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Virtual ethnography and online fieldwork

February 7, 2009

This is a comment I posted on Friday, 6 Feb 2009, to the The Air-L@listserv.aoir.org mailing list (Association of Internet Researchers, http://aoir.org). See their archives for further contributions to the “Virtual ethnography and online fieldwork” thread. (NB – In his response to this post, Don Slater raised the issue of comparative ethnography).

My own experience of doing ethnographic fieldwork on internet and residential politics in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) chimes with Don Slater’s account of the open-ended and muddling through nature of ethnographic research. Early during field research I was queried by a Swedish political scientist about what exactly I meant by ‘local governance’, since that seemed to be a key element of my research strategy. To his frustration, my reply will be familiar to other ethnographers – that it was still early days and I would have to see what local activists, residents, politicians, etc, made of this notion, if anything, and see where the research led me before deciding whether this notion was even applicable to the actualities on the ground. As it happened, my findings led me in other directions.

This muddling through can also reveal unexpected parallels in internet-related practices across vast geographical stretches, sometimes cutting across the North-South divide mentioned by Don Slater. For example, I didn’t set out to study suburbia but it turns out that the internet uses by local activists in suburban Kuala Lumpur are not that dissimilar to those in other suburbs (e.g. of Toronto, Melbourne and Tel Aviv) – they are all shaped by the imperative to build and sustain an environment conducive to the reproduction of middle-class nuclear families.

This is all very different from the kind of young urban transnational activism described by Juris [2008] in his recent monograph Networked Futures, based on ethnographic research among Barcelona-based antiglobalisation activists.

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