For obvious reasons, many qualitative researchers these days are seeking ways of pursuing live and remote research. As a result, interest in digital ethnography, an established but somewhat marginal approach to social research, is now greater than ever before. Both emerging researchers just getting started as researchers and established researchers cut off from their long-standing field sites are getting interested in “new ways of knowing social life.”
Digital ethnography has emerged as the dominant label for a set of qualitative techniques developed over the last twenty-odd years that aim at rich, contextualized accounts of stuff that goes on online. Like all ethnographic research, digital ethnography is based on long-term immersion in a field. That means that, in many respects, digital ethnography is similar to plain old ethnography, so much of what we do and think about when doing digital ethnography is already familiar to ethnographers. Aside from these familiar old shoes, however, there are also things to consider that researchers unfamiliar with digital ethnography don’t usually think about.
Because of the mounting interest at my own institution, I was asked to put together some resources on the practice and ethics of digital ethnography. I decided to focus on what happens “when the other shoe drops”: the novel problems and questions researchers have to consider when they start doing digital ethnography.
The following is organized around two pre-recorded lectures on the practice and the ethics of digital ethnography. The first deals with the questions “What is a field site in digital ethnography?”, “What are we really learning about through digital ethnography?”, and “What techniques can I apply when doing digital ethnography?” The second considers the questions “What ethical questions do I have to ask when doing digital ethnography?”, “What principles and protocols can guide me?”, and “How can I do digital ethnography ethically?”
This blog post is a companion to the video lectures and provides links to referenced works and additional resources.
The Practice of Digital Ethnography
Christine Hine is a sociologist, and she teaches at the University of Surrey; since her 2000 book Virtual Ethnography, she has published numerous other books on methods for digital ethnographic research. Sarah Pink is a design anthropologist at Monash University. She used to work at RMIT University, home of the Digital Ethnography Research Center. Her collaborators include the anthropologist John Postill, who is also one of the co-authors of the book Digital Ethnography. Tom Boellstorff is an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Coming of Age in Second Life as well as co-author of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Robert Kozinets teaches marketing at the University of Southern California.
Understanding the Field: Matt Desmond’s argument for “relational ethnography” is developed in an article in Theory and Society; Michael Burawoy has written a critical response appearing in the pages of the same journal that is worth reading as well. Jenna Burrell is the author of Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana, and her methodological reflection that I draw on in the lecture appeared in the journal Field Methods. I also mention Apryl Williams’ work; you can find her paper on Black Twitter in the volume Digital Sociologies.
Epistemological Questions: For a helpful discussion of “units of analysis” and related terms, check out John Levi Martin’s book Thinking Through Methods. For the idea that digital representations aren’t just traces that reflect urban space but actively reconfigure (“reassemble”) it, see my article with Justus Uitermark from the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Nick Seaver’s thoughts on the “ethnography of algorithmic systems” can be found in his Big Data & Society article. Angèle Cristin has written about “algorithmic ethnography” generally in this Theory and Society article, and in relation to the Covid crisis in her recent contribution to Communication and the Public.
Techniques: The Why We Post project in general is worth a visit; I particularly call attention to Elisabetta Costa’s book on social media in a Turkish town. A helpful discussion of all three techniques I discuss can be found in this article by Møller and Robards from the Nordicom Review. For the walkthrough method, check out the article by Ben Light et al. in New Media & Society. On the go-along method generally, check out Margarethe Kusenbach’s article in Ethnography; on the media go-along, consult Kristian Møller Jørgenson’s publication in MedieKultur. The scroll-back method is used in Growing Up on Facebook, a recent book by Brady Robards and Siân Lincoln. This article by the same authors that appeared in Qualitative Research goes into the rationale for scrolling back as research method. I mention but don’t elaborate on possible points of contact between digital ethnography and digital methods. This series from Ethnography Matters goes into that a bit more, and Laura K. Nelson’s article on “computational grounded theory” from Sociological Methods & Research takes additional steps. As a qualitative researcher and programmer myself, I’m always happy to talk mixed methods, so don’t hesitate to contact me.
The Ethics of Digital Ethnography
Pitfalls: Charles Kadushin has been doing research on social networks since the 1960s, but his Understanding Social Networks published in 2011 is one of the first introductory texts on network analysis to touch on ethical issues. Some newer work addresses ethics, as well, such as a helpful handbook article by jimi adams and colleagues. The Paul Revere example comes from this excellent blog post by Kieran Healy. If you’re looking for some helpful background on “privacy by design” and contact-tracing apps, you could do worse than this comic by Nicky Case. Just remember: the apps will not save us.
Principles: Helen Nissenbaum’s book Privacy in Context has been very influential for articulating the principle of “contextual integrity.” It has also influenced the notion of “context collapse” frequently associated with the work of Alice Marwick and danah boyd. Their article in New Media & Society is in converation with Nissenbaum.
Practices: The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) warns against legalism and protocols. Check out their ethics guidelines for a lot of useful materials keep you asking questions and considering evolving norms. The Norwegian Guide to Internet Research Ethics is also worth looking at. “Filtering Feminisms” provides an example for how to use visual material from social media in an ethical manner.
- Shannon Mattern’s Toolkit: Digital Ethnography and Toolkit: Digital Ethics. Absolutely essential.
- My Institute’s Protocol for Ethnographic Research in Times of COVID-19.
- LSE Digital Ethnography Collective. Very comprehensive reading list.
- Ethics as Method collection at Social Media + Society.
- Doing Digital Ethnography issue of Journal of Digital Social Research.
- W.F. Umi Hsu’s contributions to Ethnography Matters. See also their article in the Journal of Digital Humanities.