Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Digital anthropology vs digital ethnography

I was speaking to a commercial market researcher today and mentioned that I was studying digital anthropology. He understood this to mean the deployment of digital tools in conducting qualitative research such as ethnography. 


I outlined the difference between digital anthropology and ethnography, which I'm repeating here, to clarify that the focus of the MA (soon to be MSc) is the former.


There are two ways of interpreting digital ethnography. The first is that it is ethnography on digital subject matter (a la Mike Wesch at Kansas University) and the second is that it's using digital tools to conduct ethnography (a la Cardiff University's Hypermedia and Ethnography Group). They aren't exclusive: In the latter sense digital ethnography involves traditional ethnographic practices transposed into a digital medium, such as in-depth online interviewing and (participant) observation in virtual communities. It also covers the (immediate, remote and scalable) gathering of content-rich digital output from research samples to gain insights into behaviours (extending to digital audio/film diaries or field recordings by researchers). Finally, it presents new possibilities for the presentation and analysis of data (e.g. the potential of hypertext). The subject matter of this research may be digital (e.g. the study of the culture of YouTube) or not, which is why I prefer the second more inclusive interpretation.


Conversely, digital anthropology is about digital technology and the remarkable effect that it is having on social organisation and cultural practices in the same way that medical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology which examines how society is impacted by health issues. In connecting the theoretical with the empirical, anthropology is one of the best ways to understand the effect. 


So there you have it: Digital anthropology isn't digital ethnography but the latter may be particularly useful in helping us research and present issues arising in the areas covered by the former, considering that (some, not all) people are spending an increasing amount of time with digital devices and online and that it is in the empirical encounter with these people that gives grounding to our conclusions.


PS Here are some nice reflections on writing an ethnography on digital subject matter 
PPS I reserve the right to revisit the subject of definitions in the future...

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