rao, A. (2015). Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and civil society in an ‘IT City’: Experiences of civic and political engagement in Bangalore. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Soriano, C. (2012). New media and political mobilization: The case of online mediation of minority groups in the Philippines. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CITAPP and IIIT Bangalore.

 

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