Anthropology has long been a discipline based on physical presence—archaeologists travel to ruins, biological anthropologists analyze physical remains, and sociocultural anthropologists travel to communities to interview, participate, and observe. However, especially in the latter subfield, the rise of the internet age and digital spaces has created a whole new world for ethnographic investigation, a methodology that usually relies on personal experience and face-to-face interactions. Nearly all of us engage in some form of online community, or at the very least, digital communication. From niche subreddits to your family’s Facebook posts to self-help webinars, the human experience exists in a blending duality: while still physical, increasingly digital. This reality became even more prescient with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and ubiquitous virtual contact. Thus, this guide provides you with both an introductory look into the background and theoretical grounding of digital ethnography while also exploring a few useful examples of this type of scholarship available in the JSTOR library.
Background & Theory
E. Gabriella Coleman, “Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 487–505.
In this widely useful introduction to digital ethnography, Coleman contends that while the variety and profundity of digital media makes this methodology difficult to approach, digital media is a critical object of anthropological inquiry. Admittedly, the elements of the cyberworld are incredibly difficult to distill into distinct categories, but Coleman critically provides three broad categories of media for investigation. First, they investigate the cultural politics of media—how digital spaces are tied to the creation, recreation, and subversion of cultural identities, representations, and thought. Second, they look toward the vernacular cultures of digital media to understand modes of communication, practices, and sociocultural groups dependent on the digital world. Third, they explore how digital media continues to shape other types of social practices from economic exchange to religious worship. While this piece is now more than a decade old, the insights of these categories are important for scholars investigating how digital spaces increasingly tie into cultural representations, group formation, and a myriad of social practices.
Keith N. Hampton, “Studying the Digital: Directions and Challenges for Digital Methods,” Annual Review of Sociology 43, (2017): 167–188.
Hampton explores how the methods for studying digital technology both rely on well-established methods in the social sciences but also require innovations for scholarly study. While this article explores both the quantitative and qualitative applications of digital studies, their insight into digitally centered interviews, ethnography, and participant observation is the most part useful in this discussion. Hampton importantly clarifies that early digital ethnographic work sought to clarify between online and offline personas, whereas the methodology as currently used goes beyond these distinctions to immerse social science work in digital worlds that can span both time and place. For example, while traditional ethnography is limited to the present moment of the ethnographer’s experience, trace ethnography of existing internet logs, text data, and social media posts can also provide fruitful objects of study. Furthermore, digital social science work can remove cost as a barrier: it can make the practice of anthropology more accessible—even if there’s debate in the field over the quality of virtual interviews and observation. Finally, this text also provides many useful reviews, citations, and points of further exploration for those just dipping their toes into the waters of cyberethnographic work.
Jeffrey A. Tolbert and Eric D. M. Johnson. “Digital Folkloristics: Text, Ethnography, and Interdisciplinarity,” Western Folklore 78, no. 4 (2019): 327–356.
Tolbert and Johnson outline and advocate for a “digital folkloristics” that combines the textual approaches of the digital humanities with the tools of digital ethnography. In doing so, they demonstrate that digital scholarship and ethnography have applications across disciplines beyond just rote anthropology. The paper moves beyond a call for studies of digital folklore and instead endeavors to outline existing forms and methods of digital scholarship to inform its broad usage in the study of folklore. Even for those outside of the folklore space, Tolbert and Johnson’s work is useful in its broad exploration of concepts such as digital scholarship and the digital humanities while also pushing back on the at-times arbitrary and exclusionary divisions drawn between digital social science and non-digital social science. Additionally, the authors demonstrate the inherent and valuable interdisciplinarity of methods in digital scholarship—highlighting how digital ethnography can complement other forms of research including but not limited to folkloristics.
Anne Beaulieu, “From Co-location to Co-presence: Shifts in the Use of Ethnography for the Study of Knowledge,” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 3 (2010): 453–470.
Approaching digital ethnography from the lens of science and technology studies (STS), Beaulieu explains how the shift from co-location (sharing a physical space) to co-presence (sharing interaction more broadly) allows for new studies of lab environments including e-research and e-science. Crucially, this piece questions the definition of the “field” as the object of ethnography and what types of fieldwork can provide insights into studies of knowledge production. While ethnographic studies of labs were critical for many of STS’s insights, including the epistemological and ontological diversity present in science, this type of research becomes more difficult in knowledge production spaces where research is less controlled and less centralized. Beaulieu’s example perfectly encapsulates this point: an ethnography of a life sciences lab is far different than an ethnography of a group of women’s studies scholars. The adoption of co-presence through digital ethnography that foregrounds the relationship between the ethnographer and the interlocutors and, critically, their bidirectional relationships, can provide for insightful accounts of anthropological subjects of study.
Daniela Paredes Grijalva, “Paper, Pen and Today’s Communication Platforms: Remote Disaster Research during a Pandemic,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 36, no. 2 (2021): 376–385.
The restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic upended many ethnographers’ attempts at fieldwork, including Grijalva’s. However, digital and remote ethnography have provided a salve for scholars who—for a multitude of reasons—are unable to physically visit their field site. While in-person fieldwork will remain central to the practice of anthropology, this scholarly note demonstrates how virtual ethnographic practices can still inform critical research. This article explores one route for remote ethnography, including starting with virtual contacts through e-mail, WhatsApp, and social media like Facebook Messenger. Grijalva reflected on these conversations through a more traditional practice: a diary of fieldnotes. They also document how the act of engaging in a localized or regional social media space can provide insight into social science questions. Of course, while remote methods can prove useful, they’re not without their faults—none more obvious than the difficulty in observing the particularities of everyday human interactions in a field site. Thus, Grijalva also takes the time to reflect on the implications of remote ethnography and how these methods may impact and limit anthropological scholarship when used.
Nicolle Lamerichs, “Fan Membership: Traditional and Digital Fieldwork,” in Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 47–58.
Lamerichs approaches ethnography through studies of participatory cultures—of fans and audiences. In doing so, they’re a part of the growth of qualitative methods in the realm of cultural studies. The analysis finds that online platforms and the results of digital ethnography are best placed within the context of offline spaces. This methodological hybridity allows for the treatment of many contexts as what Lamerichs refers to as “rich and social space[s] of production.” However, this article also cautions researchers looking to jump into digital ethnography. It explores some of the most critical challenges: determining the ethnographer’s level of involvement, selecting the proper method of record-keeping, and grappling with the ethics of the less-obvious researcher presence in online settings.
Digital Ethnography in Practice
Jowan Mahmod, “New Online Communities and New Identity Making: The Curious Case of the Kurdish Diaspora,” Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2019): 34–43.
Mahmod uses both online and offline methodologies to explore the creation of new forms of Kurdish identity through the related processes of diaspora, transnationalism, and digital forms of communication. To illuminate this complex subject, this article combines in-depth interviews with an ethnographic exploration of the online Kurdish community. It explores several critical topics of identity creation from online anonymity as a tool in the fight against gender inequality, the use of insults as identity markers, and the progression from victimhood to senses of entitlement post-diaspora in Europe. Overall, Mahmod finds that the view of diasporic communities (especially the Kurdish one) as a static and unified entity fails to understand their evolving nature and marked differences across generation—while also demonstrating the methodological value of combining in-person interviews with digital insights.
Kiri Miller, “Grove Street Grimm: ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and Digital Folklore,” The Journal of American Folklore 121, no. 481 (2008): 255–285.
Miller takes a different approach to the digital social sciences through their academic treatment of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—treating this popular entry as an anthology of stories, a record of vernacular culture, a frame for performance, and a cultural artifact in its own right. Miller reimagines GTA as an entry into Grimm Brothers style folklore, engaging both in literary analysis and traditional ethnographic methods including interviews, survey work, and “visits” to the field site of the game world of San Andreas. Through this unique work, Miller argues that videogames and digital spaces are capable of folkloric qualities while also establishing new cultural traditions. They further contend that digital media genres including video games impact values and beliefs through the interpretation of the protagonist CJ in the game’s “episodic travails.” This treatment of both the digital game and space opens new opportunities and pathways for ethnography in cyber realms while inviting folklorists to approach a new medium.
Sheila Bock, “Ku Klux Kasserole and Strange Fruit Pies: A Shouting Match at the Border in Cyberspace,” The Journal of American Folklore 130, no. 516 (2017): 142–165.
Bock utilizes digital ethnography to explore the collective social media performance of #PaulasBestDishes that mocked celebrity chef Paula Deen after she admitted to using the “N-word” and discussed a plantation theme for her child’s wedding. Specifically, Bock explores how the wordplay and vernacular expression of these tweets can illuminate parts of the complex racial dynamics and discourse at work in the United States. While this article relies heavily on cultural studies, historical exploration, and performance studies, it also interacts with ethnographic theory to draw key cultural insights from the realm of Twitter. This piece demonstrates how digital ethnographic investigations can operate much differently than traditional ones, even limiting themselves to the exploration of a single hashtag, while still providing valuable academic insight.
Gordon L. Ulmer and Jeffrey H. Cohen, “Ethnographic Inquiry in the ‘Digitized’ Fields of Madre de Dios, Peru and Oaxaca, Mexico: Methodological and Ethical Issues,” Anthropological Quarterly 16, no. 2 (2016): 539–560.
Ulmer and Cohen seek to detail the relationship between digital and physical methods of ethnography while also discussing both the privacy and ethical considerations of digital ethnographic inquiry using case studies from both authors’ work. Ulmer describes their hybrid fieldwork in Madre de Dios regarding conservation labor and Cohen reflects on their work in the 1990s and 2000s with craft producers in Oaxaca. In Ulmer’s case, digital media became a critical tool during conflicts between gold miners and government actors—and they continued to use the tool in their remaining fieldwork. Cohen’s fieldwork took place during the rise of Web 2.0, e-mail communication, and linkages between the digital and physical realms. They demonstrate that while digital ethnography can help inform research, limitations including slow internet speeds, netspeak, differential adoption of digital technologies by informant groups, and the third-party-present effect must be taken into consideration. Even more critically, scholars in the digital ethnography space must ensure for the protection of informant data—especially given the growing commercialization of private data, prevalence of data breaches, and widespread surveillance. This is even more poignant in cases where ethnographic topics could put “vulnerable” or disenfranchised populations at risk.
James Leibold, “Blogging Alone: China, the Internet, and the Democratic Illusion?” The Journal of Asian Studies 70, no. 4 (2011): 1023–1041.
This study of the Chinese blogosphere employs digital ethnography alongside survey data and comparative analysis to illuminate the behavioral trends of what Leibold defines as the largest cyber-community. Digital ethnography works to cut against the bifurcated narrative that had surrounded academic treatments of the internet in China—a debate Leibold argues was stuck between digital-activism and cyber-censorship. Through direct engagement with many less-studied corners of China’s digital community, this article employs digital ethnography that provides a more nuanced understanding of the blogosphere and its impacts on the netizens who use it. This includes Leibold’s exploration of Han supremacist communities, the partial anonymity of certain online forums, and online vigilantism. These are aspects of Chinese culture and politics that would be inaccessible to traditional forms of ethnography and demonstrate how digital ethnography is a critical contribution as the digital space continues to expand.