Christine Hine on virtual ethnography’s E3 Internet
Christine Hine is an early pioneer of virtual ethnography and has been at the forefront of movements towards redefining ethnography for the digital age. She is currently a Reader at the University of Surrey’s Sociology Department.
Editor’s note: In this post for our Being a student ethnographer series, I talked to Christine Hine about her forthcoming book, ‘Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday’ due out next year. In this interview, Christine talks about the current phase in virtual ethnographic practice, about what are her latest research interests, and about a framework that she believes can help ethnographers understand how to adapt their practice to suit multi-modal communication environments.
HF: What do you think are the key challenges that ethnographers face in trying to study the Internet today?
CH: Robinson and Schulz, in their 2009 paper, describe evolving forms of ethnographic practice in response to the Internet and digitally mediated environments. They divide this into three phases that include a) pioneering, where cyberethnographers focused on issues of identity play and a separation between online and offline identities 2) legitimizing (in which my own work is situated) where ethnographers explored the use of offline methods in the online sphere and, 3) multi-modal approaches where ethnographers are concerned with how participants combine different modes of communication.
I believe that we are still in the process of having to legitimize cyber ethnography and that multi-modal approaches are a worthy goal for virtual ethnography. The key challenge here is in understanding how to do multi-modal studies. This is especially challenging since the ethnographer’s toolkit changes with every new setting. We don’t know what that toolkit consists of because every time we do a new study, we have to choose what combination of sites, methods, writing practices and techniques we need to use.
HF: How does this goal fit into the work that you’re doing at the moment?
CH: I would like to sustain a lot of doubt about the most useful things to study on the Internet. Seminal studies of the past include Nancy Baym and Tom Boellstorff’s work that show how you can go online to study a particular culture – but these are a small subset of the kinds of ethnographies that can be done.
I’m interested in following connections rather than situating my work a priori in a specific online or offline site. This is in line with the enduring ethnographic commitment to holistic accounts of particular cultures, but it is a holism in the sense of George Marcus’s account in ‘Imagining the whole’ where the ethnographer remains open to the way that different kinds of meaning making are connected. It requires that the ethnographer remains open to being surprised and to the unique ways that a way of life may be organised.
There have been different models for conceptualising the fieldsite in the Internet environment. Some have used George Marcus’s ideas about multi-sited ethnography – following objects as they move around – but this can be understood in quite different ways. It can be thought of as involving the ethnographer tracing out the shape of a pre-existing, albeit multi-sited or networked object, or it can be taken more radically to imply that the ethnographer, in collaboration with people met along the way, accepts a greater responsibility for forging connections and carving out an object of interest. The object, in this more radical formulation that Marcus develops in recent work, is not taken as pre-existing the ethnographic engagement. Taking that thought to studies of the Internet, ethnographers can make many different kinds of ethnographic object to explore the social landscapes that emerge through and around the Internet but may not be contained within it.
HF: Could you tell us about your E3 Internet framework?
CH: There are 3 aspects of the Internet that I believe are particularly useful when thinking about developing ethnographic strategies for the Internet.
The first is that the Internet is embedded. Miller and Slater, for example, went to Trinidad to see how the Internet made sense in this setting. They showed that it meant different things to different people, that it showed ways of realizing particular cultural interests and biases. They studied an Internet that gained meaning through being embedded in a specific culture. This is just one possible aspect of embedding that an ethnographer might be interested in: there are many different notions of embedding within the media, social networks, situations like family life, how organisations and institutions make the Internet their own.
The second is that the Internet is embodied. Ethnographers should try to interrogate not just where we are in our heads, but also the material circumstances that are shaping the experience of the Internet and also the emotions that ensue. One way to do this is to play off the idea of autoethnography. Autoethnography is often underemphasised because we’re so busy trying to legitimize what constitutes ethnography but it can be a valuable way of showing how bodies inhabit the ethnographic experience and thinking about the specificity of a particular person’s engagement with the Internet.
The third concept is that the Internet is everyday. A lot of Internet use today has become quite unremarkable – we use it as a way of making sense of what we do. It has become an infrastructure to do other things and so the sociology of infrastructure is useful for thinking about what invisible work is going on when we take things for granted. A useful strategy here is to take the familiar things about the Internet and make them strange again, to get at thinking how everyday practice shapes certain things as sensible and marginalises others. At the same time, we also have to deal with a topical, hyped, newsworthy Internet – an Internet that the press are continually making strange when they blame it for changing our lives etc. The challenge is to remain symmetrical about these two concepts. Both are constructions; our challenge is to understand how others work with those constructions.
HF: What do you think this framework enables us to do as ethnographers studying digitally mediated environments?
CH: I’ve been arguing for a multi-modal approach to ethnography for (not of) the Internet. I’ve argued that we shouldn’t treat the offline/online boundary as a necessary limitation; that we should cross the boundary as the people that we study do so, or be agnostic about its presence as Miller and Slater argue.
The Internet is methodologically challenging because we need to craft a new research strategy for each situation. Hopefully this E3 framework gives us a sense of why particular aspects of the Internet are difficult to study and how ethnography can respond creatively to those challenges. The mobility and adaptiveness of ethnography is its greatest strength. Unlike big data studies which often aggregate data across single platforms, ethnography can move between different platforms or channels and explore how events in one place are made meaningful in surprising and contingent ways in another. The strapline for what I’m trying to do in much of my research work is “finding out what people think they’re up to when they’re using the Internet”. Ethnography is a really powerful tool for finding how the Internet makes sense to people, as long as we’re willing to adapt and to open it up to all the different dimensions of “making sense”, wherever they might occur.