Submission for EPIC 2005 Methods PaperTitle: The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes
Authors: E.F. Churchill, R. Moore andB. Jordan
If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
(Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of engaging,
maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness. For ethnographers, for whom seeing, observing,
recording and analyzing patterns of activity across and through time
is the very foundation of understanding sociality, such
disconnectedness is more than Gergen’s postmodern fragmentation of the
saturated, information loaded self; it is positively maddening in its
methodological implications (Gergen, 1991). It highlights that humans
live lives beyond our gaze – palpably so – and often actively
operating simultaneously within multiple “social worlds” as they
switch between different mediated engagements (Strauss, 1978).
“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected (Gajjala, 2002; Hine,
2000). We have been using ethnographic methods (again, cyber and
otherwise) to paint in the details of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many excellent cyberethnographies which focus solely on life “online”, we have triangulated online and offline observation.
We present highlights from three studies, which lie along a
continuum of ‘cybersociality’ and ‘cybermodification’ possibilities
offering more or less latitude for modification of the technology, the
virtual experience and therefore, presumably, the social experience).
The first is a study of distributed teams collaborating through video
and digital shared workspaces; the second a study of collaborative
work in a text-based virtual environment where interactions take place
mostly in the virtual environment, but also on occasion, face to face;
and the third, interactions in massively multiplayer environments,
where virtual commerce is growing but where people never meet in
person, always in persona (avatar). In all three cases, we present an
ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those through the
lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection practices – within
the context of the broader social settings within which the
interactions we have observed take place.
We illustrate how, in our studies, an understanding of that which
lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames our understanding of what
place “virtually”. We consider what can be recorded (technically,
ethically and legally); what can be analysed (time, distance, data
complexity issues), and finally what can be reported effectively.
Finally, we reflect on cyberethnography itself. While we have drawn
on data gathering and analysis methods in cyberethnography texts, we
ponder what the prefix ‘cyber’ adds to the encompassing, entirely
worldy word “ethnography”. Ethnography, after all, means to write
culture. We reflect on how questions raised (e.g., what is “the
field” and where it may be found; what are appropriate data for
reflecting sociality in these contexts; what does it mean to get
permission to record from an avatar, one persona of many?) differ from
debates within ethnography as a whole. In our online/offline
ethnographies, have we seen anything that makes us more ‘cyber’ than we were before, or is it just what we have done?
Gajjala, R. 2002. An interrupted postcolonial/feminist cyberethnography: complicity and resistance in the ‘cyberfield’.
Feminist Media Studies 2 (2): 177-93.
Gergen, K.J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.
Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Books.
Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin
(ed.),Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,