Power relations during online research: Ethnography as feminist methodology

Document Type

Conference Presentation

Conference Title

American Educational Research Association Annual Conference


Vancouver, BC, Canada

Conference Dates

April 13-17, 2012

Date of Presentation



Objectives: The rise of the Internet requires exploration into how societal power relations play out during the research process. In this paper we consider how power differentials between researcher and participant may be manipulated and undermined during virtual qualitative social research. Drawing from feminist methodological discussions, we show how the participant is empowered in a number of unique ways when the researcher considers virtual spaces as sites for the wielding of status and manipulation of relationships between people as well as between individuals and organizations. Thus the objectives are twofold: (1) to explore power dynamics that exist in virtual spaces when conducting research of social issues, and which differ from offline interactions; and, (2) to explore power dynamics that exist between researcher and participant when conducting qualitative research in virtual spaces. Perspectives or theoretical framework: While social scientists are often concerned with unveiling and dismantling inequality, they may overlook the way power is implicated in their own relationships with participants. Discussions of power are most salient amongst feminist scholars concerned with giving a voice to disenfranchised and invisible participants (e.g. hooks 1981). Feminist methodologists provide strategies to avoid exploiting participants or reproducing hierarchical power relations (e.g. Hesse-Biber & Yaiser, 2004). They ask researchers to participate in activist work or consciousness-raising, create friendship-like bonds, reciprocate with the sharing of personal information, or conduct research on participants in the comfort of their homes. The traditions and critical concerns of feminist methodologists help to make sense of relationships with participants when doing online research. Specifically, this framework allows for conceptualizing online research as an exciting opportunity to dismantle power differentials. Methods and Data Sources: We draw from qualitative studies on very different topics over the past six years. One of the researchers (Hallett, 2010) focused on understanding how the social context of undocumented students influenced their participation in the educational process. The second study (Barber, 2011) was designed to look at the consequences of men’s growing involvement in the beauty industry on a primarily female workforce (e.g. hairstylists, estheticians, and nail technicians). We originally designed “traditional” ethnographic studies that included interviews, observations, and document analysis. However, we felt compelled to follow our participants online as they engaged in life (e.g. interacting with friends on social networking sites). Conclusions and Significance: We found looking online revealed plays of power that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, the undocumented students mobilized individuals willing to participate in rallies by using social networking sites. Taking seriously the (new) ways the Internet allows for people to engage in, and shift, power relations constitutes a project informed by and contributing to feminist attempts to undermine power hierarchies between the privileged and disenfranchised (Oakley 1981; Stacey 1988; Wolf 1995). Conceptualizing online data collection as an opportunity to dismantle hierarchies has not been explored. Online research that complicates and shifts power within the research interaction is fruitful to explore and ultimately supports our argument that online or virtual spaces need to be considered when conducting social research (Hallett & Barber, 2011).

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