Sometimes it’s the simplest questions …

flickr photo by caseorganic shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

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 »

I don’t believe in coincidences, but …

I’ve never made field notes before, let alone when participating in an online activity. I’ll say no more about what the online activity was since I’m already sufficiently troubled by ethical issues without giving myself another headache. In reality this was just an attempt to expose myself to a technique, not to capture any real data which might later find their way into an analysis. I’m nowhere near being in a position to begin capturing data yet; this was much more about trying out a method so I can see what the issues are and what I still have to learn.

This was prompted mainly by the video I watched last night by Graham Gibbs whose YouTube Channel is such a wonderful resource for those of us learning about research methods. Although I’ve read a little about participant observation, I’m far from being in a position to undertake a serious project. Nor have I yet read anything about making field notes, other than brief sections in books on ethnography.

So I thought I’d jump in at the deep end, enter a field and reflect on the experience. This post isn’t that reflection. I got distracted!

After the activity I looked back at my notes and wondered where to go next. What is the appropriate behaviour for an ethnographer making field notes? How does one make them? What should they look like? What post-processing should be undertaken? (I still have to watch the second part of Graham’s video, so I may yet find out) However, what I did of course was perform an online search. The second returned result immediately attracted my attention: ‘Writing live fieldnotes: towards a more open system’. Written by Tricia Wang, whose work I’ve come across before (but can’t find the post at the moment!), there was much here to think about in terms of how to go about making field notes, together with illustrations taken from a live situation. As I read through the post and viewed photo after photo that Tricia took as part of the field notes, I began to ponder the ethical issues. (Another area that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently. A blog post, or two, will follow). I wondered whether Tricia had made a submission to an ethical review board, as I’m about to do. Maybe she had some advice to offer, so I thought to perhaps ask a question through the comments. I scrolled down to the foot of the post only to find Sam Ladner had already beaten me to it. Tricia only briefly referred to consent in her post, so we perhaps didn’t have the full picture, but like Sam I too wondered about longevity and persistence and what happens if those captured in the images subsequently withdraw consent, as they’re entitled to do. Who is to say that the images won’t migrate elsewhere, beyond the confines of the research project; I’m pretty sure that a standard consent form wouldn’t legislate for that. However, I ought really to get to the point made in the title. In reply to Sam’s comment on ethics was no other than Tom Boellstorff, author of a book I’m reading right at this moment – ‘Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method.’ AND replying to Tom was Annette Markham, an incredibly important author in the field of online ethnography and someone who has a more than passing interest in the ethical issues of online research.

I still never cease to be amazed at the ways in which we are interconnected by and through the Internet.

“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #4

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!

“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #3

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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 may be 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.

“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #2

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

The E3 Internet

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.

“Ethnography for the Internet” – Hine … #1

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

One of the key texts for anyone considering an ethnographic study in which the Internet plays a role, has for a while now been Christine Hine’s ‘Virtual Ethnography,’ 2000. With few others covering this ground at the time, this book remained the ‘go to’ guide for some considerable while. However, the pace of change of the Internet and the ways we have come to accept and adopt it (and be influenced by what it offers) has meant that the themes covered (though still somewhat relevant) appear dated and are no longer comprehensive. Fortunately Hine has produced a completely new interpretation which extends what was learned earlier through more recent, relevant examples.

There was much in ‘Ethnography for the Internet’ (Hine, 2015) to inform the way I think about and approach my own study. In the following posts then, I’m going to attempt to summarise the main points that Hine covers, so that should I have the need return to them subsequently, I’ll have some point of reference. (Perhaps I should buy the book?)

Perhaps it’s sensible to open with a quick introduction to the reason why the book is needed. Ethnography is far from new, but the Internet as a place to conduct it, is. Multi-spatial with connections spanning geographic spaces which may be around the world or in the next room, the internet has both reach and interconnectivity at a scale never previously available. The latest technologies mean it can be accessed from almost anywhere, enabling us to  in effect take it with us wherever we roam. Our engagement with it can be short-term, fleeting, or long-lived & persistent, meaning temporarility is a property with particular significance. Participation might be intense or casual, viewed as a distinct activity or an integrated aspect of our everyday lives. This diversity and heterogeneity will require an ethnography which is both adaptable and flexible.

Turning to ethnography, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1983: 2) have it,

the ethnographer participates, 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 with which he or she is concerned.

Hine challenges the view that some proffer in which the Internet is not amenable to an ethnographic approach. Prolonged exposure, participation, interaction and obtaining a first-hand understanding of how people live their lives is still possible within online spaces. The socially mediated communication facilitated through the Internet is part of people’s lives and should be studied, but we should neither forget nor ignore that this is interwoven within their offline world. This should not be viewed as a boundary between two places, but as an integrated whole where the ethnographer follows the connections wherever they lead. The challenge then is navigating this multiplicity of places of doings and being. Ethnography is however a flexible and adaptable approach, amenable to a changing landscape and shifting set of circumstances, where the ethnographer needs to be agile and and capable of making active choices

The changing Internet since Virtual Ethnography, where the notion of the virtual, as a form of other, lesser, more ephemeral, ‘not quite’ place, asks that we reposition our perspective. This book is about ethnography for the Internet; not of or through it.

Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P., 1983, Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
Hine, C., 2000. Virtual ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.
Hine, C., 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Coincidence? Maybe

This morning I was revisiting Ethnography for the Internet by Christine Hine in order to make a few notes and write a post before I have to return it to the Library. After a couple of hours it was time for a run, so I grabbed my mp3 player and had a quick scan through a few of the podcasts I recently added. Since I’d not listened to any of the Digital Human podcasts by Aleks Krotowski for a while, I thought I’d check them out; I’d just added the whole of Series 7. I just clicked ‘play’ from  the first in the list and set off on my jaunt.

flickr photo by beatplusmelody shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

A ten mile run takes me a while these days, so I easily reached the third clip long before I got back. It was called ‘Rear Window‘ and was about people watching. I perked up since the Alex was taking an anthropological or ethnological perspective and thought it might be quite pertinent to my studies. It was. Alex interviewed (all too briefly unfortunately) none other than Christine Hine, about people watching online; the places you might visit and what some of the implications are when compared with the offline (which had occupied most of the rest of the episode). The brevity of the clips Christine featured in meant I didn’t learn much that was new … except I now had a voice to accompany the texts I’ve read and the image from her University website. I write this (hopefully!) not from a creepy perspective, but in the sense that with each new information stream you access, you start to build up a better impression of a person if they are merely mediated through the online world. Hardly a ground-breaking insight I know, but it was interesting to consider some of the cases outlined in the programme; a street photographer, a voyeuristic author, a blogger who posts what he sees) all of whom added their own back stories to the people they viewed. Essentially they created characters. Now juxtapose that with what I’ll be attempting to do. Aiming for a meaningful interpretation of what I’m seeing; my version of reality, as opposed to the fictional, artificial accounts created by the storytellers. But in a sense, I too will be wanting to tell a story; the story that emerges from the data I capture. There’s a whole continuum between fact and fiction.

The coincidence? My podcast ‘library’ is built mainly from streams where technology, learning and education intersect, with an odd few like the Digital Human, that are loosely linked. I could have chosen any podcast from the fifty or so currently on my mp3 player. I had no idea what topics might come up in the Digital Human, and yet an author whose book on a topic unrelated to anything I’d normally listen to is talking about what I’d been reading barely an hour ago. I’m going to take it as a sign.

“Virtual Ethnography,” Hine, 2000

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

One of the first books about ethnography conducted ‘in, on and through the Internet’, this is an oft cited text. The book makes the case that ethnography conducted online requires a different methodological approach, it describes how and why the ethnography for a particular case was designed as it was, then covers the case as it unfolds and discusses the findings.

The Internet now is a very different place than it was at the turn of the millennium, having expanded in scope and capability, become far more integrated into the people’s lives and has moved beyond simply a place we ‘go to.’ There is a gulf between the Web 1.0 Hine researched and the Web 2.0/Web 3.0 we currently use. Mobile technologies provide ubiquitous and often invisible access to specific locations and the services the Internet delivers. The Internet is now relegated to the background, serving as the infrastructure we use to ‘Google’ something, post a status update, ‘Snapchat’ a photo or look something up on ‘Wikipedia.’

Previously ethnographers had largely studied either the online or offline worlds of Internet users. Hine argues that the Internet can be viewed in two ways. As a:

  • culture; a bounded space within which social interactions are played out
  • cultural artefact; a product of culture “…shaped by social processes in production and use.”

She cautions that this should not be seen as a distinction which is perceived by users, nor as a reflection of an online/offline boundary, but as a spur to undertaking an ethnography which accounts for both and the connections between and across. One that moves away from the narrow traditional conception of ethnography seen as taking part within a bounded social space and where immersion is replaced by the ethnographer developing sensitivity through becoming mobile across a heterogenous landscape. S/he would follow meaningful connections, people, things, narratives and conflicts in order to elicit meaning.

Even when restricting one’s explorations to just the online, Hine discussed how challenging it can be tracing information flows across locations and the degree to which it’s even possible to build a complete picture. Now that the Internet has become so much more extensive, the online world is so much more complex, with actions and interactions straddling the increasingly blurred online/offline boundary. Even with the sophisticated tools being developed, tracking those flows becomes even more challenging.

It’s not difficult to conceive of situations in which professional learning is taking place offline or online, or indeed both at the same time for a single individual. They may be also simultaneously connected with, but spatially distant from someone else who is learning about the same topic or a different one. Or indeed they may be also be temporally separated. Hine suggests that Castells’ (1996) concepts of the space of flows (emphasises connection and flow, rather than location) and temporal collage (an alternative view of time as a jumble of tenses from asynchronous interactions, rather than an orderly sequenced chronology) might provide a framework from which to examine those involved and how they connect and interact. It’s only a small leap then to see how and why actor-network theory and social network analysis might be so important here.

Castells, M., 1996. Rise of the Network Society, 1st ed. Blackwell Publishers, Inc., Cambridge, MA, USA.
Hine, C., 2000. Virtual Ethnography. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Netnography #1. Communities?

flickr photo by ianguest shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Now I have Associate Membership of the Library, I’m able to borrow books. Yipee! I’ve decided to open with a few volumes which might inform my methodological approach or methods and have just completed ‘Netnography’ by Kozinets (2010). Whilst a post providing an overview and reflection on the messages therein might make sense, I felt I needed to get some of the thoughts it had provoked out of my mind. I suspect there might be one or two more posts to follow on this theme.

Kozinets opens by making the case for netnography being a special instance of, or subset of ethnography. As with conventional (is there such a thing?) ethnography, netnography has at its core a study of communities and cultures which Kozinets uses to provide the framework within which the remainder of the book is set.

He distinguishes between a ‘pure’ netnography as one in which all explorations are conducted online, gathering data solely through online techniques and interactions. A ‘pure’ ethnography would be undertaken offline through data gathered in face-to-face interactions, be they interviews, surveys, observations etc. A blended approach unsurprisingly is a combination of the two. My study will clearly begin online, but this set me thinking whether it might require a blended rather than pure netnographic approach. Kozinets helpfully differentiates between research into ‘communities online’ and online communities. The former are extant communities which conduct some of their interactions online, whereas the latter are communities forged online and who only ever interact online. A pure netnography would be appropriate with an online community whereas in order to capture a more holistic picture of the nature of a community online, a blended approach might be better. Unless of course in the latter case, it was only the online behaviours that provided the focal point of the study.

I can immediately see a possible banana skin for me. Kozinets clearly has communities in mind when providing these distinctions. I’m not sure yet that what I’ll be dealing with could be considered ‘a community’ and need to think more about the concept of community and how that might inform my approach. Moreover, I’m far from clear whether my approach will even be “netnographic,” so I need to delve further into whether ethnographies conducted wholly or partially online are distinct from one another, or if it’s simply semantic sparring.

Observation – although some of these issues swirled around in my brain for a while, I feel like I make better progress if I take the thoughts ‘out of my mind’ in order to hone them and see where they might lead. Writing seems to offer a different mechanism through which to reflect; perhaps it’s the attempt to structure the words in a particular way that encourages different viewpoints?

Kozinets, R.V., 2009. Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. SAGE.

Being online – Dinosaur poo?

The video which seeded this post provides a rich source of points for consideration, both theoretical and methodological. In addition to presence, there are the notions of place and space and where ‘online’ actually is. A useful introduction to the principles of virtual ethnography and some of the ethical issues to take into account.

In the pICTure

I’ve begun preparing for starting my PhD in October later this year. Whilst scouring the Web for articles, papers and other resources on areas I’m keen to explore, a video on virtual ethnography bubbled to the surface. (Writing the research proposal and application, preparing for interview, then the initial forays into the field following confirmation that I had been successful have all contributed to me being less prolific on here than I might have preferred. Apologies.)

During the presentation, a suggestion by Jen Ross, brought me up short; that nowadays, it’s unlikely that we can ever truly be considered to be offline. After my initial reaction of what a ridiculous notion, I immediately began to wonder how if could possibly be true, yet swiftly acknowledged that of course it was.

From the moment we first interact with the Web, as opposed to simply browsing it, we commit ourselves…

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