H809: Weeks 13 & 14 - Ethnography

May 2009

The last two weeks of this block were on the topic of ethnography and its use in virtual settings. Week 13 had two readings:  Hammersley, M. (2006) ‘Ethnography: problems and prospects’, Ethnography and Education, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 3–1 and Wittel, A. (2000) ‘Ethnography on the Move: From Field to Net to Internet. These two papers covered many of the same themes so I shall discuss them together.

The obvious place to start is with the debate on the meaning of the term ethnography. For Hammersley, the key dimensions of ethnography are (a) the emphasis on firsthand study and (b) the tension between participant and analytic perspectives. Wittel offers a slightly different view with the notion that as well as ethnography being about the presence of the researcher, that ethnography is about revealing context and complexity via looking at people in their natural environment. He uses Geertz’s term ‘thick description’ when talking about this.

It is difficult to discuss ethnograpy without talking about its roots in anthropology. For anthropologists, ethnography usually refers to going to a specific geographical location and studying the culture of the society there. However, as Wittel points out, cultural boundaries have become less simple with networks based on ‘political locations’ and ‘virtual locations’ now being places where culture can exist. This has implications on how a researcher divides their time and on negotiating access. One thing I am not clear about is the extent to which ethnography is intrinsically about understanding culture or whether one can use it as a means to investigate different types of research questions. Hammersley also contrasts sociological and anthropological approaches to ethnography in terms of level and duration of contact. Possible problems with lower contact levels and shorter durations for research can mean a failure to notice temporal changes and cycles as well as false assumptions being made about the relevance of context outside that being studied.

This naturally leads us into the issue of the context that you should locate your research in. Do you take a very local micro-ethnographic approach or try to look at things more holistically taking wider society into account? If you aim for the latter, then you face the various thorny questions discussed in Hammersley’s paper relating to how you decide on and study the context to consider. Defining the appropriate context as that which the participants think is relevant relies on participants being able to analyse their context in a detached and analytic way, but when you try and study the overall social context, you find yourself having to pick a social theory to use thus throwing away the theoretical neutrality of ethnography. To say that the choice of context is necessarily arbitrary is also unsatisfactory as it suggests that trying to understanding the impact of context is a futile activity, rather at odds to the idea of doing research. My own view is that it is the job of the researcher to try and figure out what context is important and what is not, present an appropriate argument for their decision and to allow people to critique that and provide evidence to the contrary.

Hammersley also talks about the role of interviews in ethnography, discussing the ‘radical critique’ of interviews - that what people say in interviews always ‘socio-discursively constructed in a context-sensitive fashion’. I think this means that what people say fundamentally depends on their social context. The problem I have with this type of view is that taken to its logical extreme, you deny the possibility of ever trying to understand the world better because you can never know anything for absolute certain. Hammersley discusses the fact that this view leads you in one of two directions - either relying totally on observational data or essentially just conducting discourse analysis on interview transcripts, removing the idea of the genuine participant perspective so crucial to ethnography.

All of this leads on to discussing virtual ethnography and the question of whether ethnography depends on the physical presence of the researcher. This is clearly related to the former ideas about what context is important for an ethnographer to study. So for example, both Hammersley and Wittel put forward the argument that it is hard to validate information about the real life of people online.

I have to admit that I don’t have any problems with idea of virtual ethnography - if a culture exists almost entirely online, then you will probably learn much about it by studying it solely online. However, I also think that observing or talking to participants in real-life too may enable you to glean much that you wouldn’t otherwise. It seemed odd to me that both authors appeared to assume that this was an impossibility.

The real danger I think is in thinking that the boundaries between the online and real are clear-cut. Even online, things are often more complex that you might at first think. There’s a lovely description of this in T.L. Taylor’s book ‘Play Between Worlds’ for anybody who hasn’t experienced this firsthand. Wittel also mentions the problem briefly in his paper. I somehow, perhaps falsely (and it may just be datedness), got the impression that both authors had a rather simplistic view of people’s online lives, without a real appreciation for how rich and ‘life-like’ they can be. I have just been reading Chapter 2 (‘Choose your own ethnography’ of danah boyd’s PhD thesis ‘Taken out of context’ and although I am still taking it all in, it was interesting to read about the issues in approaching such ethnography from a more practical perspective.

The reading for Week 14, Browne, E. (2003) ‘Conversations in cyberspace: a study of online learning’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 245–59, illustrated an ethnographic approach to studying twelve studying for an online Master in Education. This course used a VLE-like system and the study involved observing the online discussion, interviewing the staff involved in the course and questionnaire. The paper then used Laurillard’s four categories of interactivity, adapativity, discussion and reflexivity for analysis. I must admit I have reservations about whether the approach is genuinely ethnographic, but I have to write about this paper for our next assignment, so I will save my energy discussing that for then.

I think I do need to go away and look at more ethnographic work of a virtual or digital nature to decide exactly what I think - in particular I must see if there are any good ethnographic studies of World of Warcraft or open source communities. Overall, I do find ethnographic approaches interesting. I think you can capture things through them that you would otherwise easily miss, but that it might be too easy to do ethnographic work that lacks insight but to feel that you should share it because of the effort involved (and with hard-to-access societies I can see there might be some point of this).

However objective you attempt to remain, immersion is going to divorce you from the possibilities of seeing things through the eyes of somebody who hasn’t been immersed in a culture. I can’t for example imagine trying to do an ethnographic study of this course and claim real objectivity - the emotional aspects of doing the course, especially when it comes to assessment, get in the way too much. However, I could probably say richer and more interesting things about it than somebody who say interviewed a few of the students on the course. So I suspect there is a trade-off and I think the sacrifice involved in ethnographic research is probably one often worth making. I would compare it to reading a novel to interviewing people who have read the novel for instance.

There do seem to be practical issues though. The time involved in ethnographic studies is not very compatible with the way the pace of this area of academia, and there is also the question of acceptablity - I get the impression that ethnographic studies are still rare in educational technology. That's a big investment to make if you are not sure that people are going to appreciate the results.