Ethnography in the Digital Age

Ethnography in the Digital Age:  A Doctoral Methods Workshop

University of Southern California
Annenberg Summer Institute for Methods and Statistics (ASIMS), June 2015

Instructor: Laura Portwood-Stacer, PhD

Course Description

It is no longer possible to study culture without taking into account the integration of digital technologies and modes of communication into all aspects of society. Scholars attempting to understand cultural formations therefore must be prepared to encounter their subjects in digital spaces, to utilize digital media to communicate with interlocutors, and to contextualize digital phenomena within broader scapes. To this end, this seminar will train doctoral students to undertake ethnographic research in the communication and cultural studies tradition, with an especial focus on how ethnographic methods can respond to the ways in which daily practices and systems of meaning are thoroughly enmeshed with the digital.

Through reading and discussion of key texts in ethnographic methodology, along with contemporary examples of ethnographic work, students will gain both theoretical knowledge of and practical instruction in:

  • Defining ethnography and its uses
  • Locating field sites and becoming part of the scene
  • Cultivating relationships with informants
  • Ethical issues when researching individuals, organizations, and movements
  • Collecting, organizing, and analyzing data from the field
  • Writing up (and re-writing up) one’s findings
  • Distributing and promoting one’s research responsibly

The format of the seminar sessions will vary, and will include (though may not be limited to):

  • presentations on readings led by both instructor and students
  • discussion of key issues brought up in readings and by participants
  • student presentations on work in progress and/or future doctoral research
  • workshopping student work
  • guest presentations by working, published ethnographers (in person and via Skype)

Students will complete this seminar with a detailed plan of action for undertaking an ethnographic research project which could culminate in a journal article or dissertation. The instructor will be available following the conclusion of the course for feedback on drafts as well as individual advice about fieldwork and publishing strategies.

Required Texts

Hine, Christine. 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Boellstorff, Tom, Nardi, Bonnie, Pearce, Celia, and Taylor, T.L. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Course Schedule 
(in progress)

Prior to the workshop
This assignment is optional but recommended! You can do it in less than the time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to LA (hint hint).
Read one of the recommended ethnographic monographs from the list below (feel free to choose one you’ve already read) and prepare some brief notes that you will share informally with the group during the first week of class. Your notes should focus on the methods used and methodological positions taken by the researcher. Secondarily, try to identify for us how these methods and methodological positions led the author to arrive at the findings presented. You do not actually need to closely read the entire book in order to produce helpful notes for our purposes. Center your attention on the introduction, conclusion, and methods sections. Read other portions of the book as needed to flesh out your understanding.

Monday, June 1
Introduction of selves and research projects; What ethnography is and why to use it
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 13-22
Hine, pp. 19-54; 181-196
Supplemental resources:
Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (introduction)
Marcus, “Anthropology on the Move”
Marcus & Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique
Geertz, “Thick Description”

Tuesday, June 2
Finding your site(s) and becoming part of the scene; Participant observation; Field notes
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 52-91
Hine, pp. 55-88
Supplemental resources:
Atkinson & Hammersley, “Ethnography and Participant Observation”
Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes
Gupta and Ferguson, “Discipline and Practice”
Kendall, “‘Mudders in the Mist’: Ethnography in a ‘Partly Compatible’ Setting”
Marcus, “Ethnography in/of the World System”
Wolcott, The Art of Fieldwork

Wednesday, June 3
Cultivating relationships; Conducting interviews
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 92-112
Hine, pp. 89-124
Supplemental resources:
boyd, “Making Sense of Teen Life”
Miller and Glassner, “The ‘Inside’ and the ‘Outside'”
Newton, “My Best Informant’s Dress”
Spradley, The Ethnographic Interview

Thursday, June 4
Researcher absent methods; Analyzing your data
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 113-128; 159-181
Hine, pp. 125-156
Supplemental resources:
Atkinson and Coffee, “Analysing Documentary Realities”
Geiger and Ribes, “Trace Ethnography”
Hsu, “Digital Ethnography toward Augmented Empiricism”

Friday, June 5
Ethical issues and accountability;  IRB FAQ (with Susan Rose, Executive Director of USC’s Office for the Protection of Research Subjects)
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 129-158
Hine, pp. 157-180
Supplemental resources:
AoIR bibliography on ethics
AoIR ethics chart
Beaulieu & Estalella, “Rethinking Research Ethics for Mediated Settings”
Jacobs-Huey, “The Natives Are Gazing and Talking Back”
Markham, “Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic”
Markham & Buchanan, “Ethical Decision Making and Internet Research”
Moore, “The Politics and Ethics of Naming”
Pauwels, “Ethics of Online (Visual) Research”
Phillips, “Ethnography of Trolling”

Over the weekend
Outline a methods section for an article or dissertation proposal. After formulating your research question(s), address the epistemological justifications for using ethnography in your project; describe your site(s) and how you plan to gain access; describe the specific research methods you will employ, offering justifications for why they will be necessary or useful; discuss any issues you anticipate regarding ethics, accountability to participants, writing, and publication. You’ll distribute these notes to the group (no later than noon on Monday) and give a brief oral presentation to walk us through it during class. During this time you can share any questions/concerns you have. We’ll take time in class to discuss the projects and give feedback.

Monday, June 8
Writing up and re-writing; Publishing, promoting, and sharing your work
Boellstorff, et al., pp. 182-195
Supplemental resources:
Haraway, “Situated Knowledges”
Stacey, “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?”

Tuesday, June 9
Participant presentations + workshopping; AMA with Jeff Juris
Outlines circulated by today’s presenters (names TBD)
Any bio information you can find on today’s working ethnographer

Wednesday, June 10
Participant presentations + workshopping; AMA with Lilly Irani
Outlines circulated by today’s presenters (names TBD)
Any bio information you can find on today’s working ethnographer

Thursday, June 11
Participant presentations + workshopping; AMA with Julie Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim
Outlines circulated by today’s presenters (names TBD)
Any bio information you can find on today’s working ethnographers

Friday, June 12
Participant presentations + workshopping; Wrapping up
Outlines circulated by today’s presenters (names TBD)



Recommended Ethnographic Monographs (list in progress)

N.B.: There are many good ethnographic studies that do not appear on this list. The ones here are all fairly recent and include sustained discussion of method and methodology. Most of these are explicitly to do with digital culture but some are more tangentially related – all are worth reading as contemporary examples of ethnographic method.

Anderson, C.W. 2013. Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Baym, Nancy. 1999. Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Biao, Xiang. 2006. Global “Body Shopping”: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Burrell, Jenna. 2012. Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Campbell, John Edward. 2008. Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity. New York: Haworth Press.

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dunbar-Hester, Christina. 2014. Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Durham, Aisha. 2014. Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Freeman, Carla. 2000. High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy: Women, Work, and Pink-Collar Identities in the Caribbean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gray, Mary L. 2009. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York: New York University Press.

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

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2008. Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kendall, Lori. 2002. Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Markham, Annette. 1998. Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Miller, Daniel, and Slater, Don. 2000. The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. New York: Berg.

Nardi, Bonnie. 2010. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Pearce, C., and Artemesia. 2009. Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ortner, Sherry B. 2013. Not Hollywood: Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schüll, Natasha Dow. 2014. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, T.L. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Wallis, Cara. 2013. Technomobility in China: Young Migrant Women and Mobile Phones. New York: New York University Press.

Yochim, Emily Chivers. 2009. Skate Life: Reimagining White Masculinity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Further Reading on Ethnographic Method/ology
(in progress)

Atkinson, Paul, and Amanda Coffey. 2004. “Analysing documentary realities.” In Silverman, David, ed., Qualitative research: Theory, method and practice, 56-75. London: Sage.

Atkinson, Paul, and Hammersley, Martyn. 1994. “Ethnography and Participant Observation.” In Denzin, Norman K. and Lincoln, Yvonna S., eds., Handbook of Qualitative Research, 248-61. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Beaulieu, Anne, and Estallela, Adolfo. 2012. “Rethinking Research Ethics for Mediated Settings.” Information, Communication and Society 15(1): 23-42.

boyd, danah. (Forthcoming). “Making Sense of Teen Life: Strategies for Capturing Ethnographic Data in a Networked Era.” In Hargittai, E. & Sandvig, C. (Eds.) Digital Research Confidential: The Secrets of Studying Behavior Online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clifford, James, and Marcus, George E., eds. 2010. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (2nd edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Emerson, M., Fretz, R. and Shaw, L. 1995. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Geiger, R. Stuart, and Ribes, David. 2011. “Trace Ethnography: Following Coordination through Documentary Practices. Proceedings of HICSS.

Gupta, Akhil, and Ferguson, James. 1997. “Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method, and Location in Anthropology.” In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, pp. 1-46. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, pp. 149-82. New York: Routledge.

Hsu, Wendy F. 2014. “Digital Ethnography toward Augmented Empiricism: A New Methodological Framework.” Journal of Digital Humanities 3 (1).

Jacobs-Huey, Lanita. 2002. “The Natives are Gazing and Talking Back: Reviewing the Problematics of Positionality, Voice, and Accountability among ‘Native’ Anthropologists.” American Anthropologist 104 (3): 791-804.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: Dutton.

Marcus, George E. 1998. “Introduction: Anthropology on the Move.” In Ethnography through Thick and Thin, pp. 3-29. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marcus, George E. 1998. “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography.” In Ethnography through Thick and Thin, pp. 79-103. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Marcus, George E., and Fischer, Michael M. J. 1999. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (2nd edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Markham, Annette N. 2006. “Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic: A Case for Reflexivity in Qualitative ICT Research.” Journal of Information Ethics 15(2): 37-55.

Markham, Annette, and Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2012. “Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0).”

Miller, Jody, and Barry Glassner. 2004. “The ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’: Finding realities in interviews. In Silverman, David, ed., Qualitative research: Theory, method and practice, 125-139. London: Sage.

Moore, Niamh. 2012. “The Politics and Ethics of Naming: Questioning Anonymisation in (Archival) Research.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 15(4): 331-40.

Newton, Esther. 1993. “My best informant’s dress: The erotic equation in fieldwork.” Cultural Anthropology 8 (February): 2-23.

Pauwels, Luc. 2006. “Ethics of Online (Visual) Research.” Visual Anthropology 19(3-4): 365-9.

Phillips, Whitney. 2013. “Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping, and Ethical Pitfalls.” Ethnography Matters. Series of 3 blog posts.

Spradley, James. 1979. The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Janovich.

Stacey, Judith. 1988. “Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?” Women’s Studies International Forum 11(1): 21-27.

Wolcott, H. 1995. The Art of Fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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