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What’s in a name?

I’ve come back to my methodology chapter, after burying my head in papers on social capital and social network theory for the last month. I never did end up getting any feedback on what I wrote in the last draft, but the break has given me some more perspective on my own writing. In short: not entirely terrible, but there’s a hell of a long way to go before it’s decent.

One of the sections that I’ve struggled to write about is the “ethnographic” research methods that I’ve used. I’m wary about using the term, as it carries a lot of baggage – I don’t want to be jumped on by old-school anthropologists insisting that a real ethnographer needs to spend six years in a Kenyan village, and that online observations are fundamentally different…

I found a copy of Robert Kozinets’ Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online by random happenstance while in the library last week. The books I went there to find are more traditional resources on ethnography, but it’s been fascinating comparing them with the newer book.

In many ways, ethnography seems a good label for what I have been doing: I’ve spent the past two years embedded in the online communities that each business manager has joined, trying to understand how those communities work from the perspectives of the participants. In some of these I’m more of a traditional observer, in others I definitely participate to a larger extent. Particularly in Twitter, I’m using it myself (to keep in touch with people, contacting people before/after conferences or meetups, finding out news) while following all the different ways that each business manager is using the service. Access into some communities implies participation – profiles are public, and anything that you subscribe to/like/follow/etc gives those you’re watching an opportunity to watch you right back, or start up a conversation.

Kozinets argues that there’s a need for the newer label, as some areas are significantly different between “offline” and online ethnographic research. That blurry area around what constitutes participation and observation is one. Most of your data is natively digital: transcription errors aren’t a problem when you have every word used by the participants. It also affects the volume of data that can be used: depending on the source of the data, you could well pull the entire history of interactions between your study participants. That quickly turns data collection into much less of a problem than data management: it’s easy to get absolutely buried under reams of data that may or may not actually help you answer your research questions.

There are a few different names floating around. RMIT is starting its own centre for “Digital Ethnography.” Ethnographic online research, netnography, webnography and network ethnography have all been used as well. They may all be intended to mean similar things, but it’s difficult to tell exactly what any given author mean without reading their entire study.

Much like the quip about a language being “a dialect with an army and a navy,” successful methodologies are often jargon with a marketing department. In the case of netnography, the originator is a Professor of Marketing, backed up by many MBA students… since first mentioning the term on Twitter last week, people have started contacting me out of the blue, with links to Prof. Kozinets’ presentations and course material, and the term has already got a lot of traction. Being able to concisely express a set of shared understandings (approach, methods, standards) is what good labels are all about. So I’ll most likely adopt it to describe what I’ve been doing so far: observing and learning about communities that operate largely online, by embedding myself in them over a period of months or years.

  1. Jonathan O'Donnell
    February 22, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Don’t you love it when you come across a really relevant book by chance.

  1. January 16, 2013 at 1:10 pm

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