Ethics 3 – ‘Field’ … of dreams?

flickr photo by J. Stephen Conn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

The ‘place’ or setting in which an ethnography is conducted is known as the field. Traditionally, this might be a specific place or geographical location; a village, hospital or school for example. Alternately the field might involve a particular community or group of people, so the field becomes the social world(s) those people inhabit. Now the field may no longer be geographically bounded and is more likely to traverse multiple sites. Whilst hopefully enriching the study, the increased complexity presents new challenges for the ethnographer, though in the context of this post, it is the ethical issues to which I turn.

The research questions I mentioned in the previous post initially suggest that Twitter might form the field site within which this study is located. I see it more as point of entry; the one to which I have been directed by those tweets where people claim how it provides a powerful mechanism through which they learn professionally. What I’m keen to explore is how it does that and in what ways, but not losing sight of how Twitter is interconnected with the rest of the world wide web. Not only that, but since this has become an integrated part of people’s lives, including their professional learning, where else does it extend? If someone claims they are learning professionally while accessing Twitter (and using the interconnections to move into other spaces) on their smartphone whilst travelling on the bus to work, then what is the field site one would choose to approach? Postill and Pink (2012) argue for ethnography which moves “away from community and towards sociality and movement.” In so doing, how do our ethical concerns shift?

The pilot study I mentioned in the previous post employs a number of methods. One of the reasons for this is to begin to reveal some of the pathways professional learning might follow, but also to explore where the boundaries of the study might be. When the limits within which the study will be conducted are unknown, predicting the ethical issues is more difficult … but not impossible.  Our aim then should be for ethical sensitivity and flexibility, but grounded in the fundamental ethical principles.

Each of the eight methods I’ll undertake can be treated individually and the ethical considerations highlighted in advance. These are informed by the experiences and knowledge the digital ethnographic pioneers can provide. (Baym, 1999; Hine, 2000; Markham, 1998; Miller & Slater, 2000) One of the first issues which arose involved the distinction between the offline and online worlds. Could the ethics applied in fully offline studies be applied equally well in online ones? A simple example; consider an ethnographer conducting observations in a shopping centre (mall) making notes. Passers by may not know exactly what they are doing, but they are conducting their business in plain sight. A digital ethnographer undertaking a similar study in an equivalent open, online public space (like Twitter) might be completely invisible to those under observation. We’re obliged to think about the similarities and differences between the two, then either apply the same ethical principles to both situations, or develop different ones for each.

This may be fine whilst the two spaces are distinct, but as intimated earlier, the boundary between the online and offline is becoming increasingly blurred, so where does that leave the ethics?

The apparent duality of online-offline, blurred by changing behaviour and experiences, is not the only one we face when pondering ethical implications. Others to which I shall turn during the next few posts will include public versus private; one of the main factors many address when attempting to identify the ethical issues surrounding a set of circumstances. Resolving this are is important when considering whether it necessary to seek the informed consent of those with whom you wish to participate. As Coughlan and Perryman (2015) identified, some argue that informed consent is always necessary, whereas as others feel that the context is everything, especially in terms of public-private places. The brief example I gave earlier also raises another issue; that of disclosure. To what extent do you reveal your presence as a researcher as you undertake your observations? Some online spaces make hiding your identity or intent particularly easy, but is this ever ethically defensible? Assuming researchers always reveal themselves, how might that affect the data they gather and what are the implications for accessing the space and approaching those within it? One duality I’ll explore in more detail is one I’d never considered before, other than as a result of thinking about other things. This begins from the view that some hold in that Internet research might require a completely different ethical perspective. Everything I’ve discussed so far assumes this is human-subject research; after all, it is centred on professional learning of teachers (humans!) in a social environment (Twitter). Some however, contend that it’s not so simple and that the place we start from is the texts that these humans have produced. This shifts the perspective since analysis of texts, even if it was humans that produced them, is not human-centred and requires a different ethical sensibility. Instead of confidentiality and anonymity, our focus shifts to issues around authorship and intellectual property.

These then are some of the areas I’ll pick up in the next few posts. When you’re on Twitter, have you ever thought that a researcher might be observing your tweets? Does that bother you?


BAYM, Nancy K. (1999). Tune in, log on: Soaps, fandom, and online community. Sage Publications. , 3.

COUGHLAN, Tony and PERRYMAN, Leigh-Anne (2015). A Murky Business: Navigating the Ethics of Educational Research in Facebook Groups. [online]. European journal of open, distance and e-learning, , 146-169.

HINE, Christine (2000). Virtual ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif., SAGE.

MARKHAM, Annette N. (1998). Life online : researching real experience in virtual space. Lanham, Md. ; Plymouth, Lanham, Md. ; Plymouth : AltaMira.

MILLER, Daniel and SLATER, Don (2000). The Internet : An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford, Oxford : Berg.

POSTILL, John and PINK, Sarah (2012). Social media ethnography: the digital researcher in a messy web. [online].



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