In June we are focusing on a range of qualitative and quantitative methods for collecting data online. Find the unfolding series through this link. This month you will see posts about netnography and related online research guidance from our Mentor in Residence, Dr. Robert Kozinets.
If you were to ask me the single most important aspect of doing netnography today, I would tell you that it is keeping an immersion journal. Let’s start with a bit of background. Immersion is one of the central elements of netnography. Immersion is based on the familiar ethnographic participant engagement of the researcher. Another term that I’ve always liked to use regarding immersion is the notion of the researcher-as-instrument. These ideas are links to the core recognition in ethnography that it is the researchers’ own human involvement with a particular cultural context that gives their narrative, which is the essential graphein of the ethnographic representation, its depth and core validity. This engagement of anthropos with Anthropos, of a human being with other human beings and humanity itself through them, is the source of authority for anthropology’s core technique.
So, when we researchers attempt to stay true to these principles during the investigation of the mediated communications and information use that make up so much of our social and cultural activities and realm today, the question for a contemporary ethnographer becomes how to stay true to this core principle of immersion or engagement. One way that people have conceptualized engagement with these social media contexts is to presume that, just as an ethnographer must socialize and interact with others in a culture to, for example, learn their language or the meanings of their rituals, so too must an online anthropologist interact with others in a particular online community by posting messages and asking questions. However, I think this is a mistake.
Early in my online research adventures, I tried jumping into ongoing online conversations where I wasn’t particularly welcome. Or posting lists of questions to forums or groups. The disruptive results and angry reactions I received suggested to me that this kind of so-called “participation” is often culturally inappropriate in today’s world of social media. On the other hand, a complete lack of immersion and engagement leaves an online investigation with little more than the interpretive etchings of a content analysis.
While traditional face-to-face ethnography leaves open the question of what to do, virtual ethnography and digital ethnography approaches offer a range of options for the contemporary post-analog ethnographer. How should the digital ethnographer or virtual ethnographer conduct their research so that it offers an ethnographic type of immersion? The answers vary. Some work that calls itself digital ethnography suggests imagining the in-home actions of people in a particular field site as a way to visualize actual “being there”. The goal is to try to be with actual people in their homes as they, for instance, consume energy or use their computers. Other digital ethnographers suggest that merely using a smartphone or other mobile device to read posts on apps is sufficient to constitute “participation” (I would call this “engagement”).
Published work calling itself virtual ethnography has tended to problematize the notion of a field site, and rightly so, and with it the notion of participation in a field. Hine is right when she reminds us that social media is a context for culture as well as a cultural artefact. As a result of this artefactual stance, virtual ethnographers tend to veer more towards an observational stance than a participative one. They note important differences, for example, between the way that cultural participants read posts and responding to them as they are embedded in a multitude of their own real-world activities, rather than the researcher frame collecting reading and analyzing these messages as cultural outsiders. Digital and virtual ethnographers all offer valid answers to the perplexing question of ethnographic engagement.
The answer that netnography offers is somewhat different from these. And I will elaborate that answer for you in my next post here on SAGE MethodSpace!