Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Ethnography and expections

Bell spends a lot of verbiage in his piece on explicating what ethnography could or should mean in the context of cyberspace (whatever that could or should mean). While he manages to address quite a few reasonable approaches, and extend those approaches into issues of practice and ethics, I think he misses something that should be of central interest to us.

If the methodology of ethnography gives us fits when applied to cyberspace as a broad, theoretical concept, the first thing we should do is begin to focus on particular applications, rather than demand that "cyberspace" be a singular entity. Cyberspace is large; it contains multitudes. To expect a unified theory of cyberethnography that looks like a retrofitted version of traditional ethnography is a little silly. So how might this be applied situationally? If we're going to attempt to translate the methodology of ethnography out of the physical field and into the virtual, it makes sense to examine the ways in which our online subjects resemble those studied offline. Christine Hine asks, "Do you have to be logged on 24 hours a day, or can you visit the setting at periodic intervals?" The answer, I believe, lies in the offline study of similar subjects. What level of participation would you expect for a physically located study of the same people or ideas? I'm being a little facetious here, because this sort of methodological development presents obvious problems -- primarily, that an ethnographic study being conducted on the Internet will not necessarily have any analogue in the offline world.

My high school French teacher used to tell us that French was not English in disguise whenever we wanted to simply replace English words with French ones, without adjusting word order or context. The primary concern I have with the ideas presented by Bell and the conservative researchers he cites is that they seem to be approaching the Internet as if it were the offline world in disguise. I find it very difficult to accept research and analysis written in the 1990's as especially relevant to questions about how to use and examine the Internet in 2005; indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if I felt the same way about today's publications by the end of the decade. I don't see Bell and the others doing much beyond trying to fit the square peg of ethnography into the round hole of online community. The way I see it, it makes more sense to start from scratch and figure out an entire process that works for the Internet, than to start from the premise that the offline world and its accepted methods ought to be the baseline. (That said, I'm not sure I would agree with the claim that the Internet constitutes its own uniquely existent and identifiable "world," either.)

As with most contrarian blog posts, however, I don't have any solid suggestions for what I'm proposing. Ideas?


Amanda said...

I also had this problem with Bell.

The Internet, as I learned last year in my networking class, is little more that a collection of switches and routers and servers - you can't treat it as one massive entity, because it's not. That's not the way it's structured. That's the first thing, I think, cyberethnographers need to consider.

Mark said...

Rob Kozinets, a marketing professor here at UW (formerly at Northwestern), published a piece about how to conduct what he terms "netnography". I read it last year and can dig up the cite if you'd like it. What I remember anyway is that he distances himself from some of these more theoretical issues and simply suggests a way to conduct this type of work. Yes, he applies a number of the tennets of traditional ethnography to the web setting but does so in a way that I feel doesn't trivialize the uniqueness of web based communities. Might be worth checking out.

Mark said...

After looking around a bit I found the cite for the Kozinets article I mentioned earlier. Published in 2002 it might add a little insight into some of the critiques you have of Bell.

Kozinets, R. V. (2002). The field behind the screen: Using netnography for marketing research in online communities. Journal of Marketing Research, 39, 61-72.


Linda said...

I've done a little bit of undercover reporting and the rule of thumb we always used was ask first for the shoot, then if turned down it's ok to go undercover to shoot what you need to find out. How well does this apply to internet research? And how would it work?