Whilst discussing online ethnography in my thesis, I made reference to ‘the field’ on a number of occasions, and devoted a couple of paragraphs to outlining how it might be conceived. In this post from the series discussing potential viva questions, I want to return to that notion.
Ethnography offers the means through which to explore an interesting phenomenon or issue. For me, flânography was the approach which allowed me to explore teachers’ professional practices on Twitter. In classical anthropology, the field was the location you went to in order to learn about the ‘Other,’ by becoming immersed in their culture and practices. There was a sense of difference, of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ of ‘the field’ and home. Notionally the field was a tightly bounded geographic space, but more recently this has been called into question (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). Researchers such as Marcus (2012) noted how studying aspects of life often involved being mobile and making connections across multiple sites as people and things move around. This multi-sited field did not precede the study, but emerged through ethnographic exploration; it is the outcome of ethnographic engagement, not some predetermined construct which preceded the research.Read More »
Another outcome from the last supervisory meeting was that it would be useful for me to produce a summary of what I actually do when I’m on Twitter – how does my activity generate data? In a conventional ethnographic approach, one would be attempting to answer the broad question “What’s going on here?”, doubtless supplemented by who, how, where, when and why. If the setting is the digital realm, those questions could be the same, but what one would attend to might be rather different.Read More »
As I prepare for my supervisory meeting this week, I’m reminded of the previous meeting when I offered this rendering (It’s a much smaller version of the full one and I’m far from happy with the way it displays what I want, but … well, compromise!). It’s an attempt to show some of the activity I’ve been engaged in as a participant observer, but also a little more than that. It serves several functions, providing:
a visual record of what came to my attention and whether I chose to interact;
direct hyperlinks back to the tweets, sites, posts or comments i.e. the original data which attracted my gaze;
a precis of the information/data behind that data point;
my observational comments – why it attracted my attention, what I thought and what I did; and
a kickstart of the process of analysis.
This sits alongside a slightly more conventional set of field notes, although much more brief than the notes which might usually accompany field work. I didn’t see them as needing to capture all the rich detail of the people in view – what they were doing and trying to achieve, what and how they communicated and so on. My notes certainly bear little resemblance to those of traditional ethnography, but then this isn’t a traditional ethnography.Read More »
In the Q&A following my Confirmation seminar one question floored me, perhaps because of its simplicity.
‘What is your ethnography an ethnography of?’
The answer to me was obvious, but because it was being asked by someone much more experienced and acknowledged than I, I assumed there must be more to the answer than the obvious. But perhaps it was more a case that I hadn’t actually stated that anywhere in my presentation and it simply needed laying out. So here’s my attempt to set that record straight.Read More »
On Thursday and Friday last week, I had the pleasure and privilege to participate in a ‘ Doing Ethnography’ course at the University of Nottingham. This was a course in ‘Advanced’ ethnography funded by the Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Training Centre and drew participants from around the country. Given the specialisms of the course leaders, it was no surprise that the majority of my fellow learners came from health care sectors, which of course provided a very different slant to that with which I’ve become accustomed.
In aiming to ‘give students knowledge of the practical and theoretical underpinnings of the ethnographic method,‘ over the two days: we had an introduction to the ‘history’ of ethnography; were presented with a case study of a contemporary ethnography; discussed key issues in ethnography; explored the issues of ethics approval; analysed some ethnographic data; and began planning our own ethnographies. When I applied for the course way back in the Autumn, I was worried it might be too advanced, pitched as it was for those ‘who already have some understanding of the theoretical and conceptual issues which underpin qualitative research.’ I was hoping my Masters study was enough to provide me with that, and indeed that proved to be the case. In fact, the MRes modules I’ve been doing recently perhaps have taken me that bit further, so much so, that some of the aspects of the course were already familiar to me. It was nevertheless helpful to have some of the knowledge I’ve been developing reaffirmed and supplemented with different perspectives. The unique insights and experiences that experienced academic researchers can share is of such value in helping you to reflect on your own research.
What I brought home
The sense that I was on the right tracks in choosing an ethnographic approach for my own study. An exploratory technique which is open to possibilities, flexible, adaptable and responsive seems to be an appropriate and defensible choice in my circumstances.
That I’ve not fully acknowledged my own positionality yet, and given how that will undoubtedly impact my study, it’s crucial to have ‘formally’ done so. I feel another post is in the offing.
During the session exploring ‘Why ethnography,’ one of the justifications was that it allows you to see practice enacted, in addition to self-reporting during interviews for example – comparing what people say with what they do. This challenged me to think about the balance in my study between elicited and ‘found’ data.
The importance of being able to summarise your work for different audiences, whether for your friends in the pub, or an audience of specialist academics.
The simple tip of listening to your audio data whilst out running to become more familiar with it and perhaps gain fresh insights.
How powerful it can be to summarise your analysis and interpretation using a matrix of vertical arguments (thesis chapters?) and horizontal themes which cut across them (Moffatt, 2014: 291). Satisfactorily completing said matrix can be a helpful indicator that your analysis and interpretation are complete and robust. The matrix can also provide a succinct summary from which to defend your thesis in a viva.
The final session of the course asked us to begin to plan our ethnography, then present it back to the group. Eight months into my study, I’m already along that path, but what the session did was allow me the chance to incorporate the new thinking I’ve gained during this course. Having recently been informed of the date of my ‘Confirmation of PhD’ assessments, it was a timely opportunity to reflect on where I am and what my current thinking is. I know I need to: revisit my research questions; consider what I’ve learned recently about discourse analysis and whether that has a place in my research; think about my data and its analysis at micro, meso and macro levels; give much more serious thought to the method of audio-recording reports of activity with Twitter.
The success and usefulness of the course were in no small part due to the warmth, openness, sensitivity and responsiveness of the facilitators, Stephen Timmons and Fiona Moffatt. They had crafted a coherent course, successfully balancing information delivery, discussion and practical experiences, through ‘teacher’-led, individual and group sessions. Personally I would have appreciated a little more time spent on the analysis of data, and especially on the ways to write up an ethnography, two areas I’m still wrestling with, but they were issues specific to me. I also think the timing of the course didn’t quite work for me; a little too late in the year. It would have been ideal to have done this course prior to the MRes modules and would have set them up wonderfully. But we can’t have everything. Would I do it again or recommend it to someone else? Absolutely.
“Is the toolkit of methods I’m proposing for my pilot study realistic and feasible?” This is a question the feedback from my draft ethics submission suggested I need to answer, so it’s to that that I now turn in this post.
It’s perhaps worth reiterating at the outset that I’ve elected to employ an ethnographic approach to best answer my research questions. Which of course raises the question, what will that involve? Hammersley & Atkinson (2007) suggest:
ethnography usually 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, and/or asking questions through informal and formal interviews, collecting documents and artefacts – in fact, gathering whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the emerging focus of inquiry.
The notion of ‘people’s everyday lives’ might not quite transfer across entirely to the online realm, and the context of my study is a little more specific. I’m using an ethnographic approach, rather than conducting an ethnography. However, the need to seek data wherever they may be also aligns with the actor-network theory sensibility I’ll be bringing. O’Reilly (2012) also advocates a range of methods in order to recognise, record and report the complexities of the social world(s) I’ll be involved in.
Ethnography is a practice that: evolves in design as the study progresses; involves direct and sustained contact with human beings, in the context of their daily lives, over a prolonged period of time; draws on a family of methods, usually including participant observation and conversation; respects the complexity of the social world; and therefore tells rich, sensitive, and credible stories.
So to recap, the pilot methods I’m proposing are a mixture of conventional techniques applied within a digital context, and new techniques made possible as a result of the digital field. Ethnographic techniques applied in the field typically involve participant observation, semi-structured and informal interviews, and secondary data analysis. These are largely the methods I’m advocating, but with the digital twists that the online environment brings. I’m also keen to include a focus group discussion, though recognise that this isn’t usually considered an ethnographic method. Suter (2000) however views them as being able to ‘allow access to a process that qualitative researchers are often centrally interested in: interaction’ and ‘…also allow researchers to observe a large amount of interaction on a specific topic of interest in a limited amount of time and offer peer-to-peer interactions which might be worthy of observation in their own right.’ I tend to agree here, especially in the more free-form #edchat context I’m keen to explore, compared with that of the traditional focus group setting.
The question my supervisors raised whether all this is manageable (or desirable?) is absolutely valid, so here I’ll attempt to answer that. First, I’ve tried to break down the time required for each of the methods, then sum the individual parts to establish the time demands. That is summarised in this table:
The total time required is around 70 hours, or around two weeks work. Although I should be able to schedule that into my summer programme, it’s likely that my inexperience may be underestimating the time demands of each of these methods. This will become manifest most acutely in the analysis of the data, so here I’m not proposing a deep analysis which will feed forward into the future findings. The aim is to test the methods being used, the processes which will be needed and any consequences such a variety of data might have for the subsequent analysis. The outcome then will be a series of memos which can be used to inform the next stages of the research, rather than hard data used for preliminary analysis.
If it transpires that I’m still wildly underestimating the time demands, then I will need to prioritise these methods, perhaps discarding those that are less significant. I’ll start then with the two core methods of participant observation and semi-structured interview, which means my Twitter immersion study first, so that can inform the question schedule for the interview. Next I’d place the #edchat focus group, since this offers the potential for both interview and participant observation in the same study. Also using observation would be the single practitioner study (tight observation) and informal interviews would take place through open dialogue on blog posts and within Twitter. Collecting tweets on a particular theme is more akin to secondary data collection, but, like the #edchat, does allow the study to spread beyond the bounds of those I follow. Although I’m quite keen to explore the different perspective a social network analysis might bring (who are the influencers, if any; how are people interconnected; what are the pathways through which interactions occur?), I’m also aware of that to do this justice might require expertise I don’t have, nor have the time to develop. There are tools which allow visualisations to be assembled quickly (including NVivo), but deep, meaningful interpretations would only be possible with prolonged practice. I’m obliged to ask myself whether a brief pilot study will provide sufficient detail to establish whether it is a technique worth taking further?
It’s important too not to maintain alignment with my research questions. Do the methods in the pilot adequately help to answer them? In the following table I’ve attempted to map out where I think they should contribute, though acknowledge this might be overly optimistic. But then, surely one of the purposes of the pilot should be to identify which methods are better at answering which questions?
How does the Twitter social media platform support the professional learning of teachers?
What forms of professional learning do teachers undertake using Twitter?
How does professional learning extend beyond Twitter into the wider social media ecosystem and other spaces?
What attitudes and dispositions do teachers need, to use Twitter for their professional learning?
The concern I have here is of potentially missing an opportunity. I proposed at the outset that one strand of my ‘contribution to knowledge and understanding’ will be methodological; investigating new techniques for gathering data. I feel that in the priorities I expressed above, I’m privileging the more traditional methods – observation and interviews, over the newer ones – focus group within a #chat. By narrowing avenues of enquiry, might I also be in danger of masking the complexity that ethnography seeks to illuminate (Wittel, 2000).
HAMMERSLEY, Martyn and ATKINSON, Paul (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. [online]. Routledge.
O’REILLY, Karen (2012). Ethnographic methods. [online]. Routledge.
SUTER, Elizabeth A. (2000). Focus groups in ethnography of communication: Expanding topics of inquiry beyond participant observation. [online]. The qualitative report, 5 (1), 1-14.
WITTEL, Andreas (2000). Ethnography on the move: From field to net to Internet. [online]. In: Forum qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative social research, .
Christine Hine talks about conducting research online
On methods and musings
One key element of ethnographic approaches is the interview, which can be a powerful way of shedding more light on the emerging data. Through the Internet, this can be in the form of a traditional, more formal one-off event, or as an ongoing conversation with participants with whom one might have developed a trusted relationship. Although conducting an interview in the participant’s offline environment may be important for some studies, and whilst a face-to-face interview may be possible, participants could be geographically distant from the researcher. Here the Internet becomes a saviour, offering a variety of mechanisms through which different types of interviews may be conducted; however, the medium chosen should not place restrictions on the interviewee, nor influence the feedback they might be likely to provide. Where a researcher is seeking a breadth of understanding rather than specifics, a survey instrument provides an alternative means through which to solicit feedback. Here however, one is faced with the difficulty of not knowing how representative of the target population the respondents are, especially where the field has become spread across multiple sites.
Given the degree to which the ethnographer has chosen the point of entry and the connections to follow as action unfolds, it is clear those choices will have had a major influence on the data which emerge and what is subsequently revealed about the phenomenon. It is important therefore to acknowledge the choices made in a reflexive way, making it plain what factors played a part, but also to highlight the consequent uncertainties and subjectivity which suffuse the findings. As the terrain over which the ethnographer roams becomes increasingly complex, their experience is likely to become increasingly individualised. In some circumstances, an autoethnographic approach may prove particularly rewarding, yielding embodied insider information on the affordances and restrictions encountered, enriched with emotional detail. It may also assist in making meaning of data gathered from diverse streams into a more aligned account, but crucially the ethnographer must seek to balance their intimacy with the data with a reflexively critical perspective.
Hine goes on to provide detailed accounts of three cases from recent research in which we begin to see some of the issues previously mentioned begin to unfold. Although chosen as appropriate to their context, some of the techniques and strategies have wider applicability. In the first, whilst investigating the exchange of goods sites Freegle and Freecycle, some might argue the brief postings are too thin for ethnographic engagement. As the means through which the exchanges are mediated, they nevertheless form the backbone of the sites, so merited a detailed, systematic interrogation of their construction. Though not specifically ethnographic in the sense of being immersive and participative, discourse analysis can nevertheless help focus on the meanings within the texts themselves. (I can see clear parallels here with Twitter exchanges, constrained as they are by their 140 character limit). In order to move beyond the simple mechanics of the process and begin to explore how the exchange lists were embedded within people’s lives, interviews were also used. Conventional face-to-face interviewing was complemented by email interviews where participants were emailed questions, sometimes in a single mail and sometimes over a period of time. Conducting interviews by email, whilst lacking contextual clues and the capability to foster rapport, has the advantage of allowing the respondent time to reflect and formulate responses at their convenience.
An area suggested as being a strength of ethnography for the Internet is the ease with which it is possible to observe unobtrusively. We should draw the distinction between this form of observation, where the ethnographer is in plain sight but backgrounded by the participants, and the ethically questionable practice of covert observation. Here the ebb and flow of activity can be actively observed, whilst refraining from participating and perhaps affecting potential outcomes. Whilst on the topic of ethics, Hine sees this area as emergent, as new spaces, applications and activities present themselves. This is especially true when the the ethnographer moves across sites, where visibility, interaction, the consent of the participants and the nature of the data may change. Rather than adopting a specific ethical stance and set of working practices from the outset, this needs to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances the ethnographer finds. Having an ethical sensibility if you will. Whilst I would agree with that, I think that having a documented set of general principles appropriate for research you intend to undertake, together with an agreed set of working guidelines for the point of entry at least, would be the minimum an ethics approval board would allow. But perhaps Hine takes that as read.
Anyone brave enough to take on an ethnography for the Internet is likely to face a few challenges, including but not limited to: the need to develop skills in working across platforms; managing a huge mass of data, possibly in multiple formats and the need to store it securely, but enable quick retrieval and analysis; and develop capability in the use of new tools to analyse and interpret that data.
In summary then, an ethnography for the Internet needs to be adaptive, open to following connections within a fluid field. It needs to accommodate the Internet being embedded in multiple ways in the lives of participants and that their experiences will be embodied ones. The researcher needs to prepare for and embrace uncertainty and multiplicity, then be able to deal with them as they arise. In short, it might be a bumpy ride!
In any ethnographic study, in order to be able to interpret the research setting, prolonged exposure is desirable, with the ethnographer, where possible, engaging in the activities as a fellow participant. In addition to winning trust, this also allows the researcher to both observe and experience the nuances of participation, to develop themes and interpretations and discuss them with participants, then where necessary, revise and reinterpret them.
Where the setting involves multiple, perhaps diffuse sites, both on- and offline, extended immersion in each of those spaces may prove difficult. Nevertheless we should remember the goal is to spend long enough to develop and revise emerging theories; to be able to recognise what is normal or unusual. Perhaps ‘immersion’ needs re-viewing in terms appropriate to mediated communication across multiple, connected spaces?
In ethnography, the field site can occasionally be clearly specified and its boundaries mapped. In an ethnography of the Internet, the field site may initially simply be an entry point to explore an interesting phenomenon; one with fuzzy boundaries which dematerialise then reappear elsewhere when engaged in activity with participants. Given the interconnected nature of Internet mediated behaviours, some have chosen to conceptualise the field as network. Their entry point maybe spatial, focused on an activity, or on a group of people, but they need to make choices about which connections to follow and the practicality of doing so. The interconnections may take the form of emails, SMS, hyperlinks, exchanged documents, products or financial transactions. Hine encourages researchers to embrace the diversity, rather than attempt to tame it:
“By refusing to decide in advance what will be the most interesting to explore in the setting, the ethnographer remains open to novel discoveries about the unique ways that a particular way of life might be organised and to the prospect that activities may make sense in surprising ways.”
Having established our setting, the question then is one of entry. The choices an ethnographer makes at this point will be crucial in allowing relationships with participants to flourish … or not. Maintaining consistency can be increasingly complex if the study traverses different platforms and this can be exacerbated where a researcher has a pre-existing Internet presence; they should be aware of the potential of it bleeding into the ethnographic field and what the consequences of that might be. As activity moves from place to place, it may be necessary to develop new skills on different platforms. The ethnographer is then learning both how the activity is done, whilst also attempting to ascribe meaning to it. Whatever the case, an ethnographer will be observing behaviour, making field notes, reflecting and interpreting, sometimes in situ and sometimes subsequently. It is increasingly common for ethnographers of the Internet to make their activities, reflections and emerging findings public using social media. Here a degree of prudence is called for and it is important to be wary of potential consequences of sharing half-formed, possibly contentious, tentative thoughts. However, if undertaken sensitively, sharing openly may provide an opportunity for negotiated meaning and refinement of interpretations with participants or the wider research community. Another clear advantage the online ethnographer enjoys is that they will often be able to refer back to activity that they may have struggled to record ‘live.’ There are a multitude of tools available for retrieving, managing, analysing and visualising Internet activity and data, though whether that is in a form appropriate to the particular study will depend on the questions being asked.
Hine sees the Internet manifest in three ways which are likely to challenge the ethnographer’s talents:
Embedded: rather than the separate domain associated with views of ‘cyberspace’ as a place where people ‘went’ and became part of a separate culture, another view is of the Internet embedded in and a natural part of people’s lives. The Internet can now travel with you, forming part of whatever experience you are enjoying. Here it is no longer a single cultural artefact, but different and multiple depending on the people using it. This shifts the focus for the ethnographer onto the people using it, the context within which that use is made and the practices that develop. The Internet both complements and is embedded in analogue media, whether being integrated in newsprint, referenced in urls on products bought in the supermarket or extending the lexicon of our dictionaries.
Embodied: The Internet is a place where we, as embodied social beings, can express ourselves in different ways. Early studies explored how people entered this new, virtual world, becoming disembodied and adopting dislocated alternative identities. Whilst this may still be true for some, we can now conceive of the Internet as sitting alongside, contributing to and enriching our embodied experience, rather than replacing it. Our Internet experiences run both in parallel to our offline experiences, but are consecutively interwoven with it and manifest in multiple ways. Social media provide us with the opportunity to present our embodied selves in different ways, rather than leaving the body behind to assume an alternative online identity (though some people in some circumstances still of course do that).
Everyday: Here the Internet is viewed as unremarkable, mundane and is no longer a distinct aspect of our lives. It challenges the ethnographer to tease out what has become hidden by being amalgamated into our daily existence and no longer on the surface. To find out what is some actually doing when they say they ‘Facebooked him’ requires us to reopen the black box. The ethnographer will need to coax from the participant how they achieved a remarkable act, whilst being unaware of the unremarkable means used to achieve it.
The consequence of these views is that our approach must leave behind the notion of online and offline, since the themes we explore will either traverse that boundary, or not even perceive its existence.
This book draws together a collection of essays on online social research brought under three main themes: Methods, Issues and Ethics.
Published in 2004, the areas researched are very contemporary to the era and include MUDs, MOOs Usenet, Forums. Whilst these still exist, it would be fair to say that things have moved on in the intervening decade. Social networking sites, mobile technologies and the ‘app’ infrastructure offer up an additional and rather different set of ecosystems to explore. These new spaces are environments to which people migrated, but perhaps more importantly have offered easier and more mainstream entry points for an increasing proportion of the population. Which all leaves me wondering about the majority of the literature I’ve encountered so far and how it can inform current research.
There are some universals the book covers which still apply; the differences and similarities between online and face-to-face ethnography; the extent to which the offline and online are blurring (a topic becoming increasingly significant); the importance of the approach the researcher uses when entering an online ‘field.’ The methods the authors employed during their studies at the turn of the century are still applicable now: online surveys/questionnaires, interviews, network analysis, discourse, text and language analysis. What we now have is a greater diversity of spaces where they might be applied, and arguably, a richer toolset to deploy.
Another area quite rightly discussed at length and still of importance, is that of ethics. I must confess to failing to appreciate how diverse and complex an area this is. Whilst the usual considerations of ethical behaviour have to be borne in mind, undertaking research online brings a multitude of additional concerns. It is possible to ‘lurk’ online in a way an offline ethnographer could never manage. How should a researcher disclose their intent? How can a researcher gain informed consent of the subjects under study if the study is in an environment with hundreds or thousands of participants? How much more difficult it is to anonymise data drawn from the online world … or even whether it is fair to do so. The legal issues of copyright and ownership of text (and multimedia) created online, which you might then wish to reproduce in your report. I have much work to do in this area.
As I move on from this book, I feel I need to seek out more recent research involving current online spaces. Are the methods currently being used the same as the ones we used ten years ago, or are newer, more effective options available?