The Location of Digital Ethnography

Dana M. Walker


Qualitative researchers interested in digitally-located social and cultural practices have struggled with ways in which to design studies that can account for the digital aspect of cultural practices while also taking into account that those digital practices do not exist as separate (or separable in terms of our research) from other social and cultural practices. As such, one of the primary and ongoing challenges facing internet-based ethnographic research is the question of how to construct the location of a project when the sites, technologically-mediated practices, and people we study exist and flow through a wider information ecology that is neither fixed nor can easily be located as “online” or “offline.” This is as much a methodological challenge as a theoretical one. If one accepts that a rigid distinction between online and offline makes little theoretical sense, then drawing a methodological line between online and offline only reifies such a dualism. While there is a developing body of internet-related ethnographic literature which is attempting to take into account the fluid nature of our information ecology (e.g. Burrell, 2009, Leander and McKim, 2003, Hine, 2007), we continue to operate on shifting ground. This article uses the case of my own work on city-specific discussion forums in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to highlight the complexities of locating digital ethnographic work and also argue for the necessity of accounting for both movement and placed-ness.

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