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Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space

Author: Annette N. Markham
Publisher: Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998
Review Published: February 2002

 REVIEW 1: Denise Carter
 REVIEW 2: Dennis L. Wignall
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Annette Markham

"Thinking about Writing Life Online"

What an interesting process to revisit a piece of work written several years ago. Writing Life Online was an intensive and instructive project. Perhaps because I'm thinking a lot about interpretive and postmodern methodologies these days, I would like to remark on the methodology I employed and the procedures I followed.

One primary goal of researchers working within the qualitative, interpretive research tradition is to explore the rich detail of human experience and to present what Clifford Geertz calls "Thick Description" (1973). Rather than collecting sets of data across cases to generalize with the goal of finding universal laws explaining and predicting human behavior, the interpretive ethnographic project is to collect rich, in depth information within cases. A second and more recent goal of interpretive ethnographers is to reveal more of the researcher's role throughout the design and completion of the study (e.g., Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Ellis and Bochner, 1996).

The difference between my project and more traditional ethnography, then, emerged out of these impulses and can be seen in the book by the choices I made in presenting the material. Simply put, I chose to commit to prose the ongoing, tumultuous process of evaluation/adjustment and re-evaluation/re-adjustment that is usually an assumed but "hidden" part of qualitative research. Some have found this aspect of my book very useful as a learning tool. Others have found this writing style to be too revealing of the actualities of research, which more properly should remain shrouded. Still others use this part of my book to point to an apparent lack of rigor.

Let me add to this mix of readers' impressions with my own: My goal was to honestly reflect on the struggles with methodology many researchers encounter in the field. Moreover, because of the notable absence of "how to" guides to ethnographic or case study research, I wanted to reveal and articulate the alterations to research design or interpretation most of us make but rarely admit to making in journals and books where our reputations are built.

Many aspects of completing this ethnography continue to interest me in examining my own role as an interpretive qualitative researcher and teacher of method within the school of thought broadly categorized as "interpretive sociology." Before the project that culminated in the book Life Online began, I had both theoretical and applied experience with a range of interpretive approaches to the study of communication and culture. I envisioned a smooth transitioning of these research skills into what was for me, at the time, a new arena.

Instead, I found myself not only immersed in the experience, but also struggling with methodology. The interpretive ethnographer's goal is to be open to what a subject wants to say and where a subject wants to go with it. The virtual environment facilitates this process in many ways; with expanded time between question and response, the researcher can think and readjust before responding. Of course, this happens in face-to-face interviews also, but the technology allows this response time to seem luxuriously long. So the medium can allow for intensified, subject-lead specificity of interview experience.

Concurrently, the text-based, time-delayed interface amplifies the potential seduction of a researcher into compelling the subject to follow the researcher's path. In my own research project, I had to actively resist the impulse to lead subjects into my own pre-constructed patterns and worldviews -- a research strategy that would have conflicted directly with the interpretive project of grounding one's theories in the experiences of the participants, rather than in the a priori assumptions of the researcher. Nonetheless, I confess that, at the time, I consciously had to reject an undeniably strong temptation to force the interviews into a standardized protocol.

Cyber Ethnography may seem deceptively easy; after all, that which we call "data" is easily collected and archived, seemingly eliminating much of the tedium and mess of field notebooks and transcription devices. At the same time, Cyber Ethnography may seem overwhelming; Where is the field? What and where are the boundaries between the context we came to study and the context we help to create by participating as researchers? Whom are we really studying? These issues are present in any ethnography, obviously, but perhaps more easily dismissed by the researcher accustomed to life in a physical world.

The challenge for Cyber Ethnography within an interpretive framework? To maintain flexibility to the context, reflexivity about one's dual role as researcher and participant (researched), and epistemological consistency throughout the project. This "locus of control" issue and its permutations in cyber-research demand constant review and reevaluation by interpretive qualitative researchers. The goal? To develop ethnographic sensibilities that enact reflexive adaptation to the context, or as Kenneth Gergen remarks, "If we are to survive, improvisation will become our way of life" (1991, p. xxiii).


    Ellis, C. and Bochner, A. (1996). Composing Ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira.

    Clifford, J. and Marcus, Eds. (1986). Writing Culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of cultures New York: Basic Books.

    Gergen, K. (1991). The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Annette Markham
University of Illinois at Chicago

Annette Markham

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