E-Mail Interviews with Senior Legal Professional Women in Australia: Examining Computer-Mediated Communication

E-Mail Interviews with Senior Legal Professional Women in Australia: Examining Computer-Mediated Communication

Angela Ragusa (Charles Sturt University, Australia) and Philip Groves (Charles Sturt University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch004
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The development of successful interactions utilizing e-mail, as an asynchronous computer-mediated communication (CMC) technology to conduct qualitative social research, relies upon a host of social norms, symbols and meaning systems well articulated by the micro-sociological theory Symbolic Interactionism. This chapter examines some benefits and consequences of using e-mail interviews to collect data from female senior counsels about contemporary stereotypes of successful barristers in Australia. Despite benefits of cost efficiency, ease of traversing geographical distance and a myriad of claims made by researchers heralding the advantages of e-mail as a data collection tool, this research questions e-mail’s applicability to recruit busy professional participants and elicit in-depth responses to written interview questions when ongoing dialogue is unsolicited. Drawing upon primary data provided by senior counsels, key examples are provided to demonstrate the potential for miscommunication, paucity of communication and inflexibility e-mail may engender when social interactions, beyond the distribution of research instruments, are absent.
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E-mail has become an integral component of Australian life, largely impacting and affecting social interactions, from workplaces to private lives. Increasingly, e-mail connects broad and disparate segments of our globalized world. E-mail is a computer-mediated communication (CMC) technology, existing alongside the World Wide Web, and has increasingly been utilized as a data collection tool to conduct social and other research since the year 2000 (McCoyd & Kerson, 2006). The rise of e-mail as a tool for professional and personal communication has important repercussions for sociological research, academia and society in general.

This chapter contributes to the limited, yet growing, body of academic research examining the use of e-mail as a data collection tool in qualitative social research. In so doing, we examine how e-mail, as a CMC technology, influenced the production of knowledge about a specific research topic, gender inequality among legal professionals in Australia, when social interaction and dialogue was purposely minimized. Informed by the micro-sociological theory Symbolic Interactionism (SI), which emphasizes the important role symbols and meaning systems play in shaping human action (Wallace & Wolf, 2006), we highlight benefits and consequences of e-mail as a research tool affecting participant recruitment and the completion of qualitative e-mail interviews.

Due to its temporal efficiency and cost-effectiveness, e-mail communication is often viewed as the natural successor to inter-personal face-to-face and telephone communication (Yell, 2003). Nonexistent prior to the late nineties (Selwyn & Robson, 1998), e-mail emerged over the past decade as a viable, fallible, yet often appealing, research tool for collection of electronic questionnaires and interviews. Whereas questionnaires involve respondents directly recording answers to a list of questions without an interviewer’s assistance, interviews are distinguished by the presence of an interviewer to read the questions and record responses (Monette, Sullivan & DeJong, 2008). The introduction of CMC technology saw the popularity of e-mail interviews increase as an alternative interview tool, often combining the presence of an online interviewer with the tradition of respondents recording their own answers. However, as the background section of this chapter details, the popularity and success of such methodological experiments was largely contingent upon the range and depth of social interaction produced. Because the pragmatic utility of e-mail interviews lies largely in its perceived convenience and cost-efficiency, our study examines the capacity of this CMC to be a viable tool for collecting in-depth qualitative research when the structure of the research design mirrors that of a single-session face-to-face or telephone interview. To achieve this goal, key examples gathered from e-mail interviews are presented and contextualized amid an examination of past and future trends.

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