The right contexts for virtual ethnography


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An exploration of when virtual-only ethnography is appropriate and when offline ethnographic data collection is appropriate and practical.

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  • Often studied but also rare
  • The right contexts for virtual ethnography

    1. 1. The right contexts for virtual ethnography MeCCSA Conference 7 th Jan 2010 David Brake & Department of Media and Communications
    2. 2. What is Ethnography? <ul><li>“ In its most characteristic form [ethnography] involves the ethnographer participating, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of the research.” (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995:1) </li></ul>
    3. 3. Why use ethnography? <ul><li>It enables us (ideally) to generate “thick descriptions” of observed behaviour (Geertz, 1973) – that is, description which approaches the meaning of what has been observed (for some or all relevant parties) and which places what has been observed in the relevant contexts . </li></ul>
    4. 4. Virtual Ethnography is when: <ul><li>The object of study is “ the discourses and practices that are generated around / by computers” (Escobar et al. 1994) and/or </li></ul><ul><li>Ethnographic data is collected solely in a computer mediated fashion </li></ul>
    5. 5. Virtual research object -> virtual methods? <ul><li>Some say it should be virtual alone: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>foregrounding the electronic personae at the expense of the fleshy body that types at keyboard, eats, sleeps and defecates (Mason 1999) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>It’s generally accepted that offline collection can often add value to online - eg through triangulation (Orgad 2005:52-53) </li></ul><ul><li>But “it might also threaten the experiential authenticity that comes from attempting to understand the world the way it is for informants” (Hine 2000:49) </li></ul>
    6. 6. Questions before starting <ul><li>Would the virtual ethnography benefit from or be hindered by an offline component? </li></ul><ul><li>Is offline contact practical? </li></ul>
    7. 7. Useful decision criteria <ul><li>Epistemological: </li></ul><ul><li>Degree of virtuality of studied experience </li></ul><ul><li>Practical: </li></ul><ul><li>Boundedness of virtual location </li></ul><ul><li>Boundedness of meaning </li></ul>
    8. 8. Boundedness of virtual location <ul><li>Is personal blogging as an experience about: </li></ul><ul><li>the postings? </li></ul><ul><li>The postings and blog comments? </li></ul><ul><li>The postings, blog comments, IMs and email about blog postings? </li></ul><ul><li>All of the above plus face to face meetings and phone calls that relate in some way to what has been posted or which inspire further posts? </li></ul>
    9. 9. Good virtual-only locations <ul><li>The ‘perfect’ setting for virtual- only ethnography is where it would be difficult or impossible to establish contact outside that virtual space. </li></ul>
    10. 10. Temporal boundedness <ul><li>Periodicity </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Does the practice take place frequently or regularily? Or infrequently but with a start and finish date? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Blogging (for example) is hard to observe ethnographically because it takes place intermittently and can change its character over time. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Intensity </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Harder to get rich contemporaneous accounts of activities that are brief or inconsequential (eg web search, status updates) </li></ul></ul>
    11. 11. Boundedness of meaning <ul><li>What does blogging mean? Easier to establish with political than personal blogging. </li></ul><ul><li>What does Facebook use mean? Depends on which uses are foregrounded and by whom. </li></ul>
    12. 12. Studying behaviour or context? <ul><li>Remember difficulties in establishing internet use ‘effects’? </li></ul><ul><li>You can do an ethnographic study of greyhound bus travel but not of ‘travel’, so you can study particular computer mediated communication practices ethnographically but not, for example, blogging – it’s a context. </li></ul>
    13. 13. Further Questions? Comments? <ul><li>Contact details: </li></ul><ul><li>David Brake </li></ul><ul><li>[email_address] </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul><ul><li>Thank you for your attention! </li></ul><ul><li>This presentation is downloadable (with references) at: </li></ul><ul><li> </li></ul>
    14. 14. References <ul><li>Geertz, C. (1973). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture. In C. Geertz (Ed.), The interpretation of cultures: selected essays . New York: Basic Books. </li></ul><ul><li>Hammersley, M and Atkinson, P (1995) Ethnography: Principles in Practice , London and New York: Routledge </li></ul><ul><li>Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. </li></ul><ul><li>Orgad, S. (2005). From Online to Offline and Back: Moving from Online to Offline Relationships with Research Informants. In C. Hine (Ed.), Virtual methods: issues in social research on the Internet (pp. 51-65). Oxford: Berg. </li></ul>