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Using virtual ethnography to research vulnerable participants online: A case study of mental health online community support forums

Heyes, K (2017) Using virtual ethnography to research vulnerable participants online: A case study of mental health online community support forums. SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2.

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Abstract

Researching vulnerable groups has long been a subject of academic work and has been subject to rigorous ethical approvals for conducting face-to-face interviews. With new technologies come new challenges. Groups of people come together on online forums and have anonymous discussions about anything and everything; this often includes the source of their vulnerabilities. In the discussed research, the focus of these community support forums is mental health. It is difficult to shift the focus of researching vulnerable adults away from face-toface to online, particularly as there are no physical cues to give meaning to the language used. The value therefore must be contained in the written word, and there are “unique characteristics” in the data due to this. There is something quite refreshing about focusing on the text rather than body language, and there are many suggestions on how to conduct this type of research. My research focuses on using virtual ethnography of online focus groups, which has been fraught with issues, but has proved a useful learning experience.

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