How do we evaluate a virtual ethnography?

October 27th, 2009 - 

Richardson,L. (2000). Evaluating ethnography. Qualitative Inquiry, 6(2), 253-255

Ethnographies, it would seem, are tricky things to evaluate. The following is a list of five criteria found on Wikipedia, quoted from a Richardson paper from 2000:

Ethnographic methodology is not usually evaluated in terms of philosophical standpoint (such as positivism and emotionalism), ethnographies nonetheless need to be evaluated in some manner. While there is no consensus on evaluation standards, Richardson (2000, p. 254) [7] provides 5 criteria that ethnographers might find helpful. They include:

1. Substantive Contribution: “Does the piece contribute to our understanding of social-life?”
2. Aesthetic Merit: “Does this piece succeed aesthetically?”
3. Reflexivity: “How did the author come to write this text…Is there adequate self-awareness and self-exposure for the reader to make judgments about the point of view?”
4. Impact: “Does this affect me? Emotionally? Intellectually?” Does it move me?
5. Expresses a Reality: “Does it seem ‘true’—a credible account of a cultural, social, individual, or communal sense of the ‘real’?”

So, what do folks think? Are these good criteria  for evaluating our own ethnographies as we work on them?

Week 5 Summary

October 27th, 2009 - 

Week 5 has been the best so far for me. As I said in a mail to Jen and Sian earlier this week:

‘I studied Anthrpology for a year at Uni (having to drop it after year one to concentrate on other subjects) and I’ve always harboured fantasies about going back to it. In a way this course feels slightly like I have. Having a ball.’

In addition to snippets of the main readings from this block, my lifestream (notably my Tumblr feed, which becomes more and more useful by the day) for this week is a mish-mash of quotes, sketches, videos and random links all around the subject of ‘virtual enthnography’. Clifford Geertz and his ‘thick descriptions’ have really caught my attention.

Here are some that have really resonated for me and will feature as guiding principles as I set out to do my ethnography:

‘The concept of culture I espouse is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.’

Geertz, C. ‘Thick description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’ in ‘Anthropology in Theory’ eds. Moore & Sanders. Blackwell, Oxford, 2006.

And then Hine:

The point for the ethnographer is not to bring some external criterion for judging whether it is safe to believe what informants say, but rather to come to understand how it is that informants judge authenticity.

Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66

But what about ethical issues?

Ethical concerns over netnography turn on early concerns about whether online forums are to be considered a private or a public site, and about what constitutes informed consent in cyberspace (see Paccagnella 1997). In a major departure from traditional methods, netnography uses cultural information that is not given specifically, and in confidence, to the researcher. The consumers who originally created the data do not necessarily intend or welcome its use in research representations. Netnography therefore offers specific guidelines regarding when to cite online posters and authors, how to cite them, what to consider in an ethical netnographic representation, when to ask permission, and when permission is not necessary (Kozinets 2002). As quoted on Wikipedia.

And finally, the notion which has struck me the most:

Clifford Geertz’s own fieldwork used elements of a phenomenological approach to fieldwork, tracing not just the doings of people, but the cultural elements themselves. For example, if within a group of people, winking was a communicative gesture, he sought to first determine what kinds of things a wink might mean (it might mean several things). Then, he sought to determine in what contexts winks were used, and whether, as one moved about a region, winks remained meaningful in the same way. In this way, cultural boundaries of communication could be explored, as opposed to using linguistic boundaries or notions about residence. Geertz, while still following something of a traditional ethnographic outline, moved outside that outline to talk about “webs” instead of “outlines” [15] of culture.  From Wikipedia.

I’ll return to this notion of ‘digital winks’ in another blog post, specifically trying to see how Hine’s observations about virtual ethnography might be compatible with Geertz’s ‘thick descriptions’.


Finally, I also bookmarked a few blogs and papers that may be of interest to others.

Researching the Internet, by Dr. John Postill, Sheffield Hallam University.

Virtual Ethnography Course, University of Philipines

VKS Ethnography Blog

There’s more what that came from, in my Delicious feed.

Field Sites, UFOs and Virtual Pith Helmets

October 21st, 2009 - 

I’ve been having a ball this last few days, as our focus moves into Block 2: Communities and our working towards a ‘virtual ethnography’. I haven’t quite decided what community to look at just yet (I’m leaning towards a study of the community of people around the 9/11 Conspiracy Theories) but getting up to speed on the various ideas surrounding notions of ‘virtual ethnography‘ or ‘netnography‘ as some prefer, has allowed me to indulge in a long-held notion I’ve had about myself ‘being an ethnographer’.

I studied Anthropology for a year at university – finally opting to focus on English and Classics for degree level -  but I’ve always harboured fantasies about myself returning to the subject in some unspecified, undefined capacity in the future. I’m not claiming I’m there yet, but the reading lists for this block and some rummaging on the web have brought back some familar ideas and names: Bronisław Malinowski, Margaret Mead, E. E. Evans-Pritchard et al.

But then, I thought to myself, have I actually been doing this along? Have I actually been conducting virtual ethnography the whole time? Since 2001, I’ve been contributing to an Irish site,, where ‘fortean phenomena’ are catalogued, ranted about and studied with a jaundiced, satirical eye.  We’ve been doing so since 1997 and have embedded ourselves into a rather strange interweb culture of conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, Cryptozooologists and general, random lunacy.

I hasten to add by the way that our stated position is that we don’t ‘believe’ in UFOs and aliens. Mostly ‘cos we’re not so sure that they believe in us either.

Or to put it another way, I’m not as interested in finding UFOs so much as I am in finding stories about UFOs.

An example is this ‘Map of the Weird‘ which we put together a while back, location marking many of the stories which we’ve blogged about over the years.

This is a video version of the tour.

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So, it’s with some giddy excitement that I now find myself in the hilarious position of being able to academically justify my years and years of trawling the bowels of the internet for the detritus and wreckage of conspiracy theory, alien abductions and frog falls. Who knew?

All joking aside, there’s some serious questions to be answered before I can really go any further:

  • What (if anything) is my ‘field site’?
  • Am I a ‘lurker’ ethnographer or one that directly partcipates in the community?
  • How do I reference, present and quote sources?
  • What ‘netiquette’ considerations do we have be aware of?

I may not need a pith helmet so much as a tin-foil hat, but here we go…

Week 4 Summary

October 17th, 2009 - 

This week has seen me collating links, videos, blog pages, conversations and a plethora of ideas for my notional ‘Map of the Internet’. As previously discussed, this map will include three notional towns ‘Cyburbia’, Cyberia, and ‘Deadwood’ – the latter a lawless, wild-west like area where we find communities like 4chan, Anonymous and an army of hacktivists.

To these three towns I may add a fourth – ‘Disturbia’, a place for conspiracy theories, investigative blogging, alternative history and guerilla film-making. But I’ll save the details on that until I get to Block 2 and my virtual ethnography…

Visual Artefact: Random Musings

October 17th, 2009 - 

So, that was my visual artefact. I carried on with the notional ‘towns’ on the internet idea I’d been mulling over whilst blogging for the first few weeks and, to Harkin’s ‘Cyburbia‘ and Rushkoff’s ‘Cyberia‘, I added a third notional space:  4Chan’s ‘Deadwood’, a lawless, frontier madhouse where the rules of ‘netiquette’ just don’t apply;  a place as fantastically productive as it is provocative .

So, what did I learn?

‘Visual’ artefact?

The short answer is, I don’t know yet. I’m still processing a lot of this, but one thing really did stand out for me: the fact that my ‘visual artefact’ was still quite dependent on a textual literacy to explain itself. A picture or image may carry greater possibility for communication than a purely textual exploration of a subject, but they are not yet so separated that purely visual literacies can be used to explore, represent or explain a subject.  I can’t help that note in order for Kress to make the assertion about a move from textual, word-based representations to visual, image-based representations of meaning, he was obliged to use words to do so. Much like myself.

Moody Maps

I had more than a few technical glitches whilst doing this. I like Google Maps. It’s a great wee tool, but dear God it can be flaky. Embed codes for about 70% of the videos I stuck in have dissapeared twice when I went into edit mode. It’s really quite maddedinng when you’ve spent several hours putting together something only to see the work inexplicably vanish! Also, I couldn’t get the map to plug straight into Wordpress and had to post it on my own blog. Word of warning for anyone thinking of Google Maps for project work – it can be quite moody.

Visual Artefact: The Map Is Not The Territory

October 16th, 2009 - 

My ‘visual atrtefact’, ‘The Map is not the territory’ can’t be embedded here (for reasons I can’t figure out) so I’ve posted this on my own blog which you can get to here.

I suggest that you take the ‘View Larger Map’ option so that you have space to explore all the embedded content.

Transliteracy Video Playlist

October 12th, 2009 - 
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Transliteracy PART group, as mentioned in Thomas et al. Watch the full playlist here.

Week 3 Summary

October 9th, 2009 - 

Kress, G (2005) Gains and losses: new forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22.

Rose, Gillian (2007) Researching visual materials: towards a critical visual methodology, chapter 1 of Visual methodologies: an introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London: Sage. pp.1-27.

I See What You Did There

I’ve already had a great big whinge about how I felt after reading Carpenter, so I’ll use this weekly summary to talk about two other readings and some of the ideas that sprang to mind as I worked through them.

Kress’ central assertion – that purely textual representations of meaning are more restrictive than visual representations – rings slightly hollow for me. I’m not contesting the notion that visual representations afford greater degrees of playfulness, multiple-meaning making and come loaded with opportunities, perhaps, for a more user-centered experience. Unquestionably, visual literacies can provide opportunities for engagement, meaning construction and dialogue which a purely textual representation may not have, but I can’t help feeling that Kress rather overstates the case, seemingly asserting that there is an inevitable shift towards a more visual means of communication in online environments.

Discussion forums, with their affordances of image and text posting might be a good example to look at. Several threads on a forum which I spend time on (which will remain nameless to protect the guilty) have purely visual threads. But they are not yet so common that they are becoming the dominant form of communication. Indeed, their novelty and stark difference to the standard textual conversations is what makes them so popular.

There are two long-running threads which I am thinking of here: one for animated gifs and the other for random, obscure, weird and amusing images. Whilst both are enormously popular they are largely so because they represent such a different form of conversation to normal threads – a more playful, less-obvious and fluid dialogue. No-one here is asking ‘do you see what I mean?’ or seeking clarification on their ‘view’ of things – it’s merely a game. An extended, asynchronous game of visual connect the joke gags.

This is not to say that other conversation threads do not include visual fabric – they do – but they are often posted as supplemental, illustrative and addendum-like ephemera, to add some humour to a point, provide a riposte to a previous response or act as illustration of a subject under discussion. I’m quite sure that should the forum suddenly be rendered incapable of hosting such images, the discussion would carry on just fine. This is, it would seem, a far cry from the ‘ocularcentralism’ which Rose talks about.

Even Better Than The Real Thing

Staying with Rose for a moment, I was intrigued by the discussion of the rise of ’simulacra’ in post-modern culture – the idea that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish reality from virtual reality. I couldn’t help thinking of the somewhat salacious newspaper and television reports we regularly see, exposing the seedy sexual underbelly of spaces like Second Life and their new afordances for non-physcial infidelity.

Visual Representations

Some questions for myself:

Does a visual representation of meaning afford a wider spectrum of meanings for audience members than simple text?

Can a visual representation be truly visual? As Rose points out, even the most impenetrable of modern art pieces usually comes with a explanatory gallery label.

Of Genres, Boundaries and Plain English

October 9th, 2009 - 

Reference: Carpenter, R (2009) Boundary negotiations: electronic environments as interface. Computers and Composition. 26, 138-148.

Much of cyberculture academia seems to concern itself with the observation of what Carpenter identifies as ‘genres’ – means or modes of expression with their own cultural sets of rules and behaviours. Wednesday night’s Skype tutorial clarified a lot of this for me – most especially the example that ‘blogging is a genre of popular culture, whereas broadsheets are a genre of academic culture’. A very useful example I thought, illustrating the possible boundaries between these genres: one which made me think how the lines between the two have become so wonderfully blurred in the last two years or so.

What sruck me this morning though,  is that in reading these studies of cyberculture and the genres and activity systems within them, we are being exposed to another genre: that of academic writing on these subjects. If genres are largely defined by the unspoken, undocumented sets of behaviours and ‘ways of being’ that form them, we could go as far as to make a study of those doing the studying.

And it makes for an interesting set of behaviours in and of itself. Carpenter’s article starts warmly enough, with a humourous account from his undergrad days of trying a transliteral presentation and the anxieties it caused both him, his fellow students and his tutors. It made a refreshing change from the somewhat obtuse and impenetrable language of some of the readings within week 1 and 2. But then, on pg. 140, we get this:

‘This reconceptualization of genre calls for a reinterpretation of interface that extends beyond user-system interaction to include interactions between the user and multiple, sometimes competing, systems as well as between systems themselves.  Such a view allows us to examine systems relations not simply in terms of juxtaposed boundaries but rather as dynamic boundary negotiations mediated by genres that are themselves mediated by the boundary interface.”

Come again?

I’m sorry, but I have never met, heard, seen or been told of a single human being on planet earth that actually talks like this.  Stephen Fry doesn’t talk like this.

I find it peculiar and fascinating that a discipline of study which examines cyberculture and its endlessly fluid, constantly playful, hilariously subversive ‘genres’ is so frequently reported on in a form of language which is not just a thousand miles from the culture which it is studying, but seems a world away from the general speech patterns and communication forms of the average human being.

Where does this come from? Why do so many academics in this field insist on using this tortured, alienating form of language to communicate their ideas? It’s baffling in the extreme. For a group of academics driven by the motivation to reveal the hidden cultures of cyberspace and the popular culture which is its beating heart, they seem singularly determined to make sure that vast majority of human beings can’t understand them.

Boundaries indeed.

I realise, reading back over this text, that this may come across as another ill-tempered gripe about academia, but it does occur to me that a study of this ‘genre’ itself could be highly revealing; not just for a window into cyberculture studies itself, but into those who engage in it.  Why this use of language? Why this highly selective and exclusive choice of vocabulary? Who does it serve? Who are they trying to impress?  How does it ‘function’?

Or am I just becoming a hideously out-of-touch, grumpy old man who can’t keep up with the kids?

Week 2 Summary

October 7th, 2009 - 

I’m behind already! Having lost four days this last two weeks to the flu (I got sick twice) this blog is coming a bit late. Apologies.

The week 2 film festival was highly thought-provoking, with a further exploration of some of themes I’d noticed occuring during week 1. Notably, the blue pill/red pill scene from The Matrix really struck home. Issues of choice, freedom, slavery and emancipation seemed to come to the fore for me.

I’d blogged last week about the notional towns of ‘Cyberia’ and ‘Cyburbia’: the former a world of infinite possibility and adventure – a space in which to re-create ‘reality’ – and the latter an altogether more sinister place, of virtual voyeurism and ‘control’ by the machine.

Elephant’s Dream, Tears in the Rain and others also seemed to touch on these themes, but perhaps from other angles: machines with thoughts, machines with feelings, abandoned and discarded as soon as they have fulfilled their alloted tasks. The scene from AI also seemed to nudge into this fearful concern we have:  a sense of guilt that we have about the machines we build to service us, and the all too tantalising possibility that these machines will become as ‘real’ as those that they serve.

What is this need we have that is reflected in our science fiction novels and movies? Why do we almost crave stories about sentient machines? Machines that feel, cry, fear and despair as badly as we do.  Are our own fears simply being projected on to these blank silicon slates? Or are these stories speaking to a bigger fear again – that the systems we create to serve us may actually enslave us?

I don’t have any immediate answers, but I can’t help but be struck by the similarities in theme across such a wide spectrum of sci-fi works. From HAL 9000, to Philip K. Dicks Replicants, Star Trek’s Data and on to Kubricks’ discarded childbot, we seem to revel in the predicaments of such creatures – lost in the woods, looking for their makers, struggling by in a universe where there seems to be no answers, but more and more questions.

I’ve heard it suggested that a lot can be learnt from science-fiction – in that these stories are (consciously or unconsciously) projections of our own current fears, dreams and aspirations. Perhaps in the same way that H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ now seems like a frighteningly prescient vision of the horrors of the first and second world wars (see video below), our modern sci-fi luminaries (Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gibson) may be doing more than predicting a fanciful future – they may be depicting it and creating it as they write – allowing new realities to be ’storied into existence’.

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