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Sensitive research topics: netnography revisited

Roy Langer (Department of Communication, Journalism and Computer Science, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark)
Suzanne C. Beckman (Department of Intercultural Communication and Management, Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark)

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 1 June 2005




This paper discusses how netnography can be applied in order to conduct covert research on sensitive research topics. An analysis of a Danish internet message board on cosmetic surgery illustrates suggestions concerning modifications of netnography guidelines.


Owing to the relevance of studying sensitive research topics – in particular when access to informants is difficult – netnography has been applied in an analysis of cross consumer online‐communication about cosmetic surgery on a Danish internet message board. Methodological stages and procedures including entreé, data collection, analysis and interpretation have been followed. In terms of research ethics and member checks, however, the suggested guidelines have been modified.


Empirical findings verify that consumers use internet message boards in order to exchange information and advice about cosmetic surgery. Especially the opportunity to masquerade and to cover their identities allows them to express attitudes, opinions, and experiences freely – and hence to study these in order gain deeper insights into consumption motives, concerns, and experiences.


The paper suggests that netnography is a suitable methodology for the study of sensitive research topics, enabling the researcher in an unobtrusive and covert way to gain deeper insights into consumers' opinions, motives, and concerns. Based on a discussion of netnography's position in between discourse analysis, content analysis and ethnography, it is argued for the legitimacy of covert research, including a revision of existing guidelines for research ethics with regard to informed consent when conducting netnography.



Langer, R. and Beckman, S.C. (2005), "Sensitive research topics: netnography revisited", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 189-203.



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Copyright © 2005, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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