Monthly Archives: March 2013
Questions about the practice of ethnographic research, both as a method and as an analytic way of knowing, have been a focus of my dissertation work. The new Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method by Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor has been helpful to think through my own ethnographic experiences. Although the subjects of my research do not inhabit virtual worlds as defined within this handbook, the bulk of their interaction occurs through networked digital media. The handbook defines a virtual world as requiring the following traits: place, worldness, multi-user, persistence, and user embodiment (p 7). The groups that I study construct a social world (Star and Clark) that exist offline and online across many different media platforms (for example, interaction happens in person, through text messaging, across Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other online media), and as such they do not inhabit a particular virtual place. I have called this type of social engagement transmediated sociality (Terrell 2011).
While Boellstorff et al encourage ethnographers of virtual worlds to follow their informants into contexts (both online such as blogs, message forums, and Facebook and offline such as meetups and conferences) that extend beyond the in-world platform around which they are centralized (for instance, Second Life or World of Warcraft) ethnography of groups that are decentralized, spread across many online/offline spaces might be different in nuanced, but meaningful ways.
Doing ethnographic research with groups that are highly transmediated has presented a number of different challenges. Participant observation, a key component of ethnographic research, can be particularly challenging in transmediated settings. In my experience, participant observation can happen in two different ways. First one can attend, participate in, and observe events that are more formal and scheduled. In my work this is something like attending a wizard rock concert or a festival, which may be digitally mediated or may be in person. The second way one needs to participate is to just hang out, to be around to interact with others or observe interactions and cultural production as they happen in mundane everyday interaction, without a scheduled event.
Learning, knowing, and deciding where to hang out seems to be the most difficult aspect of participant observation of transmediated groups because one’s informants could be, and indeed are, hanging out in several different spaces all at once. As researchers we must struggle to define our field site. This never seems to be a simple task, even when our field site is apparently tied to a specific space; we must make choices about whom and what we include within our study. This is true for sites that are both virtual and non-virtual. While I recognize the difficulty in defining one’s field site, I wonder the extent to which the transmediated nature of the groups that I study give this struggle a new dimension.
In what ways is the lack of persistent placeness needed for the construction of a virtual world a challenge to the construction of the ethnographic field site? How does one decide where to hang out when the people she is studying could be interacting in several other mediated spaces? Are the challenges faced by the ethnographer of transmediated groups different than those faced by the ethnographer of virtual worlds where place is more strongly defined and more centrally located?
These are of course broad questions, but they are issues with which I struggle. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., and Taylor, T.L. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey
Star, S.L. and Clarke, A. 2007. The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package, in Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society.(113-138). MIT Press
Terrell, J. 2011. Transmediated Magic: Sociality in Wizard Rock. In Proceedings of International Conference on Information Technology: New Generations (ITNG 2011), April 2011, IEEE
Big Data seems to be the new buzzword of the moment and the solution to all of society’s problems. Often we hear people coming up with studies involving a great amount of data aggregated from Twitter, Facebook and so on. I truly believe these studies are good; they take snapshots of scenes, let us know of interesting moments in a specific time and give us an overall idea of the problem.
boyd and Crawford (2012) define big data as “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of: (1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets. (2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims. (3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.” (p. 663)
Big Data is usually thought as big numbers, the big N approached quantitatively. These numbers are generated based on people’s produced data; people that are online and constantly talking, sharing, posting, tweeting and “liking” things. But what about the people that are not doing that frequently, or even, not doing these activities at all? If we take Big Data and extend it to the ones experiencing digital inequalities, we would be imposing a colonial practice in which the voice of those constantly online will be obscuring the voice of those who are not. These voices are often clashing in different of contexts since they are rooted in social tensions and differences of power.
So, how can Big Data tell us the story of the people that are on the “wrong” side of the digital divide?
Mary L. Gray (2011) makes the case that Critical Ethnography is a practice of Big Data. She invites us to think of Big Data not solely as numbers and quantitative approaches, but also as a practice that is able to balance the value of ethnographic significance and statistical significance. Big Data is usually deeply concerned in mashing as much number as possible to be able to have some sort of reliability and statistics strength. The more you can get, the more reliable the information is.
Qualitative work is often seen as being too specific and doesn’t tell us anything, but Gray argues the opposite, qualitative approaches tell us something different, they give us a different perspective of the story. Ethnographic significance should be integrated as a complement in collaboration with statistical significance, so we are able to get something transformatively different.
I agree with Gray; at an earlier post here on the Social Informatics Blog (Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge) I make the case that the Digital Divide Research should move on from the statistical charts, census and Big Data, and go in the field to tell us about the context of those who are not on the internet, or not as often due to digital inequalities.
Big Data was the reason why I ended up going to the slum of Gurigica in Vitoria, Brazil. According to the census, the locals have a very low access to the LAN Houses and Telecentros that are inside the community. But if it wasn’t for my ethnographic research, I would have never known that this was happening due to the activities of the drug cartel that didn’t allow them to circulate freely on the streets. Therefore, Critical Ethnography is a powerful tool to approach the issues of the Digital Divide and contextualize the notions that Big Data gives us.
References (I highly recommend Gray’s video):
danah boyd, & Crawford, K. (2012). CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA.Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662-679.
Gray, M. L. (2011). Anthropology as BIG DATA: Making the case for ethnography as a critical dimension in media and technology studies. http://research.microsoft.com/apps/video/default.aspx?id=155639