Author Archives: jenterr
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
I recently read Virginia Eubanks’s Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I loved the most about this book is that it is work that manages to both investigate social relationships and critique the role of information systems within them. Eubanks offers a compelling analysis of the role of technology in the lives of impoverished women in upstate New York. I found her discussions of participatory research and development and technological citizenship to be particularly helpful. These concepts help to define the kind of human engagement in the creation, implementation, and use of technology that social informatics research seeks to cultivate. This book is a great example of the kind of work that should be characterized as social informatics because of its thorough investigation of sociotechnical phenomena and its aims to address real problems experienced in everyday life.
Eubanks spent several years working with women in at the Troy-Cohoes community YWCA. She worked with a group called WYMSM (Women at the YWCA Making Social Movement), comprised of women who were organizing to “use technology as a tool for social change” (xviii) to help disadvantaged women. Eubanks argues that contrary to the popular vision of impoverished people suffering from lack of access to technology, technology actually permeates these women’s lives and these women have strong ideas about the role information systems play in their daily lives. Eubanks argues that the digital divide is not simply a gulf between those who have technology and those who do not. The women of WYMSM simultaneously see technology as a means to opportunity and as something that limits their possibilities.
In fact, Eubanks shows that the construct of the digital divide is not only useless for actually understanding the complex sociotechnical ecology in which these women live, it is dangerously misguiding as it pushes agendas for increasing access, when that, as Eubanks shows, is not necessarily needed. The problem is that it is not a lack of access that keeps marginalized people from prospering in today’s high-tech oriented economy. If the problem is not lack of access, then programs that work to distribute access to technology will not only fail but will perpetuate the real problems. Eubanks critiques the idea that the solution to helping people out of poverty is to give them access to technology, calling such ideas “magical thinking.”
Eubanks argues that throwing technologies at these social problems only makes them worse by obscuring the ways in which information systems reproduce, or even strengthen, oppression. Eubanks defines technology as a process, a continual scene of struggle. She writes,
“…technology embodies human relationships, legislates behavior, and shapes citizenship. Our mistaken assumptions about technology’s static ‘thingness’ prevent us from recognizing the real world of IT, and from realizing what Ruth called ‘technology for people’” (21).
She argues that the real problems are political, economic, and social. She advocates for a new strategy of developing technologies she calls “popular technology.” Popular technology privileges the perspective and participation of everyday experts. It is described as
“an approach to critical technological citizenship education based on the insights of broadly participatory, democratic methods of knowledge generation…popular technology creates a space in which all participants can become more critical technological citizens” (104).
Notions of participation are underscored throughout the entire book. Eubanks used participatory action research methodology to conduct her research. She sees the women she works with as colleagues rather than her subjects. The book concludes with an agenda that includes several broad social changes, such as the protection of lower-tiered (customer service and manufacturing, for instance) high-tech industry jobs, that might be possible through such participatory practices.
I see this focus on the creation of critical technological citizens as a goal shared by a social informatics perspective. Eubanks describes critical technological citizens as those who “can meaningfully engage and critique the technological present and respond to the citizenship and social justice effects of IT” (30). Social informatics research seeks to create knowledge that meaningfully engages and critiques the technological presence. I share this goal not only in the research I produce, but also in my teaching of undergraduate social informatics courses.
The vision of a society in which technology is liberating for all and never a tool of oppression, where the democratic participatory possibilities of networked technologies can honestly be leveraged by anyone might be fantastically optimistic, but we will never get anywhere close without the kind of work Eubanks has done here. While not all social informatics work is as overtly political as Eubanks’s work is here, we share the critical stance Eubanks expresses. Such nuanced understanding of sociotechnical relationships is absolutely what social informatics work should strive for.
Eubanks, Virginia (2011) Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. MIT Press
I wanted to let you guys know about a summer workshop at the University of Maryland that came across via a tweet from Nancy Baym. It will be at held August 23-26. The website says:
“The Summer Social Webshop (@Webshop2011) is 4-day interdisciplinary workshop (August 23-26, 2011) at the University of Maryland, College Park organized by leading researchers for graduate students at US universities studying social-networking tools, blogs and microblogs, user-generated content sites, discussion groups, problem reporting, recommendation systems, and other social media.”
This looks like it could be fun AND if you get accepted it is funded, woohoo! Take a look and let me know what you think:
Deadline to apply is June 17th!