Monday, September 23, 2013

Is Virtual Ethnography an Oxymoron?

English: Picture of Bronislaw Malinowski with ...
Malinowski with 'natives' on the Trobriand Islands, ca 1918 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Huw Davies, :

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

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