Online deliberation research
What is it?
Online Deliberation Research (ODR) research refers to a set of tools for collecting qualitative and quantitative data by engaging people through online platforms. With greater access to the Internet, ODR tools are viewed as an effective and convenient way to inform, consult and deliberate with citizens and stakeholders. These tools are unique because they give the opportunity to explore topics that are inextricably related to online phenomena, such as how people engage with and make sense of information presented online. In these tools, people’s deliberations in the online environment are usually evaluated by the nature of their engagement with the information and in their questions, comments and preferences.
Although these online tools have only emerged in the last decade and are still under development, their use has increased, particularly in government and private organizations. This has been focused on the collection of information regarding people’s beliefs, thoughts and priorities
When to use it?
Online Deliberation research is particularly suited to:
- Inform people and study how they engage and make sense of a certain issue or communication.
- Learn how people react and communicate through a computer-mediated interaction and what they think about the topic of interest.
- Collect statistical data about people’s preferences and attitudes toward a topic or communication.
- Diagnose potential problems or opportunities with a new or existent communication message, communication strategy or public participation/consultation activities.
- Generate (new) research hypotheses that can be submitted to further research and testing using quantitative approaches (e.g., surveys).
- Stimulate new ideas and concepts.
The use of Online Deliberation Research provides a number of advantages relative to other research methods, namely:
- Convenience, expediency and cost-effectiveness. Given its implementation on an online platform, it challenges traditional barriers to participation associated with time and location and hence reducing the participation costs. Also, in some techniques, participants can engage at their own pace, discussion time can be prolonged and, thus, a large number of people can be involved without incurring the costs of physically bringing people together.
- Opportunity to collect a large and rich amount of data very quickly.
- Research flexibility. It can be used to study a wide range of topics with a variety of individuals. Also, by combining different techniques it allows to collect both qualitative and quantitative data.
- Opportunity for the communicator/researcher to interact with participants. This provides opportunities for comment and probe participants’ responses and to provide feedback.
- Promote more egalitarian interactions and self-disclosure. The anonymity and text-based nature of these methods reduce social context cues and interpersonal discrimination, facilitating the participation of people who would otherwise be excluded and the discussion of intimate or sensitive topics.
- With less degree of social interaction than traditional focus groups, it enables people to focus more on the information presented rather than on the interpersonal exchanges and multiple points of view.
- Lower need for data transcription, given the text-based nature of these methods.
Disadvantages and limitations
Online Deliberation Research has some disadvantages and limitations relative to other types of research, namely:
- Anonymity can lead to flaming and extreme views.
- Loss of all paralinguistic phenomena associated with interaction. Non-verbal communication plays a significant role in conveying meaning and emotion and its loss is likely to affect the degree of mutual understanding between participants. Thus, when social interactions and dynamics are the focus of research, these methods have lower ecological validity compared to traditional focus groups.
- When testing a communication it is difficult to ensure that participants attend to the information presented to them, because they can choose their own pathways and, thus, can ignore the information.
- Potential neglect of other participants’ contributions. Many times, participants contribute without recognition of the contributions of others or recourse to background information. Thus, these methods are unreliable when the research goal is to explore how participants reasoning is advanced, elaborated and negotiated within a social context.
- Qualitative data is voluminous and relatively unstructured, making data analysis difficult and time-consuming.
- Potential dominance by participants particularly interested in the topic of study. Typically, participants more interested and knowledgeable of the topic are more aware of the opportunities and willing to participate in these methods. These inequalities will probably be reinforced as the number of potential participants increases.
- Limited control over interactive behaviour. Online moderators have less capacity to motivate engagement amongst participants and are limited to posting and/or emailing participants to encourage them to contribute.
- Inappropriate to collect data from individuals not particularly literate and with low technological literacy.