Comparing manual and computational approaches to theme identification in online forums: A case study of a sex work special interest community

Carter, Pelham and Gee, Matt and McIlhone, Hollie and Lally, Harkeeret and Lawson, Robert (2021) Comparing manual and computational approaches to theme identification in online forums: A case study of a sex work special interest community. Methods in Psychology, 5. ISSN 2590-2601

Carter et al 2021.pdf - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

Download (620kB)


Online forums afford individuals opportunities to take part in a community with shared interests and goals. This involves the sharing of experiences and advice (Attard and Coulson, 2012) and can lead to positive effects (Pendry and Salvatore, 2015). Online forums also afford access to rich sources of detailed data, personal experiences, and hard-to-reach or taboo communities. Such online research, though well-suited to qualitative analysis, leads to a number of practical problems in terms of range, depth, and ease of access to data. Even extensive data collection and manual analysis often only engage with a small percentage of the data available in online communities.In this article, we present a traditional manual collection and thematic analysis of data (2631 posts across 60 different threads, approximately 300,000 words) from forums where sex workers and men who pay for sex discuss matters relating to prostitution. This analysis revealed five themes of forum use: preference sharing, personal narrative sharing, practical advice, philosophical issues, and community maintenance. Further automated data collection and corpus analysis, such as keyness and topic modelling, are presented as a potential innovation within online qualitative research. This approach allowed for the analysis of a larger dataset of 255,891 posts, across 14,232 threads (16,472,006 words), revealing additional themes such as sexual hygiene, desire, legality, and ethnicity, as well as differences in the use of terms of address and slang by punters and sex workers. The automated methods presented allow for more comprehensive investigations of online communities than traditional approaches, but we also note that manual interpretation should still be incorporated into the analysis.

Item Type: Article
Identification Number:
10 July 2021Accepted
14 July 2021Published Online
Uncontrolled Keywords: Sex work Online forums Language, gender and sexuality Mixed methods Corpus linguistics
Subjects: CAH04 - psychology > CAH04-01 - psychology > CAH04-01-01 - psychology (non-specific)
CAH19 - language and area studies > CAH19-01 - English studies > CAH19-01-07 - linguistics
Divisions: Faculty of Business, Law and Social Sciences > College of Psychology
Depositing User: Pelham Carter
Date Deposited: 05 Nov 2021 14:53
Last Modified: 11 Jun 2024 13:03

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


In this section...