Anthropology Virtual Ethnography
by
Bianca Williams
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0107

Introduction

In the early 1990s, there was a small group of anthropologists calling for the discipline to take seriously the impact of mass media on cultural beliefs and practices and to see the Internet itself as a rich fieldsite for analysis. By the early 2000s, the discipline responded with several anthropological studies of mass media and theorizations of new ethnographic approaches for studying virtual spaces. Since this time, there has been an explosion of virtual ethnographies from a variety of fields, including sociology, media studies, and information studies, as the popularity and utility of digital tools such as the Internet, smartphones, and tablets continues to increase. While ethnographic research, methods, and writing have long been staples within the discipline of anthropology, virtual ethnography continues to expand and problematize notions of what ethnography is. Traditionally, ethnography has been commonly understood as (a) a long-term, face-to-face, social scientific approach to fieldwork that includes researching and analyzing social formations, people, and cultural practices through participant observation in a central geographic site and (b) a genre of writing generated from this process of qualitative data collection that uses field notes, interview excerpts, and life narratives to explain and represent cultural beliefs and practices (see Ethnography). Building on these methodological and analytic approaches, virtual ethnography examines how computer-mediated-communications and digital technologies are used to shape, transform, and produce culture. As economic, social, and political processes have become more deterritorialized and transnational (because of processes like migration and technological innovation), researchers have created new ethnographic methods and theories to analyze these transformations. While traditional ethnography and virtual ethnography share an anthropological past, virtual ethnography challenges the discipline’s long-held expectations of embedded, grounded research in one geographic site. Researchers are now engaging in a more mobile, multisited or “unsited” form of research that may cross spatial and temporal boundaries online, off-line, or a combination of the two. As fieldsites increasingly become networks, virtual worlds, and websites, ethnographers question key anthropological concepts and terms. Notions of what constitutes a community, how to engage in participant observation, and how to choose a fieldsite become increasingly complex as researchers attempt to complete ethnography in virtual spaces. The sections in this article address the quandary of issues and questions related to defining, engaging, and producing virtual ethnography.

General Overviews

As a precursor to thinking critically about virtual ethnography, researchers from multiple disciplines published annual reviews, edited collections, and journal articles examining the impact new forms of media and technology were having on the world. These discussions laid the groundwork for those engaging in ethnographic research in virtual spaces. Castells 2009 provides an expansive analysis of how the rise of the network society has generated a shift from the industrial age to the information age. Noting how innovations in technology mediated this shift, Castells argues that the resulting flows of information and power have transformed people’s relationships to time and space. While Castells 2009 is a tome full of theoretical conclusions about these massive economic and social transformations, Lister, et al. 2009 is an introductory textbook that makes many of Castells’ insights about new media, technology, and networks accessible to undergraduates. This multidisciplinary textbook provides an overview of the theories and methods various disciplines have engaged in order to study the effects new media and technology are having on people and culture. Silver and Massanari 2006 is also a useful volume on new media for undergraduates, focusing on key theories within Internet studies. While engaging in their own virtual ethnographic studies, graduate students Robin Hamman and Jacqueline Warrell created websites that act as resource centers for researchers interested in virtual ethnography. Hamman’s online magazine, Cybersociology, covers a variety of interesting topics including research on cybersex, cyber-romance, digital third worlds, and techno-spiritualism. Warrell’s site, Virtual Ethnography Research Pathfinder, is an excellent source for graduate students, as she provides key research terms, information about conferences related to virtual ethnography, and short synopses on prominent books and journal articles. Focusing specifically on the discipline of anthropology, Spitulnik 1993 is one of the earliest comprehensive reviews of anthropological literature on the study of mass media, demanding that anthropologists turn their analytical lens toward the influences these media have on cultural practices and representations. Almost a decade later, Ginsburg, et al. 2002 seems to answer this call as one of the most prominent collections on new media in the discipline. Ginsburg, et al. 2002 and the annual review Wilson and Peterson 2002 encourage anthropologists to focus attention on the ways new communities are forming online and off-line through their utilization of the Internet and other forms of media.

  • Castells, Manuel. 2009. The rise of the network society. Vol. 1. 2d ed. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture 1. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444319514E-mail Citation »

    The first of three volumes, this book highlights the economic and social dynamics of the information age and explains the workings of the network society on a global scale. Of most significance to those doing virtual ethnography may be the section titled “The Culture of Real Virtuality.”

  • Cybersociology. 1997–1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    An online magazine for social science researchers of cyberspace, edited by Robin Hamman, a former sociology graduate student at the University of Essex. Updated through September 1999, the magazine is full of useful articles discussing some of the challenges facing digital ethnographers.

  • Ginsburg, Faye D., Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin, eds. 2002. Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most prominent and oft-cited volumes on media studies in anthropology. The volume’s editors and authors push the boundaries of what “counts” as ethnography by examining exciting topics such as the transnational circuits of media and the use of technology in cultural activism.

  • Lister, Martin, Jon Dovey, Seth Giddings, Iain Grant, and Kieran Kelly, eds. 2009. New media: A critical introduction. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    With editors in the fields of visual culture, screen media, digital media, philosophy, and cultural studies, this introductory text provides a comprehensive look at the field of new media, its methodologies, and its impact on everyday life.

  • Silver, David, and Adrienne Massanari, eds. 2006. Critical cyberculture studies. New York: New York Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a multidisciplinary overview of theories within Internet studies and the diversity of approaches used to study cybercultures.

  • Spitulnik, Debra. 1993. Anthropology and mass media. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:293–315.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.22.100193.001453E-mail Citation »

    This review acts as an early call for anthropologists to engage in critical analyses of new mass media. Spitulnik discusses the relationship between anthropology and mainstream media’s representations of various groups, while delineating some of the problematic uses of the term “indigenous media.” Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Virtual Ethnography Research Pathfinder.

    E-mail Citation »

    Jacqueline G. Warrell, a PhD student at the University of Calgary, organizes this online archive of key research resources for virtual ethnographers, including an overview of pertinent books, journal articles, podcasts, and webinars.

  • Wilson, Samuel M., and Leighton C. Peterson. 2002. The anthropology of online communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:449–467.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085436E-mail Citation »

    While reviewing literature within anthropology that addresses questions related to community, identity, and power within online communities, Wilson and Peterson argue that the text, media, and technologies that comprise the Internet are not only part of the cultural sphere but are cultural products themselves. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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