“All research methods are imperfect, so methodological opportunism seems like a good idea”—ICA QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Ulrike Klinger, Stefan Rösli, and Otfried Jarren are working on a paper dealing with how and why Swiss city governments use participatory online tools for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research.

The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with them about their research.

RKN: You work on how city governments use participatory online tools. How would you say your work on this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

Besides the obvious connection – a research project about how city governments and their administrations seek to engage citizens via participatory online communication – there are two aspects that we could underline here: First, we believe that social media and other participatory tools have been around for too long to still discuss their “potential”. Our project connects with scholars who empirically investigate if and how they are really changing political communication, whatever the “potential” might be. Secondly, what do the empirical bits and pieces tell us about digital public spheres? Andrew Chadwick made a good point with his hybrid media systems. We need to factor in local mass media, and also local non-political public debate.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it—are there other fields or disciplines that have been important sources of theoretical and methodological inspirations?

The project is basically rooted in actor-centered institutionalism and ideas about the formation of political legitimacy. It is a research project of communication scholars, but includes perspectives from other social sciences, e.g. from political science or relational sociology. We combined a quantitative approach (our “inventory” of participative communication in Swiss cities) and a qualitative design to go beyond a descriptive account.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on, for example, interviews can be generalized. Do you see your own work in this paper as pointing towards generalizable findings? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you think about the reach and validity of your work in different terms?

It is certainly important to be aware of the limitations that your methodological design entails, and it is also a question of resources. Saturation is a key issue when working with interviews, and we were able to reach this point with 22 interviews, because the experiences in Swiss cities did not vary too broadly. However, Switzerland is quite a special case, with very high levels of internet usage and infrastructural development, elevated position of municipalities in the political system (such as tax autonomy, right to grant citizenship etc.) and of course the strong traditions of direct democracy – all this is hardly generalizable. But other studies found similar results in different contexts, that participative tools tend to be underexploited in political communication. Thus, we need to compare, and maybe we need more meta-analyses binding results from different contexts together.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

We do not see qualitative and quantitative methods as opponents, but they inform each other. Qualitative research can be much more explorative in new or under-studied fields, and helps to formulate categories for quantitative designs. All research methods are somehow imperfect, which is why both multi-method designs and political scientist Adam Przeworski`s “methodological opportunism” seem a good idea: “I am a methodological opportunist who believes in doing or using whatever works. If game theory works, I use it. If what is called for is a historical account, I do that. If deconstruction is needed, I will even try deconstruction. So I have no principles.”

Full abstract below.

Citizen Participation and Political Online Communication: A Case for Qualitative Research Designs

By Ulrike Klinger, Stefan Rösli, and Otfried Jarren (University of Zurich)

We present the results of a study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (October 2012-October 2013), in which we used a mixed method design in order to analyse if, how and why Swiss city governments and administrations are using participatory online-tools (e.g. discussion fora, social media) in their political online communication. Due to comparatively high levels of internet penetration, media literacy and formal implementation of direct democracy, we believe that Switzerland presents a very interesting case regarding participatory online communication at the local level.

A quantitative structural analysis of websites of all 159 Swiss cities showed a sobering picture, with a relatively small part of Swiss cities using social networks, microblogs and other tools to engage citizens in political dialogue. Why are or aren’t cities eager to foster such kind of political participation through online communication? Which are the rationales for (not) doing it? Quantitative approaches are limited in answering these questions. Therefore we clustered the cities according to their activity levels and conducted semi-structured face-to-face interviews with the municipal secretaries (“Gemeindeschreiber”) of 17 cities. In addition to that we studied the strategic aspects behind the implementation of, or abstinence from, participatory online communication by analysing relevant documents (e.g. social media guidelines, proceedings of government meetings) provided by the cities.

To briefly summarize four main results:  First, the decision to offer participatory online communication is largely driven by personal engagement of administrative staff (while quantitative data suggested a correlation with the city size). Additionally we found mostly diffuse motivation patterns, such as “being part” of social networks. Specific motivations included: reaching new target groups or younger cohorts, fostering dialogue and feedback as legitimation resource or substituting local print media. Second, when city governments offer participatory online tools, it is often not for the sake of enhancing citizen participation and dialogue. They perceive only low demand and poor resonance from citizens and believe not to be able to reach mass audiences and a general public online, causing problems of representativeness and exclusion. Third, city governments are sceptical about participatory online communication due to frictions of implementation and conflicts with formal decision-making procedures. Fourth, city governments regard personnel and financial resources as crucial. While resources seem not to be a central argument in the initial/pilot phase, they become pivotal in later stages of maintenance and extension of participatory communication offers. At this point the balance of (un-)certain costs an (un-)certain benefits seems to be shifting.

Our research project sustained that we need qualitative research designs in order to better understand WHY political communication procedures are changing in a digital society. While quantitative approaches allow to measure the WHAT and HOW of shifting political communication between mass media and network media logic, qualitative research enables us to include the perceptions and assessments of the relevant actors into the picture. Looking into the “black box” of strategic decisions concerning participatory online communication requires a qualitative approach.