As technology continues to advance and develop, so do the methods we use in our qualitative research. As I progress through my PhD, I want to use digital research methods to explore the social and cultural dimensions of digital spaces and how they are used to facilitate the construction and negotiation of our identities.
The use of smartphones as a research tool within the social sciences are frequently being used as they are central in organising our daily lives and allow us to engage with others immediately. Applications such as Facebook Messenger, iMessage (on Apple’s iOS software), Snapchat and WhatsApp (and there’s probably more I haven’t identified!) don’t just allow one-to-one communication, but also allow us to create groups. Whether its groups of friends, groups of friends that are organised around a specific interest or fandom (such as the Eurovision) or for business purposes such as meetings and organising events. As academics, we can use these applications to our advantage. Text messaging is a useful research method to engage with participants in real-time and as smartphones have high a high mobility, they move through different social and cultural spaces along with their owners.
I would also propose the use of digital group chats as highly useful tools in conducting academic research. They have many advantages over the traditional face-to-face focus group method that academics have used frequently for qualitative research. For instance, as my research examines the Eurovision spaces, it is quite difficult for me to conduct face-to-face focus groups with Eurovision fans unless I attend Eurovision myself or other subsidiary events. Besides, Eurovision fans are spatially distributed transnationally. So, a digital group chat can be used as a nexus in facilitating the construction of a Eurovision fan community and exploring fan participations of Eurovision in everyday life.
Using WhatsApp in qualitative research
My personal preference in exploring these phenomena is to use WhatsApp. Your participants will obviously need to download the free WhatsApp application to their smartphones to participate in the group chat. It can also be dowloaded onto your computer (this is available for Apple OS X, however I am unsure with regard to Microsoft Windows) also for free. However, this is likely to have reduced mobility and produce data that is more static. Of course, this depends on your research aims and objectives.
When you have selected your participants, you will need their mobile numbers in order to add them to the group chat. All participants in the group will need to have access to each other’s phone number in order to view everyone’s messages. However, this does raise questions of confidentiality of information; you would need to assure to your participants that their phone numbers will not be passed on to third parties and that each participant should respect that wish.
Participants can share text-base messages, photos, videos, gifs and web-links in the group chat and WhatsApp allows them to manipulate images by adding text and emojis and also draw on them. This adds a further dynamic to the data collection and provides you with multi-modal content to analyse and interpret from.
Extracting the group chat for analysis
The other beauty of WhatsApp over other messaging applications is that it allows you to export messages and group chats. You can export them as a compressed zip file to an email address or to your Google Drive account. When you are back on your computer and have extracted the zip folder, the group chat is converted into a text file (.txt) and identifies the date, time, name of the person sending a message to the group and the message, complete with emojis (however, this is selective and .txt files recognise particular emojis). The extracted folder will also contain the media that was shared in the group and the file names are clearly labelled and referenced in the .txt file. This is optional, and WhatsApp will prompt you if you want these included or not.
The text-based file makes it easier for you to code and analyse your group chat data. This can be copied into Microsoft Word or other software and can be imported into Nvivo, the qualitative data analysis software for coding.