Virtual Ethnography

Virtual ethnography is a recent development in the area of anthropology, science & technology studies, and internet research (Mason 1996; Hine 2000; Howard 2002; Beaulieu 2004; Beaulieu forthcoming 2005; Hine forthcoming 2005). It extends the notions of field and ethnographic observation from the exclusive study of co-present and face to face interactions, to a focus on mediated and distributed ones (Hine forthcoming 2005). It combines two related but distinct ideas. First, virtual ethnography tries to create virtual counterparts of the basic ethnographic concepts and interrogates whether they can be applied to mediated interaction. Second, virtual ethnography aims to change the notion of the fieldsite from a localised space into a network of interlinked mediated settings. In this, it is related to the ethnography of networks (Newman 1998). Virtual ethnography maintains a number of values of traditional ethnographic work. It aims to sustain practices of "thick description"(Geertz 1983), and to achieve this by paying attention to the perspective of the actors themselves (Ward 1999; Slater 2002). This makes virtual ethnography distinct from Web site content analysis or Webometric studies, although it may make use of the same qualitative and quantitative techniques to locate networks and Web sites (Scharnhorst 2003), or to understand media forms.

The key research question in the Virtual Ethnography Focus is: how can ethnography be pursued in mediated settings? Research in this focus will establish which aspects of ethnographic research are challenged in particular in the shift from face to face interaction to mediated digitised interaction. This should make clear how ethnography can be conceived as a flexible practice, while remaining recognisable as a specific methodology.

More specific questions that will be dealt with are which new concepts of "field" or "research site" are needed for virtual ethnography, how virtual elements can be integrated in traditional fieldwork, and which new ethical issues arise in the practice of virtual ethnography (Fox 2000). In the field of internet research, a fair amount of work has already been devoted to the challenge to crucial notions of research ethics in the context of mediated social science research, and the Studio research will elaborate on these guidelines and reflections in the course of doing research.