A 'new' definition of ethnography?

     In trying to channel my scattered ideas for our recent SSHRC proposal assignment, I began to read about a number of different approaches to ethnography in hopes of finding the ‘perfect’ research method for my topic. With the help of Professor Grimes, I was introduced to Maria Bakardjieva's unique approach to ethnography: a sort of 'show and tell' method employing a combination of traditional ethnography (participant observation/interviews) and more modern (audience and reception) ethnography methods as a means of studying the psychology of internet usage

     While reading William Shaffir’s Doing Ethnography this evening, I was reminded of Bakardjieva’s intriguing research methods, which have been carefully tailored to suit her contemporary subject matter. Shaffir writes, "the flexibility of the ethnographic research … allows for the emergence of new directions to better understand how social behaviour is shaped and organized" (1999, p. 685). This has me thinking: as our technology and subsequently our questions about social behaviour develop, it seems almost impractical to only emphasize the basic facets of ethnographic research (participant observation, interviews, focus groups, content analysis) as Luker has done in chapter 8 of Salsa Dancing. Perhaps Luker’s intent is to supply readers with knowledge of the basic tools of ethnography – in which case she has succeeded. However, I feel that in this instance, Luker may be situating herself with the canonists in her presentation of what defines modern ethnography, leaving out the fact that researchers such as Bakardjieva have begun to ‘push the envelope’ in ethnographic research. Before I get too far into my own thoughts, I’d love to hear yours..
     For anyone interested, Maria Bakardjieva's article and book on her research and ethnographic methodologies regarding 'the internet in everyday life' is worth the read!

- Amy


Stephanie Lauren said...

Thanks for sharing Bakardjieva's study! I started reading her article yesterday and it's pretty interesting how she uses ethnographic methods to develop a better understanding of Canadian internet users.

As I was reading her article, I began thinking more about the challenges that the internet and online communities pose for ethnographic researchers. Like you pointed out Amy, the readings from this week focused a lot on studying communities that have specific, physical meeting spaces, such as a synagogue or a football field.

But what if your community's meeting spot is a website? How can you perform an ethnographic study of website participants - especially if you want to take into consideration that only a number of the community members might post, comment, or blog. How can you really get to know the inner workings of this type of community and develop useful theories?

I suppose some internet spaces are easier than others to perform ethnographic research on. For example, websites that provide platforms for specific social or community purposes, such as Facebook or Patients Like Me. To actively engage with these community networks, you need to have a profile. This leads to you inputting some type of identifying information… although there’s still the issue of fake profiles and such.

However, a quick search on google scholar just proved to me that there are a lot of ethnographers out there actively developing methods, rules, and best practices for internet ethnography. It is too bad that Luker didn't touch on these issues in her chapter. But I suppose in order to deal with the trickiness that internet ethnography represents, we have to start with the basics first :)

Amy. said...

You make a good point about the 'trickiness' of internet ethnography.. considering that Luker's book is more directed to those who are delving into small scale social science research for the first time, it might be more suitable for a prospective researcher to 'start small' with just the basics before jumping into a more complicated form of research.

Throughout my undergrad we talked at length about the online social sphere - specifically the small 'communities' that exist online in chat rooms, forums, and on social networking sites like you mentioned, Steph. It's really fascinating how an online community can have such an impact on a person's life in many of the same ways that physical communities do. I recall one of my favourite articles in which the authors (using ethnographic techniques) explore how global media has influenced youth culture in Malta. Although this is an example of more traditional ethnography, I think it's a great example of the social phenomena that has developed a result of a community's relationship with media, including contemporary television and the internet.

As I digress, what I'm trying to say is that although it might be easiest to stick to the introductory basics of ethnographic research, there's so many exciting possibilities surrounding online ethnography that it's a shame to de-emphasize it, even when discussing the fundamentals of ethnography. I'm sure there are other texts, though, that focus heavily on this type of thing!

P.S. - I was really excited to hear from Glen Farrelly this past week regarding his adventures in contextual inquiry studies - his research seems to connect the physical world with the online social sphere, and I look forward to discussing more studies like this in class (rather, I hope we do!)

Stephanie Lauren said...

Thanks for sharing the Malta article Amy! You always have such great reading suggestions on your blog posts. Grixti's article about Maltese youth and their relationship with technology and new media was really eye-opening.

I especially liked the way he used ethnography, although I do agree that he used more traditional methods. I definitely feel as if ethnography can be (and should be - depending on the research environment) encapsulated by more than just face-to-face research methods. It is a little sad that Luker didn't go more into more novel approaches to ethnography.

Although I feel as if this week's readings on discourse analysis showed us another research method that can achieve ethnographic-type results. It also offers up a way to explore online communities, but not necessarily become part of these communities.

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