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Online sociological research: methods, ethics and the law

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This thesis offers a comprehensive examination of the dilemmas posed by cyberspace for contemporary social research and in how far current ethical frameworks can manage the risks that may emerge in this new research environment. The study is situated in the period of 1998 to 2010, during which the social uses of rapidly converging technological tools led to the extension of the social world into a new social sphere of social interaction called cyberspace. Social scientists have been quick to explore this sphere; however, as the dominant discourses are based on ideas of newness and difference there is uncertainty over what kind of space it is, whether we can transfer existing methods and ethics and what rules apply in the conduct of research.

The thesis first investigates the extent to which the technological tools and ethical dilemmas encountered in cyberspace are in fact new or different. This then necessitates a detailed engagement with the conceptualisation of cyberspace. Thereafter it closes a gap in dominant conceptualisations of cyberspace by offering insights into its legal and regulatory foundations. Next, the thesis reflects on legislation and regulations to identify emerging risks that emerge in everyday social research practice in the online environment. These risks are then used as vignettes to test current ethical guidance’s ability to manage them.

The thesis argues that disciplines within the social sciences need to be continually reflexive about their encounters with new spaces, and concludes that cyberspace demands significant engagement with the difficulties posed by the rapid pace of change of technological development and regulatory and legislator foundations in order to manage risk in online social research. Thus while online research is the focus, the potential of this thesis is to offer a historical insight into the reflexivity of the discipline in particular in how successfully it encounters new spaces of/for research.

Publication Date Jun 1, 2013


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