Ethnography and the Digital Gap

I guess I’m framing this more as a question than a thought.

I’m reading an article titled “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication“. Why am I subjecting myself to this on a holiday?  Besides my growing curiosity of business anthropology, here’s what’s I think interesting: Think about just how different the world is today than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. Now take this quote from the introduction of the article into consideration:

“While there exists a huge body of research on the Internet and computer mediated communication (CMC), only some of this research is qualitative, and of this, an even smaller portion is ethnographic. With the exception of a relatively small group of ethnographers who focus research efforts on the
Internet, most ethnographers still conduct studies firmly situated in the “offline” social world.”

If you think of ethnography as a field of cultural interpretation built around qualitative research (and I fully admit I am not ethnographer so if quant and qual play in the same sandbox, just explain it to me), how truly little do we understand the attribution of minute by minute cultural shifts taking place and how digital communication is impacting them?

The article outlines three challenges in the abstract as to what makes offline/online ethnographic studies so difficult:

  1. Because online ethnographers are not physically co-present with their research subjects, they cannot use their interpersonal skills to access and interpret the social worlds they are studying.
  2. The process of gaining access to the setting and research subjects is different in online ethnography because of the lack of physical presence and the resulting anonymity provided by the medium.
  3. The blurring of public and private in the online world raises ethical issues around access to data and techniques for the protection of privacy and confidentiality.

I have thoughts on all three of those challenges but I’d be curious to hear from you first. How do ethnographers work within a digital world?

One comment

  1. Constantin Basturea · September 3, 2012

    First of all, kudos for taking the time to read academic research; too few marketers are doing so, and I think we’re poorer for it.

    Second – why do you think it’s important to figure out how ethnographers work in a digital world? Or, to put it differently, what’s in it for us? 🙂 (I hope you don’t mind that I’m playing devil’s advocate in your comment 🙂

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