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Combining Approaches for the Study of Networks on the Internet
Networked Research and Digital Information
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
Networks and the study of Internet phenomena are in many ways inseparable. Beyond the power of the metaphor, though, and the obvious kinship of certain approaches to the study of the Internet such as ‘network analysis,’ the relation between research methods and the constitution of networks as empirical objects must be articulated in correspondence with every research question. Two approaches seem to prevail in Internet scholarship so far: substantial analysis on a case-by-case basis on the one hand, and formal network analysis on the other. Networks have therefore been studied in terms of their substance, for example via the common cultures of individuals who socialize through the Internet. New forms of expression have also been identified. Another stream of research has addressed the more formal aspects of networks, often using automated tools that render these networks quantitatively. Given this distinction between formal and substantive approaches, Internet studies seem to be reproducing some of the distinctions between qualitative and quantitative styles that have been deplored across most social sciences, from psychology to communication.
This split may be especially unfortunate for the study of the Internet. The use of the Internet produces a multitude of traces that are eminently countable, therefore making it seem amenable to formal approaches. But we may not yet know enough about the Internet to understand what is particular about the kinds of networks it supports.
Hellsten explores this issue through the analysis of metaphor, in order to make visible structures on the Web, without losing sight of what these structures might be about. On the other hand, because of its mediating function, the Internet also seems to make certain social behaviors eminently traceable. Thus, interactions that were previously ephemeral (like chatting and gossiping) can be apprehended via these traces. Rosen and his colleagues seek to use these to further understand sociality in Web settings, and to inform issues of formal design of sites of interaction. The analysis of hyperlinks within a Web sphere by Foot and her colleagues shows how the novel interactions and relations carried by html networks can be recognized as new, influential and meaningful patterns across the Internet. The careful entwinement of these approaches gives insight into both formal and informal aspect of networks on the Internet, and like the other investigations just listed, are highly productive moves towards a deeper understanding of practices on the Internet.
While the Web may provide new means of expression and interaction, recovering these is by no means unproblematic for serious social science scholarship. Work addressing other media and originating in other fields can also be of use to develop methodologies for studying networks on and of the Internet. A number of articles in this issue therefore also interrogate existing practices and frameworks in social science research. Wouters and Gerbec demonstrate the difficulty in recovering traces of interaction on the Web, and explicitly position the Web in relation to communicational possibilities of other media. The reviews by Scharnhorst and by Park and Thelwall suggest how a wealth of methods to study networks developed in other fields can meaningfully be applied to the Internet. These reviews are not only invaluable introductions by experts in the respective fields, but they also humbly and soberly signal the pitfalls and shortcomings that will have to be dealt with by researchers wishing to adapt these methods to Internet studies.
Therefore, as we see it, the goal is not methodological purity, but coherent interdisciplinarity. Transposing methods to the Internet can be the opportunity to interrogate assumptions in trusted bog-standard approaches, and finding new ways of combining tools that tend to be seen as separate—modelling and ethnography, network analysis and content analysis, etc. The articles in this issue will contribute to this goal, not only because they come from a range of disciplines, but also because they display a clear commitment to methodological and empirical transparency, openness, and documentation. Using these as guiding principles for sound methodologies, the integration of substantive and formal approaches remains a project that researchers at Nerdi and elsewhere seek to puzzle out. Finally, it should be noted that the theme of this issue and a number of the papers published here were developed for a special session entitled "The Form and the Feel: Combining Approaches for the Study of Networks on the Internet" held in 2002 at AoIR 3.0, in Maastricht, and that all papers benefited from the comments of the reviewers, to whom we extend our thanks.
About the AuthorAnne Beaulieu is senior researcher at Networked Research and Digital Information (Nerdi, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam). She received both her BA (Humanistic Studies) and MA (Communication) from McGill University (Canada), and her PhD (Science and Technology Dynamics) from the University of Amsterdam. She is a visiting fellow of the Science Studies Centre, University of Bath, UK, where she was a lecturer in Science, Culture and Communication until joining Nerdi. She is also appointed to the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. She has published on the role of digital technology in research in Social Studies of Science and Science Technology and Human Values among other journals. Her most recent and current work addresses sociological and cultural issues in databasing and sharing of digital information in scientific research. She is also interested in methodological issues in Internet studies and virtual ethnography.
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