Virtual Ethnography

Bianca Williams

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online June 2013 | | DOI:
Virtual Ethnography

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  • Anthropology
  • Human Evolution
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Physical Anthropology
  • Social and Cultural Anthropology


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In the early 1990s, there was a small group of anthropologists calling for the discipline to take seriously the impact of mass media on cultural beliefs and practices and to see the Internet itself as a rich fieldsite for analysis. By the early 2000s, the discipline responded with several anthropological studies of mass media and theorizations of new ethnographic approaches for studying virtual spaces. Since this time, there has been an explosion of virtual ethnographies from a variety of fields, including sociology, media studies, and information studies, as the popularity and utility of digital tools such as the Internet, smartphones, and tablets continues to increase. While ethnographic research, methods, and writing have long been staples within the discipline of anthropology, virtual ethnography continues to expand and problematize notions of what ethnography is. Traditionally, ethnography has been commonly understood as (a) a long-term, face-to-face, social scientific approach to fieldwork that includes researching and analyzing social formations, people, and cultural practices through participant observation in a central geographic site and (b) a genre of writing generated from this process of qualitative data collection that uses field notes, interview excerpts, and life narratives to explain and represent cultural beliefs and practices (see Ethnography). Building on these methodological and analytic approaches, virtual ethnography examines how computer-mediated-communications and digital technologies are used to shape, transform, and produce culture. As economic, social, and political processes have become more deterritorialized and transnational (because of processes like migration and technological innovation), researchers have created new ethnographic methods and theories to analyze these transformations. While traditional ethnography and virtual ethnography share an anthropological past, virtual ethnography challenges the discipline’s long-held expectations of embedded, grounded research in one geographic site. Researchers are now engaging in a more mobile, multisited or “unsited” form of research that may cross spatial and temporal boundaries online, off-line, or a combination of the two. As fieldsites increasingly become networks, virtual worlds, and websites, ethnographers question key anthropological concepts and terms. Notions of what constitutes a community, how to engage in participant observation, and how to choose a fieldsite become increasingly complex as researchers attempt to complete ethnography in virtual spaces. The sections in this article address the quandary of issues and questions related to defining, engaging, and producing virtual ethnography.

Article.  9060 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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