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The Digital Ethnography Project

WRT 100 | College Writing

Project Overview

What is ethnography?  Ethnography is a method of inquiry that explores cultural phenomena—certain elements, ideas, or behaviors of a particular subculture of people—through research methods called fieldwork, such as participant-observations and interviews. In his essay, “A Simple Introduction to the Practice of Ethnography,” Hoey (2014) defines ethnography as both (1) a research process and (2) a cultural interpretation that arises from research (a research product). 


What is digital ethnography? Simply put, it is ethnography that involves the use of computer-mediated communication or digital technologies. Digital ethnography expands fieldwork to focus on the cultural products produced by a subculture of people: i.e., texts, images, videos.

Figure 1. Meet the “Plumpycats” of Instagram, members of a subculture of profit-generating pet “influencers” who have more than 95,000 followers. (If you were wondering, yes, “pet influencers” are a field of academic research!)

What makes ethnography uniquely challenging? In her interview essay, “Looking Not for Truth, but Meaning,” Wall (2018) argues that a challenge of ethnography is that it’s filtered through the lens of researchers’ own worldviews:

We can productively think of ethnography quite literally as ‘people-writing’ in two senses; (1) as a writing of people, of human culture, but (2) also as a necessarily subjective perspective, conditioned by the viewpoint of the person or people writing. It is therefore a search for meaning in context, rather than objective or generalizable ‘truths.’ (p. 16) 

When reflecting on our experiences with the Writer as Witness Text, Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred, it’s easy to consider how our worldviews—our personal beliefs and lived experiences—become the lens through which we process the story of Derek Black. At different moments in this text, you might have felt uncomfortable, disturbed, even frightened or angry. Although it can be challenging, an ethnographer’s willing openness to listen and learn is essential to their ability to successfully study and understand a subculture of people, and to present a whole and fair account, and this is something Saslow does exceptionally well. For researchers, this can be easier to achieve when we start with questions we want to answer, rather than arguments we seek to prove: This is called research as inquiry.

How will you do ethnography in a synchronous online writing course? In our College Writing course, you will embark on a semester-long digital ethnography project and conduct research on social media. You will identify an online subculture to study and design research around a question you wish to explore. In a beginner-level capacity, you will learn the process of ethnography through assigned readings, class discussions and activities, and digital fieldwork experiences. You will develop the product of ethnography by interpreting your findings through copious fieldnotes, academic research, and multimodal writing assignments. In our course, you will cultivate a recursive writing process through reflection and revision, with ongoing peer and instructor feedback and support. You will also cultivate an ethical researcher identity, as you examine your own positionality, identify and acknowledge biases that arise from your worldview, and interrogate assumptions that come from your outsider status, developing new ways of studying and understanding a group of people in the world who are different from you.

References:

Hoey, B. (2014, June). A simple introduction to the practice of ethnography and guide to ethnographic fieldnotes.” Selected Works of Brian A. Hoey, PhD., Professor, Administrator, Ethnographer. Marshall University Digital Scholar. https://works.bepress.com/brian_hoey/12/.

Wall, G. (2018). Looking not for truth, but meaning: An introduction to ethnography with Professor Marion Demossier and Dr Margaret Hills de Zárate. Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, 5(2), 16-25, https://doi.org/10.31273/eirj.v5i2.254.