Discussion Boards: How they can be useful for research

If you want to explore how a group of people think, online discussion boards or forums can be a fantastic resource. Easy to access and full of insights, they provide a researcher with uninhibited access to the thoughts, beliefs, and interactions of a particular group.

Who uses them and how

With 4.39 billion individual internet users in 2019, an increase of 9% from the previous year, and 3.48 billion of those users engaging with social media, it is clear that online interaction is rising rapidly.

Discussion boards are places where communities of people will go to discuss a particular topic, interest or activity. They are organised into tree like structures, with different sections, subsections and threads organised to allow users to post and have conversations on a range of topics. The users are commonly opinionated, enthusiastic, knowledgeable about the topic and frequently fiercely protective of the community’s culture and beliefs.

The benefits they offer a researcher

Discussion boards offer a researcher a place to undertake naturalistic and observational data collection, that summarises in an honest way the understandings, beliefs, experiences, interactions and group dynamics of a community. Due to the anonymous nature of a discussion board, users tend to be more honest with their opinions, allowing researchers to obtain opinions and beliefs they may not be able to obtain in traditional interview or survey settings.

For example, Hielseth and Hoyden (2014) used discussion boards to examine the status of women’s football in Norway, finding a range of themes including trivialisation, eroticisation and the justification of gender inequalities through the constructions of sex differences.

Using discussion boards enabled the researchers to find underlying cultural beliefs and issues that were quite surprising, considering Norway is known for being highly progressive towards women.

The limitations

Caution however must be taken not to overly generalise the findings from a data set. It must be acknowledged that these are the results from this specific group of people, and not necessarily reflective of a whole group or community. It is also important to understand that due to the anonymity of their profiles, posters may be more likely to make extreme or offensive statements due to deindividuation effects.

Care must also be taken to only use discussion boards where it is possible to reasonably argue that participants have no expectation or perception of privacy and are well aware that their activity is public activity conducted in the public domain. Care should be taken to ensure participants remain confidential at all times.

Using discussion boards for research

When the benefits and limitations have been acknowledged, a discussion board can be a relatively effective and easy method for starting to develop a basic understanding of a particular community.

To begin using a discussion board for your own research you should:

  1. Ensure using a discussion board as a data set is a good fit with your research question and your analytic approach.

  2. Find a relevant discussion board for your topic/ area of interest.

  3. Select appropriate section or threads, that have comments, questions or discussions you are particularly interested in.

Discussion boards have great potential as an alternative data source, and analysis of them can be a good way to understand a group’s views, beliefs and interactions.

Elizabeth Mannix is undertaking work experience at Rapid Context. Currently completing her Honours Year in Psychology at the University of Adelaide, she is working on a thesis aiming to understand the public and spectator culture of AFLW through qualitative analysis.

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