Reflections on 8011 readings for November 1

This week’s readings focus on case study research and Internet research. First, there are method “how-to” notes from Gurak & Silker, Marshall & Rossman, and MacNealy. Then two studies, one by Gurak and one by Ding.

Gurak and Silker

Gurak, L. J., & Silker, C. M. (2002). Technical communication research in cyberspace. In L. J. Gurak & M. M. Lay (Eds.), Research in Technical Communication: Ablex Publishing.

The authors take up issues of TC research in cyberspace, but as the book is from 2002, it seems some of the observations may be a little dated. Their stated purpose is “to sort out some…methodological issues as appropriate for technical communication research and raise some initial exploratory questions about how to conduct research in cyberspace,” limiting their scope to “ethnographic”, survey research, and rhetorical analysis (230).

They note that the “most obvious difference” between ethnography “in real life” and Internet ethnography is the “fundamentally different sense of place” (232)–Gurak and Silker then focus on questions of the researcher’s presence and participants’ privacy and consent. Candidly, it strikes me that a more obvious difference is the lack of dimensionality of ethnography online. I can’t imagine an ethnographer “in real life” just observing what participants are saying. This hardly amounts to Geertz’s “thick description.” I wonder if this is why the authors refer repeatedly to “ethnographic” research and not to “ethnography” – is “ethnographic” to be read as “ethnography-ish” but not quite “ethonography”?

Gurak and Silker’s observations about ethics and method are interesting, though, particularly the distinction between studying participants’ “conversations” online and reading “texts” they have posted online. I’d love to update the copyright law assertions, and particularly the discussion of fair use at p. 237. I’m especially interested in Gurak’s choice to use pseudonyms in a study when reporting Usenet postings; though she did it with an ethical objective in mind, it strikes me that advocates of “moral rights” in copyright would resist denying the authors their attributions.

The stuff about survey research on the Web appears a little dated, particularly at p. 240. It’s particularly valuable to note that web-based surveys can provide “forks” and can randomize the order of questions and response options to address certain biases that can otherwise develop.

Great summary of issues at 245:

  • “Obtaining (or not) permissions
  • Deciding if material is textual or more like a recorded conversation
  • Deciding if material is public or private
  • Determining if the doctrine of fair use applies
  • Using the technology to “lurk” or disguise one’s true self or announce one’s presence
  • Choosing (or not) to seek IRB approval
  • Choosing the speed of an e-mail survey response over the use of a Web page”


We read Chapter 10 of Mary Sue MacNealy’s Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing — the chapter discusses case study methods. She identifies advantages of case study research: “a holistic view,” “rich detail,” “information that cannot otherwise be collected,” and “a more precise definition of research questions” (p. 199). She also covers disadvantages: the method is often misunderstood, results are not generalizable, some regard the method as not scientific, and the studies are perhaps expensive (p. 199).

She provides eight tips for “increasing the respectability of a case study” at pp. 200-202:

  1. “Define the problem that needs attention.”
  2. “Selected the subject(s) to be studied with care.”
  3. “Plan and test procedures in advance of data collection.”
  4. “Be systematic about data collection.”
  5. “Collect data that can be examined by others to allow verification of findings.”
  6. “Use triangulation so that more than one measure will converge on an issue.”
  7. “Verify conclusions by asking an outside rater to examine the collected materials.”
  8. “Present conclusions as tentative.”

She reviews tools for this sort of research, including interviews, logs, visual protocols, and verbal protocols. She wraps up with a discussion of some types of projects amenable to this type of research.

Generally useful stuff, but more useful, probably, at a time when I’m putting together a proposal or considering how to research a particular question. I plan to revisit it then.

Question: Are these methods frequently used by researchers as a preliminary approach to a problem, based upon the results of which they can launch some other kind of study? Or do those who do case studies pretty much just do case studies?

Marshall & Rossman

I guess the same holds for Chapter 7, of Marshall and Rossman’s Designing Qualitative Research, which focuses on “Secondary and Specialized Methods.” At first glance, it just provides some more options for research. It would be easier for me to use this in the context of an actual research question or project.

Question: How widespread are uses of “kinesics” and “proxemics” (both methods I’ve never heard of)?


Gurak, L. (1997). Persuasion and privacy in cyberspace : the online protests over Lotus MarketPlace and Clipper chip. New Haven CT: Yale University Press. (Chapters 1-3 only.)

Gurak sets out to show “how traditional rhetorical activities, such as speeches or public debates, conducted in the new online spaces differ or are enhanced or problematized because of the uses of computer-mediated communication technologies” (5). She argues that the two cases she discusses “illustrate the actions of online communities”; that these “communities exemplified a new kind of rhetorical entity”; that “two rhetorical features, community ethos and the novel mode of of delivery on computer networks” actually “sustain the community and its motive for action in the absence of physical commonality” (5).

Before providing complete overviews of her two cases in chapters 2 and 3, she provides in the chapter-1 intro some background on rhetorical and discourse issues such as “community” (8-9), “interpretive community” and “discourse community” (9), “ethos” (13-15), and “delivery” (15-16). She wraps up the intro with some speculation about the promise and potential problems of the “rhetorical dynamics of delivery and ethos in online communities” (17-18).


Ding, H. (2009). Rhetorics of Alternative Media in an Emerging Epidemic: SARS, Censorship, and Extra-Institutional Risk Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 18(4), 327-350. doi:10.1080/10572250903149548

Huiling Ding contrasts the reports about the breakout of SARS (a form of avian flu) in China during 2002-2003 coming from (a) official Chinese media and (b) “alternative media” (including non-official Chinese media, texting and cell calls among Chinese, and foreign media reporting). She argues that “[t]he examination of the rhetorical and cultural potential of alternative media is particularly significant in the study of unofficial risk communication practices in countries that strategically control print and online media through constant surveillance” (329). She uses de Certeau’s distinction between “tactics” and “strategies” as a lens for evaluating actions by various parties.

Ding discusses two types of rhetoric, which she dubs the “rhetoric of proclamation” – relating particularly to the construction of rumors and panic – and the “rhetoric of personal narratives” – relating particularly to a Chinese doctor who exposed the government’s deceptions about the scope of the outbreak.

From this episode, Ding draws some conclusions for the role of technical communicators in cases where public health is threatened, etc. She also makes suggestions about “pedagogical implications.” I felt as if this part of the article was light on drawing connections between the objects of the study and these conclusions.

Question: What are the Gurak and Ding studies?

I’d regard Ding’s article and Gurak’s book as Internet research, but not case-study research. As I understand it, a case study looks at a smaller field of activity, and the researcher sets out before the activities in question to make observations about them. These studies are either retrospective (Gurak) or begin after the events being studied have begun (Ding). Is that right? Gurak talks about the “case” of Lotus MarketPlace and the “case” fo Clipper in her book, but I don’t see her calling the research a case study very frequently (though see p. 7).

Gurak’s book (at 4-5) works out a methodological space for itself:

providing an empirical analysis of life on the Internet that has real evidence to support its claims but that is broader than a discrete experiment because of its use of rhetorical criticism, an approach which has traditionally been highly empirical… but which retains the critical and somewhat broad lens of a narrative or literary critic.

Perhaps then “Internet rhetorical analysis”?

1 thought on “Reflections on 8011 readings for November 1”

  1. Prof Gurak visited class on Nov 1 to discuss case studies and Internet research. She characterized CS more as an approach or strategy rather than a method. Summary of her comments:

    Rhetoric and CS work well together. “Bounded cases of things that are happening.” Rhetoricians are interested. She referenced MacNealy Chapter 10; Yin, “social-sciency”; Stake, education-focused.
    When to do CS per Stake: “intrinsic” and “instrumental”. Intrinsic CS is when you are interested in the case itself; instrumental when the CS is designed to help answer a bigger research question.
    Yin: CS is an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon in its real-life context. Gurak: The most obvious examples have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
    CS might include various methods, including possibility ethnography, surveys, textual analysis, etc.
    Gurak provided great discussion of how the Lotus MarketPlace case became her dissertation and how she then expanded to make it the book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.