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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

Christine Hine's book presents a research program, "Virtual Ethnography," which argues that the Internet is a suitable and genuine object for ethnographic research. She succeeds in doing so, but stops short in developing a program that goes beyond the discourses that are still connected to notions of the Internet as something technological. She doesn't claim to attempt this, but neither does she allow herself to go where some of the highly interesting conclusions from her fieldwork could lead her. I will come to that shortly.

Hine's book is very interesting, because it not only provides a methodological framework for research, but it is one of a few attempts to do so in a very general matter. Also published in the same year were Daniel Miller and Don Slater's The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach and my own book, Virtual Ethnicity, which is unfortunately largely inaccessible, as it is written in German. However looking at Hine's Virtual Ethnography in the context of the other publications, it will be interesting to see the differences as well as the similarities in the approaches to establish anthropological research on, in, or with the Internet and its techno-philosophical counterpart, cyberspace.

There are three major points I want to focus my attention on in this review:

    a. The way in which Hine argues for an ethnographical approach and her notion of ethnography;

    b. Her conclusions and very important findings in regard to space, time, and common Internet narratives;

    c. The reasons why I find that her book falls short and its relation and contribution to the overall attempt to utilize the Internet as tool, field, and paradigm for research.

Hine is not a trained ethnographer, nor an anthropologist, a fact which deserves even more admiration, as most anthropologists shy away from the idea of researching (with) the Internet or other new media. Hine's background is in science and her approach is very much influenced by a sociology of technology.

The main focus on how to view the Internet is two fold and looks at the "Internet as Culture" and the "Internet as a Cultural Artefact" (chapter 2). The former very much focuses on the notion of social relations in cyberspace, specifically on the social and political formations that exist in this 'new space' and the social practices (eg. identity play) that are experienced and shared there. The latter looks at the technology and how it is used and thereby shaped by people, highlighting the fact that technologies appear the way they look because of an active engagement between people and the technologies. For instance a design that looks self-evident today, could always have been otherwise as it evolved though uses and needs.

From this base, Hine develops her notion of ethnography for the Internet, where she appears almost anxious to convince the somewhat imaginary 'hardcore' anthropologist of the right and need to do so in this new field. Her main argument for an ethnography is that "ethnography holds particular appeal for studying 'what people actually do' with the technology" and it is a way of seeing through the participants' eyes (21).

The Internet becomes a text for her, which she then sets out to examine in author/audience (producer/user) -- relationships, drawing on discourse analysis and the written evidence (chat, Web sites, Usenet) found on the Net that make the Internet a Culture. The most interesting finding in this regard is that it can be seen as textual twice over -- the performed culture (as seen in the texts and writings) and the cultural artefact, the technology text. With this distinction, she focuses the reader's attention to the context of Internet use (offline) and the emerging Internet culture (online). She is interested in the relation and connections between the two, but never goes beyond that dichotomy. Nor does she view the Internet as a form of social practice, which does away with the polarity of the two and also includes the narratives around its uses and perceptions.

The principles found in Virtual Ethnography are based on research that she made on Web sites and discussions on Usenet newsgroups around the Louise Woodward case, that took place in Boston between February 1997 (death of the child minded by her) and June 1998 (her arrival back in the UK). While the case in itself is interesting in many regards, eg. law and morality issues, it indeed contains certain aspects, which uniquely connect it to the Internet. Foremost of all the fact that the verdict was given out by the judge over the Internet, but also the fact that official and unofficial campaign Web sites existed that were monitoring the trial and its environment. It also ignited discussions in various newsgroups with different foci, from groups devoted to the subject to groups such as alt.fan.rush-limbaugh and rec.travel.air. While it is an interesting and somewhat unique case, Hine looks at it mainly from a communication studies perspective, focusing on time, space, and performance issues. The Web site producers as well as the readers and posters of messages in newsgroups are the subject of her study. Her arguments leading to the analysis and the principles are based on the study of the case, ie. the surrounding Web activities, however seen in general this case might be as good as similar others where support is organized over the Internet. The case itself and its cultural dimensions remain mainly untouched. It well illustrates her points, which are however not limited to this specific case and therefore can be rather neglected in a review of her arguments, which have a standing in their own right.

In establishing a "virtual ethnography" as a different mode of ethnography with a different perspective, she states that "online ethnography despatialze notions of community and focus of cultural process rather than physical place" (61), thereby implying that the old offline ethnographies are not concerned with this, which makes them appear rather static. This distinction is misleading and doesn't help her argument; it is rather an obstacle in developing her approach. As has been shown by other anthropological research dealing with media, social processes are vital also when the place of the fieldwork has fixed 'real physical world' boundaries. Ulf Hannerz (1987) has pointed this out when he coined the term 'global ecumene' for the (social) interconnections between local places and a globalized world. Marie Gillespies wonderful book Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change (1995) on Punjabi youth in South London and their use of TV programs to re-negotiate identity also shows that the distinction 'online/offline' is not the crucial point for doing research on processes even when being bound to a specific locality. This must not be seen as a restriction.

Hine uses Manuel Castells' notion of the 'space of flows' which is a congenial concept for the study of Internet issues and also beyond. But it also has a number of shortcomings, one of which is its lack of analytical strength for the relation between locally bound place/space and the space of flows: for example, the information and processes that take place outside the locality, but impact on it and more often originate in some of these. The space of flows doesn't know any place and therefore only captures half of the picture. Saskia Sassen's concept of the Global City seems more adequate to bring the two together. Castells, as well as Hine, try to establish something new, and force a distinction on issues where it would be more helpful to further develop concepts that are already at hand.

The most valid contribution to a new notion of ethnography are the ten principles of Virtual Ethnography that Hine puts forward. Although the aforementioned criticism also applies here as well -- as the principles are the result of her writing -- they provide a framework -- methodological and analytical -- for researchers who wish to conduct qualitative research on Internet issues. The principles also provide a platform for further discussion on how to develop this framework and the general issue of anthropology and Internet or new media.

The most interesting issues are put forward in the chapter on "Time, Space and Technology" (chapter 4), where she discusses Castells' concept of space of flows and the notion of the temporal collage. She shows how time and space are organized and performed in different online settings that do not conform to linear time and place-bound perceptions of the two. Also it often looks as if -- and much attention is focused on that in current Internet analysis - the Internet transcends time and space or is even an incoherent and structureless temporal collage and a wide open unbounded place. Hine criticizes this notion. She says that this view means to underplay "the cultural competence of newsgroup readers to whom it poses little problem" (103). It is the users that make sense of this somewhat conflicting temporal orders through active interpretive work (103). The same argument is brought forward concerning the notions of space, which she sees as performed by the producers and the visitors of Web sites. According to Hine, the Internet has multiple temporal and spatial orderings, which are performed and interpreted by its users, who are well equipped to make sense of it. The theory of a new time and space order with all its utopian undertones can not be sustained. Her ethnographic findings lead her to the conclusion that complexity can be experienced and lived in simple ways and they do not pose a problem to the users, as it is combined with the expertise to make sense of it (150).

Here Hine is closest to transcending her self erected boundary of online/offline and the approach that focuses so heavily on technology, even when looking at the Internet as Culture. Although she sees the online and the offline world both as performative places (116), she can not see them as a whole, depending on each other. Rather, the Internet just provides yet another place/space/locality or medium to express and act out existing social relations. Computer-mediated communication, or CMC, is not a different social space, but a new form where already existing processes can be carried to, with newly arising effects, but not disconnected from the old.

Hine is not rejecting this idea, but neither does she seems to be aware of the potential her framework is providing. She convincingly argues for an adaptive ethnography that focuses on offline contexts in which CMC is used. However, it becomes clear that her approach is strongly focusing on CMC, ie. on communication aspects of the technology, and not so much on culture itself. It is very much an ethnographical program for studies in communication, which is not a bad thing at all, but fails to explore the ideas put forward.

As she provides a framework and principles by which to do online fieldwork, how does this fit in with the two earlier mentioned books, that are also concerned with similar issues? Miller and Slater's book, which has the subtitle, an ethnographic approach, is by their own account very conservative in their notion of ethnography, specifically looking at how the Internet is embedded in a particular place and to make these findings the ground for further comparative work. Their criticism of the use of 'ethnography' would partly also hold true for Hine's work, as they see it as way for scholars in some disciplines (eg. cultural studies) to simply move away from purely textual analysis. In many cases they say it has come to mean entirely the study of online 'community' and relationships (M/S: 21).

Miller and Slater instead focus on the Internet as part of a material culture and therefore focus more on what I would call the Internet as a overarching social practice. The most interesting aspect of their work is that they take the Internet not only as an object of research, but also as a means to reflect on other issues of their chosen subject, which is Trinidad, a place about which both authors have an intimate knowledge. Although confined to a fixed geographical place, their work focuses very much on processes, global dynamics, and spaces of flow, a concept which they also discuss. Miller and Slater take the program of ethnography one step further, and include the Internet, without inventing a new approach, but by embedding the Internet in everyday lives as medium and technology. And, most importantly, they pay attention to the narratives of technology, the perceptions or notions of "the Internet as held by different people."

My own work is the least ethnographic of them all, if at all, but it attempts to develop a framework for a particular field of study, ie. the relation of identity and information and communication technology. Focusing on the role that ethnicity plays in using the Internet, it became quite clear during the research, that the framework tells as much about concepts of ethnicity as it does about the relation of it with technology. This meant it was possible to use it as a tool for research or, even more, as a paradigm of how cultural processes can be viewed.

To sum up some of the points I tried to make in this review: Hine's book is a valuable contribution towards the establishment of a research approach within communication studies, but lacks a dimension that enables the approach to be used in a wider context, ie. beyond the technology. Hine sees the Internet as a text that is both read and written by its users (147), while Miller and Slater understand the various Internet media in terms of their particular manifestations as material culture (M/S: 15), which enables them to cover a wider ground. Although bound physically in place, they reach as far as Hine does with her work, which examines first of all the space that the Internet is, or produces through its written documents (ie. chats, newsgroup postings, Web sites). The whole dynamic of the interactive relationship between the so-called different worlds can not be caught in its entire scope.

I wish I had both books at hand at the time of writing my own thesis: Hine's Virtual Ethnography to make sense of a particular approach with research based on the Internet and with the help of Internet technologies, and Miller and Slater's book to point out aspects of my theoretical framework of "Virtual Ethnicity." I can now only hope for a collaborative discussion in the future.

Christine Hine's Virtual Ethnography raises many interesting questions and is far from being a disappointment in this regard. It helps to further qualitative research in regard to the Internet, but unfortunately remains limited to technology and communication studies or aspects of these in differently orientated research.

Marie Gillespie, Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change (London: Routledge, 1995).

Ulf Hannerz, "The World in Creolisation," Africa 57:4 (1987): 546-559.

Daniel Miller and Don Slater, The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach (Oxford: Berg, 2000).

Saskia Sassen, Global City (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1991).

Nils Zurawski, Virtuelle Ethnizität. Studien zu Identität, Kultur und Internet (Frankfurt/Main 2000).

Nils Zurawski:
Nils Zurawski is a former lecturer in Sociology at the University of Münster, Germany and currently a postdoctoral research fellow in Derry, Northern Ireland working on Violence and Identity. His interests also include anthropology, new media technology (esp. surveillance), the Internet and ethnicity. His doctoral thesis was on "Virtual Ethnicity," excerpts of which can be found on his Web site. 

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