Is virtual ethnography an oxymoron?

Attempts to conceptualise the sociological study of behaviour  on the Web often involve juxtaposing the words ‘virtual’ or ‘digital’ to ‘ethnography’ or blend ‘ethnography’ with  ‘Internet’ to create ‘netnography’.

Rightly or wrongly ethnography for me connotes old school anthropology – Malinowski and Mead – and deep, long term immersion in communities. In my research I am considering how young people engage with information online. I visited a college, I interviewed my subjects (and their teachers) and let them loose on the Web during which time I wanted to capture everything both on and offline that influenced the data. As well taking traditional field notes I audio and video recorded what went on in the room, used a proxy server to capture all the client-server traffic, set-up a dialogue feed to capture what the subjects were saying to each other online and downloaded the browser history files. The result is a lot of data. I am, however, reluctant to call this research ethnography. I use ethnographic methods but I think the picture is still too superficial to call it ethnography.

I have a rich snapshot but it’s still only a snapshot. I asked young people about immigration and climate change and used the data to contextualise what they did online. But without further ethnographic research I can’t account for the influence of other social domains or fields beyond the boundaries of my visits. I don’t know for example the extent to which the students were rehearsing the views and practices of people within their households.

The data I got from the Web and social networks told only a fraction of the story. I couldn’t know what some data meant until I cross-referenced it with what happened offline. During one session, for example, someone was reading a newspaper, discussed what he’d read with a peer then altered his stance online as a result. This is why I’m reluctant to use terms such as digital ethnography and netnography; its methods are too superficial to justify the word ethnography. Please let me know if you think I’m mistaken!

Huw Davies is a 2nd year, interdisciplinary, PhD student at the University of Southampton attempting to synthesize the best of sociology and computer science under the banner of Web Science. More info on his Twitter profile @huwcdavies

Categories: Digital Sociology

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2 replies »

  1. Not sure this is an issue you should get too bogged down in. Maybe you are not though. Anyway … as you say, you are certainly using ethnographic methods. Whether it is ethnography, well, that depends on how you see what ethnography is. You admit to a somewhat traditional view. No doubt you are also familiar with the view that there are ethnographies … a pluralistic view, that does not elevate the old school work in some kind of hierarchy. Is part of your struggle to see your work as ethnography something to do with idealising residential communities and as a school is not one, this troubles you on some level? Just a thought.

  2. I don’t see the need to make ‘traditional’ Malinowskian ethnography a model against which to measure, but at the same time the idea of an ethnography of the virtual has conceptual issues (it is ethnography of this or that wether it takes place on line or elsewhere). What you’re doing is, to my mind, ethnographic but more importantly it is producing what sounds like interesting data – so why worry about terminology that is either ideal-typical or conceptually problematic? My sense is that the production of ‘thick descriptions’ such as those you describe could be ethnography but do you need the label ‘an ethnographic study’ to hang these worldly things on? Others may disagree but just now getting the kind of data you are getting, however you label it, is where the action is. There’s always the allegedly pragmatic catch all fallback of ‘multi-methods’ in any event.

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