In the webinar focused on the impact that the COVID-19 crisis has on researchers, Christine Hine, Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey, UK, discussed the challenges facing online ethnography.
Christine has a major interest in the development of ethnography in technical settings and in "virtual methods" (the use of the Internet in social research). She has authored many articles and books on online ethnography including Hine, C. (2015) Ethnography for the Internet: embedded, embodied and everyday. London: Bloomsbury.
Understanding The Meaning Of What We Are Seeing
Under lockdown it is not possible to conduct an ethnographic study in the field. You may want to consider undertaking an online ethnography. The classical anthropological challenge is understanding what people mean but when you go online this challenge is multiplied.
Christine uses a tweet as an example. We don’t necessarily know who is tweeting. People have different levels of technological knowledge or facility with using the tool so a skilled user may see things in the tweet that others would miss. The same tool could be used in different ways – for example, it could be used in a workplace with a particular culture or in another context completely. It is not possible to take things at face value. There are layers of humor, subterfuge or insincerity. It may be hard to work out if a tweet is a joke or not.
Christine points out that the classic response lies in the ethnographer immersing herself in the setting, interacting with participants so her interpretations can be challenged. And traditionally, an ethnography would last a long period of time in order to fully understand what is going on.
Christine raises the question whether this classic response is still appropriate with an online ethnography. Is there something about Twitter that means we will never really know what the other participants are thinking? Christine recommends that the online ethnographer accept the same set of uncertainty of the other participants using an online platform so she can understand how it feels in order for it to make sense.
Whose Words Are We Looking At?
Christine highlights the particular challenges the online ethnographer needs to consider. The first is the non-representativeness of the population on platforms. Women, racial and ethnic groups and those of lower economic status are under-represented.
A second filter is who is taking part. It is hard to access the silent voices of the lurkers. The online ethnographer needs to be sensitive to the people who are left out.
In addition, the platforms are propriety-owned entities each with their own terms and conditions. The platforms vary on what data can be accessed and what pre-conditions on sociality are set. Different platforms have different affordances. They vary in ways that people can present themselves. The platforms shape how people can be social. But Christine points out that all behaviors are platformed behaviors – surveys and interview guides, for example, are platforms for behavior.
Multi-sited studies allow the ethnographer to understand how specific behaviors are subject to the platforms. The goal should be to understand how people moving around in online spaces make sense for themselves.
The ethnographer constructs the field site which may span across several platforms. And the field sites need to be appropriate for the research questions. Access can be difficult, but it needs to be done legally (check the Terms & Conditions) and ethically. Gatekeeper consent is often not sufficient, you may also need to get consent from the participants.
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