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Virtual Ethnography

Author: Christine Hine
Publisher: London: Sage, 2000
Review Published: June 2001

 REVIEW 1: Julie Mactaggart
 REVIEW 2: Nils Zurawski
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Christine Hine

Many thanks to the two reviewers of Virtual Ethnography, and to David Silver for selecting it as a book of the month. Thanks also to David for giving me the opportunity to respond to the reviews. I am flattered by the careful attention that both reviewers have given to the job. I find that I agree with many of the points that Nils and Julie make. Indeed, while Nils provides some overt criticisms, I more often found myself responding with "But that's what I thought I was saying anyway," than with "But that's not what I said": although there were a few of the latter, and even once or twice "You got me." In the former cases I was unable to disagree with Nils' suggestions, but felt that it would be somewhat churlish to drag readers through where I thought I said what he said I didn't say and so on. I will instead try to address some of the more important points that the two reviews trigger in my mind. I can't resist saying first, though, that I am a little stung by Nils' description of me as "not a trained ethnographer," since within the sociology of science and technology there is a fine tradition of employing ethnography and training ethnographers and I prefer to think of myself as one of those so-trained. However, since this comment was wrapped up in a compliment maybe I should let the point go, and concentrate on matters that have more to do with the substance of the book!

Within her careful elaboration of the main points of the book, Julie gives an account of the 10 principles of virtual ethnography under which I summarize my methodological commitments. Nils, in his review, raises the criticism that the ethnography I in fact conducted does not live up to the full implications of these principles. It is true that the principles which I outline are broader than the empirical study which I actually carry out to illustrate them. The whole idea of having "principles" for ethnography, and the grandiose declaration of "virtual ethnography," were supposed to be a bit tongue in cheek. Ethnography always has been adaptive, and ethnographers always have explored myriad cultural connections, but sometimes we risk forgetting these facts. The principles are meant to be provocative, and to encourage imaginative thinking about ways of shaping ethnographic projects that address the Internet. By taking on a media event as the theme for an ethnography I was hoping to demonstrate that one could take seriously as ethnographic encounters the many different kinds of interaction and information that the Internet provides, and that one could actually embrace the uncertainty that comes from not having a specific location to study. I hoped also to be enabled to make a specific intervention in current understandings of the Internet. But this one ethnography was never going to fully explore all the possibilities that I glimpsed while doing the study I described. As a methodological text, Virtual Ethnography was meant to explore some possibilities, and to invite other people to explore others.

Ethnography for the Internet age needs to take seriously all kinds of cultural connections, and I hope that ethnographers who are studying any fields from which Internet connections are made might be encouraged to follow those connections. The distinction between Internet as culture and Internet as cultural artefact is a heuristic device, intended to make clear the different issues entwined in any instance of Internet use and to invoke different disciplinary heritages, but as I explain (39), is not intended to be taken as real in the experience of users or as a straightforward reflection of an online/offline boundary. As I explain in the final chapter of Virtual Ethnography, my fieldwork left me with a puzzle: how could uses of the Internet be so diverse, and yet so locally stable? Web pages, for example, had striking similarities to one another within some clearly differentiated genres, and yet had such diverse patterns of connection and meant such different things to their authors. The only way that I could explain this was to view them as located in cultural contexts, both online and offline, within which people were concerned to behave, present themselves, and use their technologies appropriately. Particular understandings of those cultural contexts produced the Internet as culture. Internet as cultural artefact both produces and relies upon Internet as culture, and vice versa, and the combination of the two produces both a wonderful diversity and an ordered social landscape.

I share Nils' enthusiasm for Daniel Miller and Don Slater's ethnography of the Internet in Trinidad. We all seem to have a conviction that assumptions about what the Internet is and what it can do should stand aside and make way for careful ethnographic investigations of what we find when people make use of it. Daniel and Don found that the concept of virtuality had little if any relevance to their experiences. I found that, while I did not feel able to reject virtuality altogether, it was not a pre-given feature of the technology. This point aside, we conducted very different ethnographies built on different starting points and oriented towards different analytic concepts. Not being able to read German, I am sorry to that I haven't had the chance to read Nils' "Virtual Ethnicity." From what he says, it sounds as though he sees the Internet as an analytic opportunity in the same spirit, taking it in his case as a chance to explore changing notions of ethnicity and identity.

A final point that these reviews have brought to my mind is the disciplinary location and legacy of Internet Studies. Nils suggests that my concerns are limited to those of communication studies, in that I wish to use my ethnography to find out about the Internet rather than contributing to an understanding of culture more broadly. This is a fair point, in that I saw the pressing issue for my writing at the time to be questioning the extremes of determinist hype surrounding the Internet. If I have contributed to an understanding of the Internet's implications for temporality, spatiality, and authenticity, then I have achieved what I set out to do with the later chapters of the book. The methodological framing of the book which I set out in the earlier chapters, I see as suggesting a much broader agenda for ethnographic studies which address the Internet. I do find the Internet fascinating as an object of study in its own right, and applaud recent developments which have brought the interdiscipline of Internet Studies together. But the Internet for me is going to be most fascinating if it can be used to enliven and interrogate disciplinary legacies based on other technologies and cultures. It is for that reason that I spend some time in the book locating my approach to the Internet in media studies, in the sociology of technology, and in anthropology. We can often surprise ourselves by finding that the thing we thought so new is instead prefigured in these existing frameworks. So I'm not ashamed to say that I want to stay in dialogue with communication studies, but I'd like to think I can also have conversations with anthropology, with sociology of science and technology, and, of course, with Internet Studies, and the many other disciplines that brings together. I'm grateful for the opportunity responding to these reviews has given me to continue the conversation.

Christine Hine
05.28.01

Christine Hine


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