This week we’ve moved forward with our review of how ethnographic principles can be used to build a picture of communities and peoples lives online. As Robert Kozinets describes: “Applying a systematic mixed method approach can reveal many facets of a culture, such as its hidden social structures. But the grounding element, the core of these methods, should be cultural understanding if that approach is to be termed a netnographic one”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 182).
As we considered last week, the approaches to investigation identified in ethnography more generally, suggest that the researcher works on the basis that they are immersed in the settings that they are studying; that they act as participants within the setting so that they can listen to what people tell us about the lifeworlds they are part of. In order to capture what we hear it is a good idea that the researcher maintains a field journal that they can use to record any observations about what they have encountered in the field, and to reflect on their own experiences as a participant in the community.
For this project we will be working with a mix of ‘real-world’ and ‘virtual-world’ encounters and situations. But we shouldn’t immediately draw a fixed distinction between the two. As Kozinets points out, “online communities are not virtual. The people that we meet online are not virtual. They are real communities populated with real people, which is why so many end up meeting in the flesh”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). Therefore, we start from the premise that “Using the Internet is a culturally located experience” (Hine, 2005, p. 9), and that “Netnographers grant great significance to the fact that people turn to computer networks to partake in sources of culture and to gain a sense of community”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).
As Kozinets points out, “community and culture can inhere in many of the familiar forums and ‘places’ of the internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7). And that “social networking sites and virtual worlds [therefore] carry the complex markers of many cultures and both manifest and forge new connections and communities. Newsgroups and bulletin boards, as well as chat-rooms, although ‘old-style’ communities, may never go out of style completely”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 7).
The role of the ethnographic researcher is to be attuned to this experience, and to look at the different ways that people use the tools and technologies of online life to interact and communicate. As Kozinets goes on to suggest, “under-standing how members interact with the culture in general can pay off richly in understanding the complex lived experience of communal interaction”(Kozinets, 2010, p. p.133).
Kozinets boils this whole process down when he says that “Netnography examines the individual interactions resulting from Internet connections or through computer-mediated communications as a focal source of data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 8). But rather than thinking that this set of interactions can be mapped out in one form only, say recorded observations in a manually written journal, Kozinets suggests that in addition “Netnographic data analysis must include the graphical, visual, audio, and audiovisual aspects of online community data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 133).
Our priority as investigators, therefore, is to be attuned to the “symbol systems, rituals and norms, ways of behaving, identities, roles and, in particular languages, that help particular online social formations to organise and manage themselves?” Kozinets suggests that this process of investigation can be typified in a series of starting questions: “Are these linguistic systems, norms, actions and identities distinctive to online groups, and online communications? Are they taught? Are they common to some groups and not to others? Are they common to some media and not to others”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 12).
According to Kozinets, therefore, “Netnography is a specialised type of ethnography. It uses and incorporates different methods in a single approach focused on the study of communities and cultures in the Internet age. Qualitative online research such as netnography is ‘essential in shaping our understanding of the Internet, its impact on culture, and culture’s impacts on the Internet”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 157).
There are a number of issues that we should note. Online communities should be afforded the same status as offline communities. Netnographers seek out places of online community. Social networking sites carry markers of culture that netnographers can map. There are common elements to our online interactions – what Robert Prus terms Generic Social Processes.
Generic Social Processes are centred on three sets of concepts. Firstly, the extent to which social actors participate in different social situations, then, what the attributes might be of the sub-cultural lifeworlds that these situations are made up of, and then, how these relationships are formed and maintained through processes of coordination and association. As Zygmunt Bauman and Tim May suggest, “these three themes should not be seen as stages or sequences but, instead, represent interrelated sets of processes that people implement on more or less simultaneous basis as they do things in the community” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 142).
Generic Social Processes, relate, therefore, to the sets of practices and roles that people play in community situations, and the way that they make sense of them through the symbolic interactions they are involved with or undertake. Robert Prus lists how these processes operate and what the researcher might do to be attentive to them. According to Prus, “people in all manner of associations find themselves coming to terms with a relatively generic set of processes. These include the matters of: (1) acquiring perspectives; (2) achieving identity; (3) doing activity (performing activities, influencing others, making commitments); (4) developing relationships; (5) experiencing emotionality; and (6) achieving communicative fluency. We may expect that people participating in any setting may be differentially attentive to these dimensions of association on both an overall, collective basis and over time. However, by attending to each of these sub-processes, researchers may more completely approximate the multiplistic features of particular roles (and relationships) that the participants in those settings experience” (Prus, 1999, p. 144).
What the pragmatic ethnographer is looking for, according to Prus, is to build a picture of interaction between actors and agents in situations that are meaningful to those agents. Prus describes how Symbolic Interactionism is attentive to these engagements and how the ethnographer spends their time looking for ways to record and describe those engagements. As Pus points out, “the interactionist, generally, concentrate on the ways in which people manage or deal with particular aspects of their life-worlds. While this agenda is still rather encompassing, the underlying attentiveness to the ongoing accomplishment of human activity represents the essential core for approaching the study of the human condition” (Prus, 1999, p. 140).
The task before us, therefore involves, according to Prus, that we should be “(a) attending to the various life worlds or subcultural realms that the participants distinguish, and (b) establishing intimate familiarity with those participating in these life-worlds so that we might be better able to acknowledge and identify the situated and emergent interlinkages, disjunctures, and irrelevancies that people experience in the course of conducting their affairs.” This means that as pragmatic ethnographers we should distance ourselves, Prus argues, from the process of theory-building which typifies much of the social sciences. Instead, as pragmatic ethnographers we should approach the investigation of these generic social process ‘minimally’. According to Prus, “this requires that social scientists suspend the pursuit for cultural holisms or overarching rationalities, or at least approach these with exceedingly great caution, even in what may seem the most simplistic of human communities” (Prus, 1999, p. 136).
This process is far from straightforward and simple. There are many complex interactions taking place that are relevant to different groups of people in different ways. How we think about our involvement in these different lifeworlds is a core part of the pragmatic ethnographic process. As Prus points out “even when analysts focus on people’s participation in specific settings, it is important that analysts be mindful of these overlapping life-worlds and the ways in which people manage their multiple realms of involvement” (Prus, 1999, p. 143).
Therefore, as practicing researchers working both online and offline, we are seeking out the interrelated sets of processes that people navigate and use when they are operating in a community. But we will do this on the basis that we are aware that people in different situations encounter generic processes differently, and that as a result we should be attuned to what do people do, and what do they accomplish. As pragmatic ethnographic researchers we have to think about how we attend to people’s life worlds, and therefore, in what way these life worlds overlap, and what distinctions we can draw from our observations?
Ethnographic work, therefore, is primarily focused on building a picture of social interaction and community engagement in the field. As Kozinets points out, “cultural knowledge must be grounded in detailed field knowledge of that culture, and in the data that fieldwork creates”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 166).
John Creswell lists the priorities for this field work:
1. “Qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products.
2. Qualitative researchers are interested in meaning – how people make sense of their lives, experiences, and their structures of the world.
3. The qualitative researcher is the primary instrument for data collection and analysis. Data are mediated through the human instrument, rather than through inventories, questionnaires, or machines.
4. Qualitative research involves fieldwork. The researcher physically goes to the people, setting, site, or institution to observe or record behaviour in its natural setting
5. Qualitative research is descriptive in that the researcher is interested in process, meaning, and understanding gained through words and pictures.
6. The process of qualitative research is inductive in that the researcher builds abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories from details” (Creswell 1994 p.145).
Robert Kozinets summarises this process when he suggests that the “idea behind this approach to data analysis is straightforward.” Firstly, according to Kozinets, we should “consider the online environment a social world.” Secondly, we should “assume that outline environments have social and language games, with attendant rules, fields, winners, and losers.” Thirdly, we should “treat online data as a social act.” Then, we should “seek to understand the meaning of these acts in the context of the appropriate social worlds.” Before, and only “when appropriate,” broadening the “particular online social world to interact with other online social worlds as well as other social worlds that are not exclusively online, or not online at all”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 132).
There are, according to Kozinets, three main types of data that we can work with: “Archival data… elicited data… field-note data”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 98). Our focus in the projects associated with this module will be to look at how these different forms of data can be mapped and made distinguishable so that we can use them to build a picture of the social interactions that people in different online and offline communities undertake. To do this we will employ techniques associated with Computer Aided Research, and particularly the research application Nvivo.
“Psychologist Eben Weitzman and Matthew Miles (1995, p.5) suggest the following uses of computer software in qualitative research projects:
• recording fieldnotes
• correcting, extending, editing, or revising fieldnotes
• storing texts
• organising texts
• searching and retrieving texts and making them available for inspection
• connecting relevant data segments to each other, forming categories, clusters, or networks
• writing reflective commentaries or ‘memos’ on the data as a basis for deeper analysis
• performing content analysis by counting frequencies, sequences, or locations of words and phrases
• displaying selected data in a reduced, condensed, organised forms, such as in a matrix
• aiding in conclusion-drawing, interpretation, confirmation and verification
• building theory by developing systematic, conceptually coherent explanations of findings
• creating diagrams or graphical maps that depict findings or theories
• preparing interim and final reports” (Kozinets, 2010, p. 128).
In future lectures and workshops we will look at these techniques in more detail.
To summarise, it is worth going back to the wider process that we are engaged with, the sense that we are trying to build a picture of the attendant lifeworlds of different actors and communities. As Bauman and May suggest: “Individual actors come into the view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependence. Given that, regardless of what we do, we are dependent on others, the central questions of sociology, we could say, are: how do the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 5).
Therefore, as Kozinets points out, “data collection in netnography means communicating with members of a culture or community. That involvement, engagement, contact, interaction, communion, relation, collaboration and connection with community members – not with a website, server, or a keyboard, but with the people on the other end”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 95).
Finally, as Kozinets states, in practical terms, “the better you can get at organising data as you collect them, the more methodical and systematic about data collection that you can become, then the better a netnographer you will be” (Kozinets, 2010).
To conclude, fieldwork is the primary method for collecting data. The online world is a social world and online data can be treated as a social act. There are standard data collection techniques that we will seek to become proficient with as this will allow us to talk with members of the communities we study in not only a more responsible and ethical way, but also in a more illuminating and insightful way. As ethnographers, therefore, we should remind ourselves that “online communities are communities; there is no room for debate about this topic any more. They teach us about real languages, real meanings, real causes, real cultures”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 15). And as good pragmatic ethnographers, we should use “our quest to find the ‘difference that makes the difference’,” and establish how the “practices of these branches of study differ from each other?” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 4).
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual Methods – Issues in social Research on the Internet. Oxford: Berg.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography – Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.