Readings in Ethnography, December 2014

Hallett, R. E., & Barber, K. (2014). Ethnographic Research in a Cyber Era. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43(3), 306–330. doi:10.1177/0891241613497749

Hallett and Barber define ethnography as the study of the everyday lives of people in their own time and space (following Burawoy 1991). They argue for the inclusion of online interactions in these studies, as online increasingly frames lived experience. They contend that traditional ethnography has frequently overlooked online spaces as an aspect of lived experience, yet they argue that taking this into account would help ethnographers “more fully understand the populations they study” (Hallett and Barber 2014, 307).

This paper was written to demonstrate how online spaces influence everyday social life. They describe two very different ethnographic studies, initially designed to use traditional methods, in which the researchers were “pulled” online as they followed their participants. This shows how these online spaces are also an aspect of multi-sited ethnography (following Marcus 1995), where ethnographers follow their participants beyond parameters that were predefined at the research design stage. They outline the benefits they found after using online sites as a source of data during two individual research projects (one about a network for undocumented students, the second about clients and workers at a high-end men’s salon). However, they also discuss some new challenges; around ethical approaches when using private and semi-private modes of communication as a means of gathering empirical data, gaining consent from distant participants and issues of anonymity. In addition, following Goffman (1959) Hallett and Barber suggest that sites such as Facebook are a new context for people to project their/a public persona to an audience, a new “front stage”.

“…participants present different aspects of self when engaging different physical spaces (e.g. work or home), and the same may be true of digital space.” (Hallett and Barber 2014, 324).

Some ethnographers, particularly cyber-ethnographers, have concentrated heavily on online interactions as the focus of their studies. Traditional ethnographers have not. What Hallett and Barber are calling for is an integration of the two fields/sub-fields.

References

Burawoy, M. (1991). Ethnography Unbound: Power and Resistance in the Modern Metropolis. University of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday

Hallett, R. E., & Barber, K. (2014). Ethnographic Research in a Cyber Era. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 43(3), 306–330. doi:10.1177/0891241613497749

Marcus, G. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95–117.