Representation in online ethnographies:  A matter of Context Sensitivity

Annette N. Markham, Ph.D.
Department of Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago

This document is a draft of a forthcoming (2003) chapter in the book:
Online Social Research: Theory, Methods, and Ethics
Sarina Chen, Jon Hall, and Mark Johns, Eds.
Peter Lang Publishers.

© Copyright Annette N. Markham 2003. All rights reserved.

Ethnographies join culture and fieldwork.  In a sense, they sit between two worlds or systems of meaning—the world of the ethnography (and readers) and the world of cultural members. . . .  [C]ulture is not strictly speaking a scientific object, but is created, as is the reader’s view of it, by the active construction of a text. [1]

On the net . . . one begins with the text of the other, which is directly coupled only to text and exchange of texts—and out of this, one constructs a real, constructs a world which is projected onto the other.[2]

The issue of representation is an evolving theme in many disciplines, particularly interpretive sociology.  Fundamental to the nature of ethnographic texts and therefore our understanding of culture are the voices of the participants woven together with the voice of the author.  Because the intersection of participant, interpreter/author, and audience shapes our knowledge of emerging cultural forms in technologically mediated environments, careful attention to our methods of representation is warranted. 

This is a crucial discussion point in the emerging field of Internet studies.  New communication technologies privilege and highlight certain features of interaction while diminishing or obscuring others, which confounds traditional methods of capturing and examining the formative elements of relationships, organizations, communities and cultures.  Even as new media continue to provide new means of interacting with others, most environments under ethnographic study are text-based and computer-mediated (e.g., email, chat, mailing list, BBS).  A key to understanding these contexts is careful attention to and analysis of the points of connection between people whose exchanges comprise the very foundations of these emerging forms of culture.  Without traditional physically grounded sensibilities such as touch, smell, or in many cases, sight of the other, discursive interaction points create meaning in context and, over time, provide the means by which cultural members can assume a shared sense of reality.  Moreover, ethnographers of these cultural formulations must acknowledge that in almost every case, our own discursive activities help to shape the context and therefore cannot be ignored as irrelevant to the activities of others or their responses to us as researchers or participants.   

Working within the frameworks of social construction, symbolic interaction, and interpretive ethnographic inquiry, this chapter focuses on some problematic aspects of conducting discursive analyses of text-based interviews in online ethnography.  Not exclusive to the interview or text-based research environment, these issues should be acknowledged as part of any research involving interpreting the meaning of others’ discursive practices.  The challenges I address here may not be as evident but are clearly present (in variation) in other forms of research involving computer-mediated communication.  Whether the researcher is using text-based online environments as an interviewing tool or studying virtual cultures constructed and sustained solely through online media, knowledge claims about the Other are essentially mediated by the other’s presentation of self through any medium, the interaction between the self (researcher) and other (participant) during the data collection process, and the researcher’s production and presentation of the words of the other in the interpretation and writing phases of the research project.  Indeed, when we drill down to the basic epistemological assumptions undergirding any study of discursive practices in culture (physical or virtual), consideration of how the interaction among participants and researchers reflects and shapes identities, relationships, and social structures constitutes a useful, reflexive, and ethically essential practice.

At several junctures during the research project we have the opportunity and responsibility to reflexively interrogate our roles, methods and interpretations.  Virtual cultures intensify this need because the frames of reference we use to guide our premises and procedures are deeply rooted in physical foundations and modernist ontologies.  Multiple dialectic tensions operate simultaneously and perhaps unconsciously to influence the researcher’s methodological choices and actions throughout the ethnographic project, as well as the outcome of the project in the written research report.  To what extent is the researcher a part of that which is researched?  Is it possible or desirable to isolate oneself as an observer in cultures formed solely through textual participation?  Is the field more adequately bound by notions of location or interaction?  How can the researcher balance the traditional scientific impulse to know what is real (read: physical, authentic, embodied) through meaningful but disembodied interactions among personae who may or may not correspond to their physical counterparts?

These undercurrents flow through the ethnographic research project from start to finish.  This chapter presents four arbitrarily selected moments in the research process when some or all of these tensions disrupt the seemingly placid surface of inquiry.  First, identifying the field of inquiry involves decisions that both presuppose and reveal underlying assumptions about the extent to which the researcher considers his or her own textual participation a meaningful constituting feature of the field.  Second, decisions about how to gain entry, establish rapport and collect information, often dismissed as simple matters of logistics, constitute essential processes of negotiating self, other and context.  All of the researcher’s behaviors actively co-construct the participant’s identity--as known to the researcher or eventual readers, the researcher’s identity--as known to the participant, and the actual context of interaction—the actual field of inquiry.  How the researcher attends to these issues influences the stance taken toward the subject and the extent to which the researcher is treated as a part of the object being studied.   Third, how the researcher resolves the questions of participant versus observer and real versus virtual will profoundly influence the delineation of data from non-data, among other things.  Assumptions about the nature of the relationships between self and other and text and reality guide our analysis of the textual performance of participants.  Examining basic definitions operating both within the framework of the specific study and social scientific traditions will aid the researcher in identifying how and which data is defined as meaningful, whether or not physical presence is necessary to fully grasp the authentic reality of these cultures, and the extent to which bodies are used to make sense of these cultural contexts.  Finally, as researchers write up their findings for publication, the representation of self and other becomes a reflexive juncture in the project.  Great potential for restructuring culture and revising identities exists within the decisions made by the researcher to reach his or her readership with particular writing conventions.

The four junctures discussed in this chapter should not be considered mutually exclusive or exhaustive.  Rigorous interpretive inquiry involves a constant and reflexive shifting between various elements and stages of the research project; marking these as discrete or linear stages provides heuristic evaluation of methodological assumptions and practices but does not reflect the actual process of inquiry.[3]

The Field

The question “How do we represent the Other in our research reports?” cannot be separated from the related question of “Where is the field?”  Our responses to the second question influence greatly the choices we make in (a) what we consider important in the collection of information about the Other, (b) how we interpret their actions and discourse, and (c) how we represent them in the research reports.  In this latter question, I mean to convey a vague sense of “field,” because both the field as research site and field as disciplinary boundary guide and limit a researcher’s choices and practices.

“In the field” hardly begins to describe the localities we study in cyberspaces.  The shifting of ground from geographic to computer-mediated spaces constitutes an equally significant shifting of focus from place to interaction, from location to movement. [4]

If one seeks to investigate social practices in context, asking ethnographically grounded questions about identities, relationships and social structures therein, several essential methodological questions arise.  What criteria do we use to create the boundary around the field and separate meaningful from nonessential data?  Should we participate in this social structure or simply observe?  Answers to these questions are not simple and the subsequent choices have significant practical, ethical and epistemological consequences.  Compounding this, the researcher’s response will inevitably be entwined in his or her research paradigm, making the answers less universal or standardized than might make the methods choices easier. 

The first question regarding the boundaries of the field has been addressed in depth elsewhere.[5]  Communities and culture are not neatly mapped before entering the field, but instead are created as part of the ethnographic process. The ethnographer must read the texts and interactions of interest, much like trail signs, and make ethical and defensible decisions about which paths to follow and thereby which boundaries to draw.  If one’s decisions remain sensitive to the context, the boundaries will be derived from the culture rather than from a priori guides and criteria.

The second quandary of whether or not to participate or simply observe in whatever we conclude is “the field” warrants closer discussion here, as it directly influences our knowledge of and representation of the context and particularly the participants. 

Talking with anyone formally or informally marks a significant shift from observer to participant--or more crucially, accomplice.  Online, as interviewers, we co-construct the spaces we study.  This is not a minor point.  Our interactions with participants are not simple events in these online spaces, but are constitutive and organizing elements of these spaces. 

In other words, we participate in constructing the very phenomena we label as the object of analysis.  This includes the Other with whom we are interacting.  In a place where the imagined boundaries of self, other, community or culture are constituted and sustained solely by the exchange of information, participation in this exchange is the fundamental and necessary means through which recognition and response is possible.[6]  As MacKinnon keenly notes in 1995, the common phrase “I think, therefore I am” is woefully inadequate.  The more appropriate phrase in cyberspace contexts is “I am perceived, therefore I am.” [7]  Applying this logic to the issue of research procedures yields the conclusion that each time a researcher responds to another in these contexts, the researcher contributes directly and actively to the development of the other’s identity and by extension, the field in which the study occurs.

Participation in the context is not only necessary to any inquiry that seeks to understand in depth these cultural forms, but inevitable.  What we consider “the field,” then, is both enabled and constrained by the technological possibilities, the ideological markers established by the participants, and the negotiation of self operating within, through and outside these contexts.

The second notion of “field” as disciplinary boundary is worth mentioning as a reminder that research choices are never free from the constraints of academic traditions.  To think about the question of participation or observation within the sphere of social science, I would begin with the premise—along with many in contemporary anthropology and interpretive sociology—that understanding what it means to be a part of any culture necessitates participation; to remain an observer is to remain distant from the experience of being-in-culture.[8]  This would imply that I must participate versus observe. 

To what end do I either participate or observe?  Thinking ahead to the outcome of inquiry—the research report, I consider the idea that our interpretation of culture will change depending on the form of the telling.[9]  Interpretative focus and the nature of the “findings” also shift with the passage of time, the venue for publication, the credibility of the author or notoriety of the subject, and innumerable other factors[10].  Frankly, whether or not the researcher participates or simply observes, the construction of the research report will present a particular reality of the object of analysis that is influenced by the identity and participation of the researcher.  Thus, the effort or unconscious decision to absent oneself from the field will not remove the researcher from the process and product. 

Having laid some of my epistemological assumptions out on this page, simple reasoning presses the conclusion that lurking online to collect data without participating in the culture may not just be less desirable, but perhaps not possible if the goal is to explore sense making practices in context.  After all, an interpretive qualitative research stance compels me to talk with people. 

The conventions for conducting research vary depending on where one is coming from, scholastically speaking. As a result, a researcher may not be allowed to acknowledge his or her presence in the study, either by formulating research questions that imply the co-constructed nature of online spaces or by writing research reports that address openly the notion that the researcher’s choices influence the outcome of the study from start to finish.  If we consider Internet Studies an emerging field of inquiry, critical attention to the way we are delineating acceptable from unacceptable research practices may allow more creative conceptualizations of the ways we demarcate the spaces we study.

Take for example the procedural question “Should the researcher interview participants both online and offline?”  The rationale for doing so might be to add authenticity to their descriptions of self, to validate the researcher’s assessment of the subject’s identity, or to simply add another dimension to their personae.  Yet, what are the foundations behind this rationale?

As more studies of online interaction emerge, I am more convinced that the primary criteria guiding a researcher’s answers to this question are deceptively simple:  Context sensitivity, flexible adaptation, internal consistency, and reflexivity. These criteria are simple, because they are acutely fundamental; deceptive because they are not easily negotiated.

Kate Eichhorn’s[11] dilemma of deciding whether or not to include the offline presence of her participants in her study of women and ‘zines is instructive.  Through constant attention to the context rather than the rules of inquiry, as well as reflection on contemporary ethnographic sensibilities, Eichhorn realized that interviewing participants in person was not appropriate because “it was precisely the absence of a proper locus that seemed to provide my research participants with a space in which to explore the aspects of their experiences and identities that otherwise remained initerable.”[12]  Based on this discovery in the midst of her study, Eichhorn changed her conceptualization of the context and the operationalization of her approach.  Her sensitivity to the context compelled her to flexibly adapt her methodology to achieve a stronger degree of internal consistency among her research questions and procedures.

Negotiating the space, the self, and the other

The social reality of online culture is an ongoing accomplishment of conversation.  We begin to exist as a persona when others respond to us; being, in this sense, is relational and dialogic.  Scholars such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Martin Buber, Herbert Blumer, and R. D. Laing[13] usefully remind us that this is not restricted to computer-mediated communication, noting that our identity cannot be completely abstracted from our identity-for-others, our identity-for-ourselves, the identities we attribute to others, the identities we think they attribute to us, what we think they think we think they think, and so on.[14]  In text-based computer-mediated social spaces, Self and Other are constructed through interaction more obviously.  The borders we draw are textual, but also imagined; the liminal space of information exchange becomes the negotiation table for culture as well as the medium we use to collect texts we later consider as data.

The words we use both reflect and shape our understanding of our world, but this process never occurs in a vacuum.  The process is thoroughly dialogic; cultural forms exist only through the exchange of messages and the subsequent adoption and reproduction of textual artifacts.  As we sit in front of our computers, we type and send messages, composing ourselves through word choices, sentence structures, graphic accents, and typos.  Exchanging Pics, URLs, jokes, urban legends, and viruses, we give others a glimpse of the frames we use to view the world and reveal some of the masks we consciously or unconsciously think are important in the presentation of self.  Responding to responses, we weave dialogic understandings of each other, sometimes connecting meaningfully, other times deciding it’s best to just move on.  All of this, which we might call the flotsam and jetsam of being, gets passed around and at some discernable (or not) level, contributes to what is eventually bound into what can only be encapsulated as a static-for-the-moment form we call culture.

Methodologically, one should not ignore this feature because as interaction constructs and reflects the shape of the phenomena being studied, interaction also delineates the being doing the research in the field.  Ethnography that ignores this remains at the surface and more importantly, remains stuck in the modern notion that researcher observes but does not interfere or influence that which s/he studies.

Analysis of the Subject:  Texts

As the researcher engages in analysis of visual, verbal, and interactive presentations of self online, certain elements become evident, highlighted, or passed over.  Obviously, we cannot pay attention to everything, so the analytical lens is limited by what researchers attend to, collect, and consider as data.  Reflexive attention to what we are looking at, looking for, or looking through can help us make more ethical and sensible choices, as well as inform our abilities to express our limitations in fully describing or explaining the phenomena under study. 

When the participant, researcher and context are nothing but text and everything beyond mere language, our perceptual filters must be adjusted to accommodate complexities of human expression.  Discursive practices in these contexts deserve close attention to multiple and sometimes strange clues that can help us in our interpretation. 

A brief example may help begin the discussion of the complexity of analyzing a simple interview text and illustrate the real paradoxes of conducting ethnographies in virtual spaces.  Sheol is a self described “heavy user” of the Internet and a “budding hacker” interviewed in an anonymous text based synchronous chat room.[15]  Sheol (a pseudonym, which foregrounds a problematic issue even now) uses a lot of emoticons and punctuation, speaks in short sentences, and seems to always be laughing or smiling.  Scattered throughout every part of the utterances, *LOL*, !!, :-) and other interjections send multiple messages from the moment our interactions begin.

The following excerpt is typical of interaction with Sheol:

<Sheol>     *LOL* This is way cool!! I have never  been asked for an interview before:)

<Sheol>     I am intrested in talking to:)  Could you be more spesific about what questions you will ask?  Just let me know when you want to talk, and I will try to accomidate! :)

<Sheol>  On the net you can be who or what ever you want to be.  That is the trap! when you want your cyberlife to be your real life.  That’s what hapened to me. 

<Sheol>  I became a very popular (I know that sounds conseeded) figuar on the line I called home.  I am ruled by the right side of my brain so I liked the diea of being that personality.

<Sheol>     My cyberfriends and I liked to roleplay ... we went on fantastic adventurs over the net.  The only limit was our imagineations.  Not anything like in the real world!!  I am shy by nature...I am also a big fan of Shahspear langue. I can use that style of speaking, and not be shy about on the net:)

Problem: One of the first problems that will impede the interpretation of this interview is that the researcher does not know Sheol in culture but is interviewing from the outside.  It is difficult to assess adequately the intention of Sheol’s use of these graphic accents or the meaning of them because they are abstracted from the typical context of Sheol’s online existence.  More directly, Sheol is not participating in online culture, Sheol is participating in an online interview.  Interpretation of Sheol’s identity as marked by grammar might be more clear if a) the interaction were taking place in the cultural context or b) the interactions took place over a longer period of time than the four hours we spent in conversation, or even c) if the researcher asked Sheol about Sheol’s own use of language.

Throughout our interactions, Sheol appeared unconcerned with how the writing appeared and unaware of how the construction of text might mediate identity for others.  Although Sheol mentions spelling once, Sheol never tried to change it or correct errors.  Sheol did not seem to link identity to the text, but to the interactions allowed by the medium.  For Sheol, conceptualizing text as place afforded vital experiences not possible elsewhere. 

I, on the other hand, could not ignore Sheol’s presentation of self through the text, both content and form.  The number of social labels I attached to Sheol during our interviews probably came close to the number of spelling errors, which were considerable.  This is not a tangential point.  It might illustrate the researcher’s tendencies to leap to conclusions or make hasty judgments about people; this is precisely the issue.  The interpretive lens is not separable from the context.  Alternately through the course of a single interview, Sheol was a female (stereotypical gendered language style was very evident in tags, qualifiers, expressions of emotion, and heavy use of graphic accents), young (spelling was phonetic, attention to language misuse was not at all evident), not highly intelligent (multiple spelling errors, unreadable messages, apparent lack of ability to be a real hacker), and white (default characteristic because of mainstream cultural assumptions about use of the Internet[16] as well as the tendency to make the online other look more like the self).

Problem:  How much does or should Sheol’s typing influence the researcher’s interpretation?

Problem:  To what extent does or should the researcher include spelling or typing ability as meaningful information in the understanding of identity or culture?

Problem:  How much of the identity of the participant is based on the tendencies, inclinations, and cultural filters of the researcher, rather than on what the participant desires, intends or says?

These issues cannot be dismissed as unimportant to the ethnographer, even as much as we understand that the role of the ethnographer may indeed be to write culture, not simply reflect it.[17]  Yes, we make interpretive choices.  But when the existence of the person we’re studying is for all intents and purposes located solely in the pixels on a computer screen, the choices we make to attend to, ignore, or edit these pixels has real consequences for the persons whose manifestations are being altered beyond and outside their control.  Hence, if someone types solely in lowercase and uses peculiar spelling, the researcher’s correction of grammar may inappropriately ignore and thus misrepresent a participant’s deliberate presentation of self.  If someone spells atroshiously or uniQueLY, and the researcher corrects it in the research report to make it more readable, a person’s creation of identity may be the price of smooth reading.

On the other hand, a participant’s exclusive use of lowercase may be simply a time saving device.  A new keyboard, carpel tunnel syndrome, or a project due tomorrow for the boss may prompt typographic errors in a person otherwise (at other times) fully capable of rendering accurate and precise words and sentences.  Our interpretation of meaning or dismissal as irrelevant may be well founded or absolutely unwarranted depending on any number of things, only some of which are comprehensible.  The methodological dilemma is to figure out what is the best interpretive path and to remain consistent.

Analysis of the subject:  Embodiment

Embodiment continues to be a problematic concept for researchers of virtual spaces.  Preoccupation with the body—or absence of it—emerged in part as a response to both utopian and dystopian suggestions that post modern culture would soon experience the death of the flesh, transcend the social capsules of embodiment, merge with technology and live as cyborgs in an era of post-humanism.[18]  Discussions of embodiment are also embedded in our continuing struggle with how we define reality, in relation to virtuality.

These debates regarding embodiment directly influence ethnographic research of online culture as researchers make decisions about the nature of the space they study, the composition of the inhabitants, and the methods used to sense, interpret, and ultimately know the subject.  The topic merits mention here because most contemporary research on cyberculture continues to privilege the researcher’s body as the site of experience, the reliant gauge of authenticity, and the residence of knowledge. 

How much of our information about the members of online communities should include the embodied presence of the participants?  Why do we need the body?  To make certain our respondents are expressively consistent?  To find the authentic as opposed to the merely apparent

Naturalist Diane Ackerman would tell us that we only know the world through our body and our senses; that’s what it means to be sentient:

We live on the leash of our senses.  Although they enlarge us, they   also limit and restrain us, but how beautifully.....  To understand, we   have to 'use our heads,' meaning our minds.  Most people think of the mind as being located in the head, but findings suggest that the mind doesn't really dwell in the brain but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision.[19]

Researching online restricts many of the senses that would traditionally help the scientist make sense of place, Other, and context.  Yet, in cultural spaces negotiated by information exchange, the ethnographer might be wise to go native; that is, to trust information as representation rather than use traditional senses as the most authentic filters for understanding and analysis.   We still use our conglomeration of stereotypes and presuppositions and experiences to filter their textual representation into something we recognize, but because we chose this field, online ethnographic research entails choosing the context of intertextuality and information exchange as a way of knowing. 

The impulse to discover the real meaning of the real people we are interviewing or observing in these online spaces is deeply rooted in modernist epistemologies.  Real, in this sense, is equated with authentic; both are considered embodied knowledge, even as much as contemporary conceptualizations of mind and body provide a way out of this kind of thinking.  Participants in thousands of studies of online life pronounce through their experiences and communities that life online is multifaceted, wildly idiosyncratic, and not encapsulated into easy classifications or worse, a monolithic cultural form called Cyberculture.

We know from both popular press and scholarly studies that the reasons for spending time with others online include the perceived ability to escape the confines of embodied social markers to engage in what many refer to as a “meeting of the minds.”  Whether or not this is truly possible, a user’s desire to present and be perceived as a confluence of texts without body might best be read by researchers as a request to acknowledge text as ample and sufficient evidence of being and study it as such.

Yet social scientists persist in seeking the authentic by privileging the concept of the body.  The desire to add validity to findings often results in efforts to hold up the textual representation of the participants next to their physical personae and measure the extent to which the images match.  Researchers deciding to interview participants both online and f2f (face to face) may claim that their efforts will add authenticity to their interpretation--by adding paralinguistic or nonverbal cues to the words people speak—and thereby add more credibility to their findings.  For many researchers, this is an ingrained, if unconscious, part of sensemaking.  We trust our traditional senses of sight, smell, and touch, taste and hearing to provide verification of concrete reality.  In essentially disembodied relationships and cultures, however, this fallback bleeds integrity from the project of ethnographic knowing. 

Centering the participant’s experience in embodiment is ironically juxtaposed with the marked absence of the researcher’s own embodiment in the research project.  While we seem willing to focus on the researcher’s general role as either present (participating) or absent/invisible (lurking) in the group, there is little reflection on how the researcher’s embodied being is or is not perceived and responded to by the participant.  Perhaps this is simply overlooked as not meaningful in the context of the interaction between researcher and researched.  Yet, considerable privilege is afforded the researcher to make his or her own embodiment a choice or even a non-issue while simultaneously questioning the authenticity of the participants’ choices regarding their own embodiment.  Ethically as well as epistemologically, it is vital to reflect carefully on the extent to which the research design privileges the researcher at the expense of both understanding the other and operating with a keen awareness of the context.

Bottom line, rigorously questioning the premises and goals of the study can help identify research design flaws.  Asking constantly “How will the method answer the research question?” will compel critical reflection. 

(Re)presenting the space, the Other, and the Self

The process of studying virtual culture with purposes ranging from exploration, description, interpretation, interrogation, critique, explanation, to prediction is one of comprehension, encapsulation and control.  To say otherwise is to deny our impulses as scholars and our role as scientist.  At a very basic level, we scholars go there to learn something about Other and—when we believe we know something, strive to figure out how to tell others what we think we know.  To accomplish this goal, we must stop for a moment the flood of experience, extract a sample of it for inspection, and re-present it in academic terms with no small degree of abstraction.  Accordingly, we are afforded a tremendous degree of control in representing the realities of the people and contexts we study.

In text based computer mediated communication, text is the means by which embodiment is constructed, disavowed, or reconfigured, a process that differs from traditional sensemaking wherein there are embodied research experiences that are studied and written in text later.  van Manen tells us that "writing gives appearance and body to thought.”[20]  Revising his sentence slightly gives us the approximation of what happens online:  Writing gives appearance to body and thought.  While we are taught to think of language as an abstraction, online, language is the reality. Online, discursive practices create place, self, and embodiment. 

This notion becomes even more important when we consider the way our research reports present, frame, and embody the cultural members.  We literally reconfigure these people when we edit their sentences, because for many of them, these messages are a deliberate presentation of self.  Even when they are not deliberate, texts construct the essence and meaning of the participant, as perceived and responded to by others.

The process of configuring texts for publication includes such taken for granted editing activities as transforming the participant’s utterances from disjunctive non sentence structures to smooth paragraphs; correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation; or transforming the appearance of their fonts to reflect standardized typefaces acceptable for the venue and audience. 

Whether for purposes of interpretive clarity or readability, these transformations can have significant consequences.  Introducing artificial linearity to certain interactions may not alter the meaning of the utterances, interaction or identity of the textual being embodied through these utterances.  On the other hand, if a participant splits his or her utterances into fragments with the intention of conveying a sense of fragmented identity, our editing has not only devalued but also negated elemental aspects of this persona. 

Rewriting disjunctive asynchronous text conversations in the form of spoken dialogue may be disingenuous and inaccurate.  It presents a version of reality wherein we talk and think in a hyper organized way.  Organizing interactions into retrospective linearity may be a natural way of making sense of what happened, but it does not allow us to view, investigate, and build our knowledge base of how fragmented and disorganized interactions construct identities and relationships.

As soon as an interaction occurs, the study of it becomes an abstraction.  Even so, simplification or dismissal of the challenge of representation is not warranted.  Temporality is not problematized in many of our research reports, even though computer-mediated contexts highlight the phenomenological concern that “lived experience can never be grasped in its immediate manifestation but only reflectively as past presence.”[21]

It is far too easy to rely on standard conventions in editing and presenting the participant’s voices or to simply leave their texts-in-context out of the final report.  Finding the processes and means for giving voice to participants is a difficult challenge worth pursuing; one that requires creative reconsideration of traditional writing conventions.  How one accomplishes this might vary by discipline, but the ethnographically sensitive task remains to allow participants to retain their intentionally or unintentionally constructed spatial and temporal uniqueness.       

It is important to note the epistemological principles that are the foundations of this discussion:  The research questions and methods of collection and analysis must be a good fit; the research methods should reflect a considerable sensitivity to the specifics of the context; and rigor in qualitative interpretation relies on the researcher’s ability to be reflexive about choices and, concurrently, flexible in practices. 

Our sensemaking practices, whether honed in the hypothetico-deductive, interpretive, or postmodern traditions, compel us in certain interpretive directions.  Our understanding comes in moments, fragments, glimpses.  We may shift our interpretation based on any number of things that happen outside the context we study or long after we have collected our data—conversations that spark new ideas, scents on the wind that provoke particular memories, dreams.  The fields we live in as we interpret and write our research overlap with the field of inquiry in meaningful ways, a fact that we should neither ignore nor deny.

We make choices, consciously or unconsciously, throughout the research process.  Simply stated, these choices matter.  In text-based social structures, every act of creating and negotiating identity, other, and culture is begun by the formation and sharing of words, sentences, fragments of meaning that are pastiched by individuals into patterns, woven into an ongoing tapestry we call social life.  If we do not grapple with natural and necessary changes--in both the social structures we live in and study and the research norms we practice--wrought by our growing connections with communication technologies in an epoch of decentered authority and multi-authored realities, our research will not reflect the complexities we strive to understand.  Everywhere we turn in western culture, we are bombarded with a cacophony of information:  Chaotic, multi-layered, decentered, un- or deauthorized, fragmentary, and non-linear.  These comprise the shapeshifting format of contemporary culture.  The study of these warrants our critical attention to methods of inquiry, which must be suited to the complexity of the contexts we study.  Concrete answers are few, but as researchers we must continue to raise the questions.

The challenge for Cyber Ethnographers is to develop research sensibilities that enact reflexive adaptation to the context, or as Kenneth Gergen remarks, “If we are to survive, improvisation will become our way of life.” [22]


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Gergen, Kenneth. The Saturated Self.  New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Goodall, H. Lloyd. Writing the new ethnography. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2000.

Gergen, Kenneth.  “The Challenge of Absent Presence.”  In Perpetual contact:  mobile communication, private talk, public performance, edited by James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.  

Hine, Christine. Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage Publications, 2000.

Jackson, Michael. Paths toward a clearing: radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Kendall, Lori. Recontextualizing ‘cyberspace’: methodological considerations for online research.”  In Doing Internet Research, edited by Steve Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.

Laing, Ronald David. Self and others. London: Tavistock Publications, 1969.

Lupton, Deborah. “The Embodied Computer/User.”  In  Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk, edited by M. Featherstone and R. Burrows. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995.

MacKinnon, Richard C.  “Searching for the Leviathan in usenet.”  In Cybersociety:  Computer-mediated communication and community edited by Steve Jones.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage, 1995.

Mann, Chris. & Stewart, Fiona. Internet Communication and Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000.

Marcus, George E. Ethnography through thick and thin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Markham, Annette.  Life online: researching real experience in virtual space. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1998.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.

Rodino, Michelle. “Breaking out of Binaries: Reconceptualizing Gender and its Relationship to Language in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3, no.3 (December 1997).

Sondheim, Alan, ed. Being Online, net subjectivityNew York: Lusitania, 1996.

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne.  The war of desire and technology at the close of the mechanical age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

Van Maanen, John. Tales of the Field.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

van Manen, Max.  Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogyNew YorkState University of New York Press, 1990.

Watson, Nessim. “Why we argue about virtual community: A case study of the fan community.” In Virtual Culture, edited by Steve Jones. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.

Wolf, Margery.  A thrice told tale: feminism, postmodernism, and ethnographic responsibility.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1992.


[1]. John Van Maanen, Tales of the Field  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 4, 7.

[2]. Alan Sondheim, Being Online, Net Subjectivity (New York: Lusitania, 1996), 9.

[3]For excellent detail on the art/science of qualitative inquiry, see Harry Wolcott.

[4]. James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing culture (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1986).

Kate Eichhorn, “Sites unseen:  ethnographic research in a textual community,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 14, no. 4 (2001): 565-578.

Christine Hine, Virtual Ethnography (London: Sage Publications, 2000).

Annette Markham, Life online: researching real experience in virtual space (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1998).

[5]. Hine.

[6]. Richard C. Mackinnon,   “Searching for the Leviathan in usenet,” in Cybersociety:  Computer-mediated communication and community, ed. Steve Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage, 1995) 112-137.


[7]. MacKinnon, 119.

[8]. Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing culture  (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1986).

Michael Jackson,  Paths toward a clearing : radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989).

[9]. Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis, “Introduction: Talking over ethnography,” in Composing ethnography: alternative forms of qualitative writing, eds. Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1996).

Lloyd H. Goodall, Writing the new ethnography (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2000).

Margery Wolf,  A thrice told tale: feminism, postmodernism, and ethnographic responsibility  (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1992).

[10].  Margery Wolf presents three versions of ethnographic research to illustrate this point.  More recently, the capacity to publish various versions of one’s work on the Internet allows us to see this process of interpretive changes as authors become better known or as their findings appears in various venues.

[11]. Eichhorn.

[12]. Eichhorn, 572.

[13].  Mikhail Bakhtin, The dialogic imagination (Austin, TX:  University of Texas Press, 1981).

Martin Buber, I and Thou.  2nd ed. Translated by R. G. Smith (New York:  Scribner, 1958).

Herbert Blumer,  Symbolic Interactionism (Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969).

Ronald David Laing,  Self and others (London: Tavistock Publications, 1969).

[14]. Laing, 86.

[15]. Markham.

[16]Nessim Watson, “Why we argue about virtual community: A case study of the fan community,” in Virtual Culture, ed. Steve Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 107-108.

[17]. Clifford and Marcus.

[18]. Michael Benedict,  Cyberspace:  First steps (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

Howard Rheingold,  The Virtual Community  (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000).

[19]. Diane Ackerman, The Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1991).

[20]. Max Van Manen, Researching lived experience: human science for an action sensitive pedagogy  (New York:  State University of New York Press, 1990), 34.


[21] van Manen, 36.

[22].  Kenneth Gergen, “The Challenge of Absent Presence,”  in Perpetual contact:  mobile communicaiton, private talk, public performance, ed.  James E. Katz and Mark A. Aakhus. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xxiii.