Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances
by Christine Hine
[Hine, Christine. 2008. “Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances.” The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods, 257–70.]
- Great overview of the field of digital/virtual ethnography from nascence to 2008:
- Gibson 84, Rheingold 93, Baym 94, Correll 95, Reid 94, Markham 98, Silver 00, Kendall 02, Boellstorff 06, boyd & Heer 06, etc
- outlines three overlapping best practices
- participant observation
- Much like traditional ethnography a digital ethnographer must actively participate in online activities, which implies a particular type of reflexivity in the case of the digital study:
- “The use of the same medium to interact with subjects as forms the topic of the research places a particular emphasis on reflexivity: as Hine (2000: 65) argues, virtual ethnography is ‘ethnography in, of and through the virtual'” (262).
- Lurking is easy online, and can generate positive results, but can not be taken as ethnography itself. The experience of the medium itself is a part of the participant aspect of the study:
- “Even an asynchronous message board has its own version of ‘real time’ … an ethnographer who simply lurked without ever participating would miss the experiential knowledge that comes from feeling what it is like to post a message and wait to see if it will ever receive a reply” (262-63).
- A certain amount of skill navigating the medium is necessary to interact with interlocutors adequately, not unlike learning the local language. This is especially true when researching in game worlds:
- “Some naivety with the technology in question can be an asset in terms of questioning the taken-for-granted, but this can be an epistemological luxury when simply interacting with people and keeping up with the pace of game play requires an almost instinctive familiarity with game controls” (263).
- participant observation
- issues of authenticity, trust, and ethics
- there is no real way of proving who anyone is when interacting online, however, is this really that different offline?
- Sometimes the onus is on the researcher to prove their legitimacy
- university email addresses and personal websites always help here
- ethical guidelines should be followed to IRB standards just like an offline study, with added levels of protection
- Since online content (including text-based social interaction) is mostly searchable, anonymity becomes even more important
This chapter begins with a review of the development of virtual ethnography as applied to online settings. The idea of the online community is explored, focusing on the involvement of virtual ethnography in establishing the existence of rich and complex online social formations. The next section then focuses on some of the lessons learnt from these experiences, looking at some emergent practices of online ethnography and the dilemmas that online ethnographers have faced. Specific issues include ethnographic presence in online settings, questions of authenticity and trust, the ethics of online ethnography, and the definition of field sites in relation to the online/offline boundary. A concluding section notes the relationship of virtual ethnography with other ethnographic traditions, questioning the extent to which there is any radical methodological innovation in the emerging modes of virtual ethnography Continue reading Hine—Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Varieties, Affordances