H809: Reading 21 Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: Problems and prospects

Some people in Second LifeI came to this paper not knowing anything about ethnography, and, while Hammersley writes clearly and gives a useful overview of the area, I get the impression that it’s one of those ‘everything-you-know-is-wrong’ topics!

We are reading this with a view to exploring the notion of ‘virtual ethnography’, which appears to be the poor sister of ‘real’ ethnography, but Hammersley’s paper shows that much current debate on ethnography is centred on working out just what ethnography is. And this reflection suggests that a redefinition taking into account the blurring boundaries between online and offline activity.

Hammersley rounds up some of the debates within and about ethnography and helpfully offers a definition that is broad enough to be representative while being succinct enough for newbies to understand:

[It is] a form of social and educational research that emphasises the importance of studying at first hand what people do and say in certain contexts. (p4).

It usually involves ‘fairly lengthy contact, through participant observation in relevant settings, and/or through relatively open-ended interviews designed to understand people’s perspectives’. Thus far, I see no great issue with applying this to participants engaged in online activities, although ‘fairly lengthy’ is a problematic term (I note that there has been a shift towards shorter studies given the changing cultures in universities).

I digress (one of the affordances of a blog is the way it allows one to think out loud. I’m writing this not as a means of sharing so much as a way of constructing my own knowledge. Sorry. 🙂  ) We H809 students have our instructions!

13.5: Ethnographic understandings of context

Hammersley describes the tension between observations made at a micro level which are held up to represent a big picture. There is this ‘holistic’ location of the thing being studied but perhaps the thing should be studies in greater detail but at a more local level (micro-ethnography). 

We then have the difficulty of determining whether context is ‘discovered or constructed’. It’s at this stage that I began to remember the discussions of deconstruction and post-modernism from my undergrad years and I also recalled the Sokal Affair. Take this point of view: ‘any attempt by an analyst to place actors and their activities in a different ‘external’, context can only be an imposition, a matter of analytic act, perhaps even an act of symbolic violence‘ [my italics]. Hammersley doesn’t endorse this view, but he does say there is a ‘grain of truth’ in it. My fellow H809 student, John Kuti, sums things up far more succinctly than I do.

13.6: Virtual context

Hammersley points out that in traditional ethnography, great emphasis is placed on ‘the researcher’s participation in, and first-hand observation of, the culture being investigated’. Internet ethnography, however, involves no face-to-face communication, collecting the data online instead. I’m not quite sure again why this is problematic, as I don’t see why physical presence is so vital. With the increasing ubiquity of powerful audio/visual communications technology, surely there is nothing inherent to f2f that wouldin itself devalue online research?*

* As a total newbie to ethnography, I’m aware that I could be in dangerous territory here. Please Prof. Ethnography, don’t hurt me!

Another difficulty of online ethnography for traditionalists is the problem of not knowing what online contributors say ‘beyond what they tell us’ [his italics]. But, as he points out, this is something of a straw man as most online interaction ‘operates in an orderly fashion’ and that ‘participants obviously display enough about themselves through their contributions to be able to understand one another’.

When I think of the amount of data that is freely-available about me online, the relationships that exist only online and the traceable interplay between my profession and recreation, I’d imagine a face-to-face interview would be redundant!

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7 responses to “H809: Reading 21 Hammersley (2006) Ethnography: Problems and prospects

  1. Of course the post-modernists and New Lefties were being completely consistent by not requiring the parodic article to conform to any positions or structures.
    And Sokal, by the way, freely admits that he had a big ideological axe to grind.

  2. Face to Face has every drawback of every other kind of communication. It is also manipulated, and twisted, and it is quite common for ethnographers to “see what they want to see.” (See the stunningly different views of African-American Chicago – at the same moment – presented in “Slim’s Table” v. “There Are No Children Here.”)

  3. Hi Ira, I’m not familiar with those studies (?), but I get the impression I ought to be.

    Google shall be my friend…..

  4. Slim’s Table by Mitchell Duneier (which I was dragged to in a research methods class) was a doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago. “There Are No Children Here” is by Alex Kotlowitz who is a reporter by training. They both take place in Chicago at the same time, about 3/4 of a mile apart, though you’d hardly recognise it as the same city. Duneier, I feel, falls into the biggest trap we can fall into, choosing a place of comfort to begin his observation, and only barely venturing beyond it. He sort of sees what he wants to see, something which was probably firmly backed up by the right-wing politics which dominate large parts of his university (the people behind Pinochet in Chile).

    Anyway, have you read Clifford Geertz – The Interpretation of Cultures – ? That’s where “we” – over here – typically begin…

  5. @ John: Terribly sorry but your comment oddly ended up in my spam filter until I spotted it tonight. A postmodern critique on your opinion of sorts? (Anyway, I don’t moderate comments at all, so if any of your don’t appear here immediately, please let me know.)
    @ Ira. I was a bit surprised to find that these studies are from 91 and 92 rather than the 60s or so. Are they famous because they are important studies or because of their contrary views?

  6. There Are No Children Here is famous because it is largely credited with pushing Chicago to begin demolishing and replacing the infamous Cabrini Green project, now mostly accomplished. Slim’s Table is different, no one reads it except graduate students in research methods courses, but it can be an instructive look at how the politics of a university control research attitudes.

    Of course I say all this as a dedicated post-modernist and lefty.

  7. Pingback: Bookmarks about Ethnography

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