Abstract: Digital Vignettes: Innovative Data Collection in Online Survey Research (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Digital Vignettes: Innovative Data Collection in Online Survey Research

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Lauren McInroy, PhD, Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University, OH
Oliver Beer, MSc, Graduate Research Assistant, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Ian Zapcic, MSW, Doctoral Student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background and Purpose:

Vignettes are brief, evocative scenarios using imagery and/or text to depict real-life circumstances (Leighton, 2010). As a research method, vignettes are employed to: elicit immediate, individual reactions/responses to a stimulus; investigate individual cognitions (e.g., perceptions, beliefs, attitudes); and explore sensitive topics (Barter & Renold, 2000).

Technology has facilitated research innovation, including increased opportunities to obtain data from stigmatized and/or geographically-dispersed populations. This paper provides recommendations for vignette adaptation to online data collection. A mixed-methods survey investigating online microaggressions among LGBTQ+ youth (aged 14–24) is used as an illustrative example. Microaggressions are commonplace “verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities... [communicating] hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults” (Nadal, 2008) towards stigmatized populations. Online microaggressions consist of denigration and/or exclusion via “voice, video... text and graphic representations” (Tynes et al., 2015)—including epithets, misinformation, and stereotyping.


Five digital vignettes were embedded into the online survey and sequentially presented to respondents (n=1,336). Vignettes included real social media posts (e.g., Twitter screenshots) and memes. Several forms of online microaggressions were contained in the vignettes (e.g., epithets). Respondents were asked for their immediate reaction in an open-ended text box, then answered a series of closed-choice and short-answer questions. They were asked if they had ever encountered similar posts in their real-life, and if so—how frequently they encountered them, and how they tended to respond. Respondents were also asked how the posts made them feel mentally, emotionally, and physically to assess immediate reactions and cognitions.


Respondents viewed each of the five digital vignettes for an average of 7.7–13.0 seconds (SD=4.93–10.28). Nearly all (93.4%) had encountered similar microaggressions in their own online environments, with 75.6% experiencing such once a month or more. Respondents indicated a variety of typical responses to such posts, most commonly: reporting the post, ignoring the problem, disliking (e.g., “thumbing down”) the post, not responding (but thinking about the post), and/or blocking the poster. Notably, 81.0% indicated their response would depend on a variety of factors, including the context of the post (e.g., who was posting it), the content of the post, the intent of the poster (e.g., “how aggressive the post was”), as well as their current circumstances (e.g., mood, energy). In addition to cognitive perceptions (e.g., frustration) and appraisals, the vignettes yielded psychological (e.g., anger, hurt, fear, depression, anxiety) and physiological (e.g., nausea, visceral manifestations of anger, elevated heartbeats) reactions.

Conclusions and Implications:

Digital vignettes effectively explored stigmatized youths’ perceptions of (and reactions to) evocative stimuli aimed at their identity and community. Results expand current understanding of individual pathways from cognition to response when confronted with online microaggressions. However, there exist critical considerations for using digital vignettes in online social work research seeking to understand social issues and advance ideas to improve the human condition. These include digital vignette creation/development, internal validity, plausibility, relatability, and ethical application (e.g., potential trauma responses). Recommendations to mitigate potential challenges using the online vignette methodology will be discussed, and strategies for effective implementation provided.