On qualitative methodologies and dispersed communities: Reflections on the process of investigating an open source community

TitleOn qualitative methodologies and dispersed communities: Reflections on the process of investigating an open source community
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsSigfridsson, A, Sheehan, A
Secondary TitleInformation and Software Technology
Pagination981 - 993
Date Published9/2011
ISSN Number09505849
Keywordscase study, Collaborative practice, Distributed software development, Free open source communities, Qualitative methodologies


Qualitative methodologies hold much potential for building an understanding of the principles and practices of free and open source software (FOSS) communities. Yet there is a scarcity in the literature of discussions focused on the practical and methodological challenges of this particular research context.

This paper formulates and addresses a number of questions regarding the applicability of qualitative methodologies for the study of FOSS communities. It reflects on the challenges of such approaches as seen in previous research efforts and discusses how they manifest in research practice through a thorough description of a case study of a community called PyPy.

The paper primarily discusses interpretive research approaches which are based on ethnographic data collection methods. The study under discussion was an exploratory case study utilizing multiple methods, including participant observation, virtual ethnography, and open-ended questionnaires. Grounded Theory was used for data analysis.

Two broad sets of challenges are highlighted in relation to the multidimensionality of the FOSS phenomenon and the difficulty of qualitative analysis of activities in long-term context. Additional issues identified relate to potential problems with focus and the need for reflexivity, but also to the extent of the study and the importance of maintaining an active relationship with the core community group.

This paper provides an overview – grounded in practical research experience and linked to insights from the literature – of methodological issues in the specific research area of qualitative studies of FOSS communities, which up until now has been lacking.

Short TitleInformation and Software Technology
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