Digital ethnography

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A few scholars in the field of digital ethnography (study of online cultures)
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 9 March 2016


See also danah boyd | Context collapse in social media | Digital classroom | Research Portal for Academic Librarians | Second Life | Michael Wesch

"...we are always looking for the red thread of information in the social texture of people’s lives. When we study people we do so with the purpose of understanding information creation, seeking, and use. We do not just study people in general. … In communications research, a cousin to our field, the emphasis is on the communication process and its effects on people; in information science we study that process in service of information transfer...." — The invisible substrate of information science (Bates, 1999)

Digital ethnography (also online ethnography, virtual ethnography and netnography) refers to a range of research methods used to study online environments and cultures. At its simplest, digital ethnography is the application (or transfer) of ethnographic techniques to the online spaces that permeate our culture, such as websites, social media and virtual worlds. Digital ethnographic techniques are founded upon the idea that traditional notions of the field site as a bounded, localized space are outdated in the online context. Further, the phrase "digital ethnography" suggests a range of methods that place researchers online in order to observe, interact and discern informational patterns, an ability to trace what Bates (1999) calls the "red thread" of information pervading life. More generally, ethnography is defined as the qualitative study or field of research that aims to construct in-depth depictions of life through active researcher participation and engagement with communities (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, 1995, Fetterman, 1998, Spradley, 1979). In writing about online and virtual worlds, Miller and Slater (2000) state that "media provides the means of interaction and modes of representation that add up to spaces or places that participants can treat as if they were real". Digital, social and virtual spaces created by the web are ecosystems and, as such, sites of research and study, necessitating their own study methods. In an increasingly mediated world, researchers focus their attention on studying online communities in various forms from social media such as Twitter to YouTube and mobile locative media such as the iPhone and Foursquare. The resulting ethnographic approaches to digital and networked media are intended to elucidate emerging, dynamic cultural and social practices.

What is ethnography?

  • Ethnography (from the Greek ethnos = nation and graphein = writing) refers to the qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork
  • Ethnography is a holistic research method founded in the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other
  • The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing and colonial office reports
  • Several academic traditions, in particular the constructivist and relativist paradigms, claim ethnography as a valid research method


  • Cultural anthropology is the field that grew up around the practice of ethnography.
  • Certain "confessional" ethnographies intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research; "reflexive" ethnographies refined the technique to translate cultural differences by representing their effects on the ethnographer
  • Sociology and cultural studies also produce ethnography; urban sociology and the Chicago School in particular are associated with ethnographic research, education, ethnomusicology and folklore are other fields which have made extensive use of ethnography.

Online ethnography

  • a new form of ethnography, which involves conducting ethnographic studies on the Internet
  • also known as digital ethnography, netnography and virtual ethnography
  • With as many as 2 billion people now using online communities such as newsgroups, blogs, forums, social networking sites, podcasting, videocasting, photosharing communities, and virtual worlds, the internet is now an important site for research.

Principles of digital ethnography

According to Hine (2008), there are a number of principles that must be kept uppermost when seeking to apply digital ethnography to the study of online worlds:

  1. Ethnography is used to investigate the ways in which use of the Internet becomes socially meaningful
  2. Interactive media such as the Internet can be understood as both culture and cultural artefact
  3. The ethnography of mediated interaction often asks researchers to be mobile both virtually and physically
  4. Instead of going to particular field sites, virtual ethnography follows field connections
  5. Boundaries, especially between “virtual” and “real”, are not to be taken-for-granted
  6. Virtual ethnography is a process of intermittent engagement, rather than long term immersion
  7. Virtual ethnography is necessarily partial. Our accounts can be based on strategic relevance to particular research questions rather than faithful representations of objective realities
  8. Intensive engagement with mediated interaction adds an important reflexive dimension to ethnography
  9. This is ethnography of, in and through the virtual – we learn about the Internet by immersing ourselves in it and conducting our ethnography using it, as well as talking with people about it, watching them use it and seeing it manifest in other social settings.
  10. Virtual ethnography is, ultimately, an adaptive ethnography which sets out to suit itself to the conditions in which it finds itself.

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