Research Interview with Professor Douglas Swanson

By Andy Acosta, Troy Le, Leanna Nguyen, and Mariah Williams

We were given the chance to ask Cal State Fullerton Communications Professor, Douglas J. Swanson,  about his experience conducting his research project World Wide Web Sites and Social Order Within Higher Education Journalism and Mass Communications Programs. Professor Swanson has published numerous book chapters and journal articles and has earned his doctorate at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Swanson focused his research around the content analysis of Websites and how they can establish social order.

Coming Up With a Research Topic

The very first step in starting any research project is to formulate some sort of topic that would interest you and contribute positively after the research is done. Though it may seem like an easy task, coming up with a research topic has to be one of the most difficult tasks to complete. With so many ideas, conflicts, and issues revolving around the current world, choosing one topic that wouldn’t be too broad proved to be difficult. We started our interview with Professor Swanson with this conflict in mind.

We asked how he came up with his topic and his thought process.

Learning about his thought process throughout the topic selection phase was the most important because it would be able to help us go through the same or similar motions to conquer solutions. Professor Swanson explains that “At that time, the internet was still new and there were still colleges and universities and academic programs that weren’t on it yet. I was interested in it, I saw it as a very relevant tool for communicating what academic programs do.” With the rise of the internet, it would only make sense to do research on a topic with so little research done already. As an example compared to today’s internet, this is what the internet looked like in 1999 when he conducted his research:

Apple’s website in 1999.

In addition to wanting to explore the freshness of the internet, he also discusses his interest in the social order theory. He knew that in some academics people were able to have synergy and work well together, while other academic units were not able to cooperate as well, therefore his goal and eventual research topic was aimed at merging the two ideas of internet and social order to gain more knowledge.

He went through his structure to form research questions.

Yeah. I’m not a stats guy so I didn’t want to do a statistics-based dissertation, but I wanted to do a qualitative study where I would describe what things were like.

Professor Swanson’s main form of structure was to base his questions based on a qualitative study. In this way he was able to avoid using too many statistics which he points out is his weakness. Given that every person and group has its strengths and weaknesses, we took note of his actions in this part especially. We learned that it would be best to form our research and questions based on our strengths and having strong points in those areas rather than having more quantity. He ends off this question by advising us to design our research questions based on our method of conducting research. The closer that we are able to match up the quality with qualitative, the easier it would be for us to get the results that we want.

What do you think was your favorite part of conducting the research, and the other hand, your least favorite part?

When we asked about his favorite part of the research process, he explained that his chair and committee were very supportive of his method and what he was trying to do. Even though at the time the committee had questioned him greatly on his topic and how he was going to carry it out, they supported his reasoning and trusted him. This alone gave us the realization that no matter the topic that we do and whatever kinds of obstacles that we run into, having the support of our fellow classmates and professors will carry us through the process.  When going into his least favorite part, he mentioned the obvious amount of writing and content that he had to create.

Writing the dissertation, this is it… it is 207 pages. That was a lot. Cranking out all of this stuff, that was ughh.

During his time, technology was not as fast as it is today, so he explained to us the process of having to print out his whole dissertation, getting it reviewed, fixing the issues, reprinting it, then getting it approved again. We really can’t take the resources that we have today for granted. This was also a sign that good research required a lot of content to be able to yield substantial information and results.

We asked him to explain his research methods.

I like content analysis generally in most of my research that I’ve done then and since because you don’t have to talk to people.

On a more humorous note, Professor Swanson expresses his gratitude for using content analysis as it allowed him to work with consistent material without having interactions with people. He does mention, however, that even though content analysis is great, it has its downsides. The content analysis does not allow us to be able to see how and why the content was created. Without being able to talk to people, we aren’t able to find the true intents behind certain topics and results. He went through about 193 different websites in his research to be able to conduct content analysis as can be seen here:

Content analysis chart on Professor Swanson’s research.

Through using content analysis and the survey method, he was able to easily organize his data in a more structured form just by analyzing through visuals and other categories that he created.

Sometimes You’ve Gotta Improv.

We asked him how he was able to conduct his content analysis with such a huge sample size.

I developed an instrument that I used which isn’t something that I came up with, but it’s something that I borrowed from another author. That’s something that you want to do when doing content analysis; you want to find somebody who’s already created an instrument and it’ll work for your own purposes.

When conducting research, certain roadblocks will present themselves, however, this is a reminder for us to keep an open mind and be able to adapt easily to any situation. Professor Swanson emphasized that being able to use work that is out there to our advantage is our most powerful tool. Doing things out of our comfort zones may yield results that will be greater than if we only stuck to the static methods that we knew. If it makes our lives and processes easier, why not give it a shot?

If you could go back, what would you have done differently?

Dr. Swanson believes that he wouldn’t have done anything differently because he is very happy about the way this research turned out. Although, he believes that it would be much more challenging in today’s day and age since the web is much more developed with more content available. If he tried to do an effective content analysis today of 200 University Mass Communications programs, it would take a whole lot longer. If he were to do it again, he would instead do maybe 100 just because there is much more content, more pages, streaming available, and other stuff that didn’t even exist in 1999, so it would be extremely difficult to replicate the research project today, given the technology now available.

What is some advice you have to offer students who are conducting their own research using surveys?

Once you decide what the questions are, don’t change them. Stick with that. Be systematic in the way you reach out to people too. If it’s by email, then do them all that way. Systematic consistency is important, and it makes it easier to explain the methods used later. 

Just be systematic.

For advice about creating surveys, Dr. Swanson says it is ideal to base your survey off of a survey someone else has used since it has been tested and makes your survey more reliable.

Dr. Swanson offered us helpful advice on how to be systematic, clear, and concise when conducting our upcoming research. His delves into his experience doing his own research were eye-opening to the struggles with facing and conducting research. With the knowledge that Dr. Swanson has provided us, we will work towards smoothly conducting our research.

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