What is digital research?

Thoughts on Digital Qualitative Research – Part 1

In this short series about qualitative digital methods, I want to introduce basic assumptions, challenges and definitions for qualitative research in the digital space. The first part sheds light on the definition of digital research.

© Gerd Altmann – geralt /pixabay

As Hine (2005) and Quinton and Reynolds (2018) state, there is no clear paradigm or restriction for digital research by now. Researchers try to adapt their methodological principles to the digital environment and migrate their ontological and epistemological views into the digital research field.

The distinction between the diverging nature of online and offline data stood in the focus of early Internet research, but as the two realms started to merge, digital researchers needed to discuss the integration of the digital (Dicks, 2012). Early digital research focussed on Internet as an alternative place for social realities, where new forms of communities emerge. However, it did not recognize the Web as a tool for answering research questions concerning both the online and offline realm (Hewson, 2014; Markham, 2012). With the evolution of the Internet into a more fluid, organic and collaborative space (Hewson, 2014) and digital media as an overall platform for interactive communication with electronic and connected devices (Quinton & Reynolds, 2018), the relevance for research and scientific knowledge evolved as well. Nearly every aspect of social interaction and social interaction incorporates both spheres, online and offline. Therefore the online and offline realm cannot be clearly distinguished anymore (Hine, 2005). The Internet is not just simply platform for data collection and analysis but consists of multiple social spaces and cultural phenomena (Markham, 2012).

Before researching phenomena in the digital, the nature of the digital has to be clearly defined.  Rogers (2013) distinguishes between natively digital (e.g. recommender systems) and digitized, migrated methods and data (e.g. online surveys). These native digital data also embody specific ontological objects like links and tags, which only exist in the digital domain. Snee, Hine, Morey, Roberts, and Watson (2016) emphasize the epistemological aspects to consider in digital research. What does the type of platform, data or community represent in the online? Can researchers draw conclusions to offline phenomena and if yes, how? What assumptions do scholars make when they enter the digital research field?

To find the valid answers to research questions, scholars have to focus on the methodological context, and not just specific research methods, to understand the context and the value of digital data (Dicks, 2012).

” Drawing from sociology of scientific knowledge, we could argue that the instruments that are used to view the world play a large part in shaping what we see.”

Hine (2005, p. 245)

The next part of the series will discuss the tension between Big Data and digital qualitative research

For further ideas, input, critical questions or discussions to these thoughts about qualitative digital research, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to discuss with you!


  • Dicks, B. (Ed.). (2012). Digital qualitative research methods. Los Angeles: SAGE.
  • Hewson, C. (2014). Qualitative Approaches in Internet-Mediated Research. In P. Leavy (Ed.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of qualitative research (pp. 423–454). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199811755.013.020
  • Hine, C. (2005). Internet Research and the Sociology of Cyber-Social-Scientific Knowledge. The Information Society, 21, 239–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/01972240591007553
  • Markham, A. N. (2012). The Internet as Research Context. In B. Dicks (Ed.), Digital qualitative research methods (pp. 375–403). Los Angeles: SAGE.
  • Quinton, S., & Reynolds, N. (2018). Understanding research in the digital age. Sage Publications Ltd.
  • Rogers, R. (2013). Digital methods. Cambridge, Mass., London: The MIT Press.
  • Snee, H., Hine, C., Morey, Y., Roberts, S., & Watson, H. (Eds.). (2016). Digital Methods for Social Science. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

The full text on digital qualitative methods was part of the course “Qualitative research II” at the University of Innsbruck.

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