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Issue 21 Summer 1998

Social Research Update is published quarterly by the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH, England. Subscriptions for the hardcopy version are free to researchers with addresses in the UK. Apply by email to

Using e-mail as a research tool

Neil Selwyn and Kate Robson

Neil Selwyn is a researcher in the Post-Compulsory Education and Training (PoCET) Research Group at the School of Education, University of Wales Cardiff. His current research examines the permeation of information and communications technology in the post-16 educational sector. His other research interests involve the social shaping of educational computing, individuals' psychological reactions to information technology and the integration of the information superhighway into education.

Kate Robson is a final year PhD student at the School of Social and Administrative Studies at the University of Wales Cardiff. Her doctoral research is on the employment experiences and workplace relationships of ulcerative colitis and Crohns disease sufferers. Her other research interests include the social nature of internet interactions and the role of the body in these computer mediated communities.

The rapid permeation of new telecommunications technologies throughout society has seen the emergence of electronic mail (e-mail) as an increasingly pervasive means of communication. Throughout the 1990s, due to its relative simplicity and effectiveness, e-mail has quickly been integrated into business and commerce as well as being widely adopted by 'private' individuals and, indeed, the academic community. Yet, given its growing importance as a medium of communication, discussion of e-mail as an academic research tool has, to date, been scarce.

There is an emerging literature surrounding the use of electronic mail in academe. Applications include the use of e-mail in undergraduate teaching (Wild & Winniford 1993, Pitt 1996), student teacher mentoring (Parnell 1997) and for scholarly discussion groups (Berge & Collins 1995, Huff & Sobiloff 1993). Following on from trends in market research (Mehta & Sivadas 1995) there have been tentative moves toward using e-mail as a research tool, primarily in the form of quantitative instruments such as electronic questionnaires and also, to a lesser extent, qualitative methods such as electronic interviews and electronic 'focus' groups. Careful consideration of these new methods is needed if they are to be used effectively in the social sciences. This Update considers the potential advantages and disadvantages of using e-mail.

Methodological considerations

The principal feature of using e-mail as a research tool is the speed and immediacy it offers. An almost instantaneous dialogue between researcher and subject can be arranged if desired. However, this speed also lends e-mail an certain ephemerality which may compromise its effectiveness as a research tool. As Thach (1995) argues, e-mail messages can be deleted as quickly as they were sent and unlike the standard mail questionnaire or interview the respondent can discard e-mail at the touch of a button.

Nevertheless, there are many advantages of using e-mail as a research tool. In particular electronic communication sets up a 'democratisation of exchange' that eludes more conventional research methodologies. As Boshier argues

E-mail appears to provide a context for the kind of non-coercive and anti-hierarchical dialogue that Habermas claimed constitutes an 'ideal speech situation', free of internal or external coercion, and characterised by equality of opportunity and reciprocity in roles assumed by participants (Boshier 1990, p. 51)

In this way e-mail goes some way to transcending the traditional biases that beset interviewing techniques. As Spender (1995) argues, the concepts of race, gender, age and sexuality do not necessarily apply when communicating electronically. Furthermore, the potential for asynchronous communication that e-mail offers is attractive feature when considering its use as a research tool (Thach 1995). Subjects are not constrained to synchronous communication but can respond when and how they feel comfortable. In short, e-mail's primary advantage is its 'friendliness' to the respondent.

The rise in use and availability of communication technologies has coincided with an increase in the popularity of qualitative research methods, such as the phenomenological movement and the ideas of grounded theory, which rely on textual data (Foster 1994). This lends electronic mail an attractiveness to researchers which nevertheless obscures some inherent weaknesses in its validity as a research method. The fundamental failing of using e-mail is the extremely self-selective, limited and therefore biased population that it covers. E-mail is limited to those individuals with access to a computer. As Kerka (1995) points out, this population is severely constrained along lines of class, race, age, income and gender. Furthermore, although expanding in popularity, use of e-mail remains a minority pasttime among many computer users. As Kenway (1996) highlights, approximately 70 per cent of people 'on-line' are from the USA and two-thirds are either technical professionals or involved in higher education, with by far the predominant group consisting of 18-24 year old male university students. Indeed, this 'limited coverage' was the main factor cited by Katori (1990) as limiting e-mail as a viable tool in market research.

However, as e-mail use becomes more widespread and the problem of limited coverage, other difficulties will arise. In particular, as electronic communication becomes more common, there will be information overload and research via e-mail runs the risk of becoming marginalised as a form of electronic 'junk mail'. As Berge and Collins (1995) argue, as electronic discourse increases the average individual will be inundated with e-mail; so much so that attending to every mail message will be almost impossible. Unsolicited attempts to gain information via e-mail by researchers (however genuine) may be simply ignored by the deluged recipient at the other end of the line.

With this background we can now examine the strengths and weaknesses of two particular e-mail methodologies: electronic questionnaires and electronic interviewing.

Electronic questionnaires

An obvious application for electronic mail is its use as a replacement for the conventional postal questionnaire. Indeed, early quantitative studies seem to indicate that 'electronic' questionnaires had a very favourable response rate when compared to the typical 20-50 per cent response rates usually achieved by conventional mail surveys (Frankfort-Nachmias & Nachmias 1996). For example, Walsh et al. (1992) attained a 76 per cent response rate with a randomly selected sample and 96 per cent with a self-selected sample responding to their 'computer network' survey. Similarly, Anderson and Gansneder (1995) report a 68 per cent response rate to their 72 item e-mail survey (with 76 per cent returned via e-mail and 24 per cent returned conventionally). Finally, Mehta and Sivadas' (1995) study compared a conventional mailed questionnaire with an e-mail equivalent. The unsolicited mail questionnaire achieved a 45 per cent rate of return compared to the 40 per cent response rate of its e-mail equivalent. However, the researchers found that the e-mail response rate increased to 63 per cent if an initial e-mail was sent requesting participation in the study.

Aside from seemingly higher response rates, electronic questionnaires have other inherent advantages. E-mail questionnaires cost considerably less to administer, both in terms of money and time. As it is possible to send the same e-mail to multiple addresses in one action, a large 'mail-shot' of subjects is relatively straightforward. Most e-mail software also allows the dispatcher of the message the option of notification when the recipient has received the message and when they have read it. Although this possibility raises questions of liberty and ethics, e-mail does offer the researcher slightly more 'control' over the questionnaires once they have been sent.

However, there are corresponding features of e-mail which are less compatible with sending e-mail questionnaires. For example it is virtually impossible to guarantee the respondent anonymity as their name (or at least their e-mail address) is automatically included in their reply. Although, as Thach (1995) points out, this lack of anonymity does not preclude the researcher still guaranteeing the respondent confidentiality, the validity of the e-mail questionnaire is compromised in this way.

Electronic interviewing

Whereas using e-mail for electronic surveys directly replaces the role of conventional mail, electronic interviewing makes use of the more interactive and immediate nature of e-mail, either in the form of one-to-one interviewing or the setting up of electronic focus groups. The practical advantages of electronic interviewing are two-fold. First, as Foster (1995) points out, interviewing by electronic mail is not constrained by geographical location or time-zone; the need for proximity between the interviewer and interviewee is no longer an issue. Secondly, electronic interviewing data require no additional transcription -- the text from e-mail interviews can easily be tailored for any word processing package or computer-based qualitative analysis package with a minimum of alteration. As well as saving the researcher time and money this also eliminates any errors introduced through incorrect transcription. With e-mail interviewing the data that is eventually analysed is exactly what the interviewee wrote.

Nevertheless, as Boshier (1990) argues, most discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of e-mail ignore the 'human' factors enhanced and impaired by its use.

E-mail interviewing reduces the problem of interviewer effect, whether resulting from visual and non-verbal cues or status differences between interviewee and interviewer. It also can reduce problems caused by dominant and shy participants, particularly in electronic focus groups. As Roberts et al. (1997) discuss, the negative effects of shyness are often overcome when communicating via electronic mail. In this way, electronic interviewing goes a long way to alleviating some of the interpersonal problems commonly associated with conventional interviewing techniques. Nevertheless, the fact remains that e-mail interaction is not comparable to verbal interaction in many ways. 'On-line' discussion requires different skills from both the interviewer and the subject. As Bannon (1986: cited in Boshier 1990) notes, the content and style of e-mail messages lie somewhere between a telephone call and a memo. Indeed, the language of all computer-mediated communication tends toward a simplified register due to the space and time constraints of the medium, in effect making e-mail messages a hybrid of oral and written language (Murray 1995). Although often seen as a less accurate reflection of a respondent's thoughts than verbal data, the 'mute evidence' of written data can offer the (sometimes necessary) convenience of both spatial and temporal distance between subject and researcher (Hodder 1994).

This lack of non-verbal communication can be a problem for both the interviewer and respondent. A great deal of tacit information that would be conveyed in a conventional interview situation is lost. What electronic interviewing can be seen to gain in accuracy it therefore loses in terms of the additional, and often valuable, non-verbal data. As King (1996) reasons, non-verbal communication and active listening are integral elements of the effective interview. Although 'netiquette' makes clumsy attempts to substitute paralinguistic and non-linguistic cues with emoticons (e.g. typing :-) after a sentence denotes humour, multiple vowels indicate rising intonation, such as 'sooooo') e-mail's lack of verbal interaction is an obvious limitation to its use as an interviewing tool.


The proliferation of e-mail, along with the increasing ease of carrying out e-mail and internet based research (e.g. Schmidt 1997a) suggests that the use of electronic methodologies are likely to increase in popularity in the near future, in both quantitative and qualitative studies. However, there remain significant problems in using e-mail in social science research.

Despite the rapid expansion of e-mail, its use as a research tool will reflect the demographically based biases of current usage patterns of the medium, in much the same way that early telephone surveys were also hindered by the clear social class bias resulting from unequal ownership of the facility (Babbie 1992). Thus at present, as Schmidt (1997b) suggests, electronic methodologies can only be considered a valid alternative to traditional techniques for research which targets specific and narrowly defined populations with easy access to the World Wide Web and e-mail.

At present the fragmented and disparate character of e-mail and the Internet has blocked the development of widely accepted criteria for its use in academic research (Langford 1995a, 1995b; Robson 1995). Yet only by use of the medium, taking heed of conventional ethical and methodological criteria as well as the emerging field of 'cyberspace' ethics, will answers to these issues develop. Although the biases that e-mail usage currently contain must not be overlooked, e-mail should be recognised as an appropriate social research tool whose potential transcends its current restricted use. As Coomber (1997) contends, the demographic disparities that currently restrict on-line research are fast diminishing; “the relative exclusivity of current internet [and e-mail] use needs to be considered seriously but it does not preclude attempts to do useful and informative sociological research” (para. 1.1). At the present time using e-mail offers the researcher many advantages, temporally, spatially and in terms of easy access to otherwise unreachable samples. Nevertheless, its use should always be offset against the wider considerations of population access to the medium and the limitations of the (admittedly plentiful) data that are generated.


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Edited by Nigel Gilbert.

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