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Review article: Researching the Internet

August 12, 2009

UPDATE  13 Sep 2009 – the review article has now been accepted for publication pending a minor change that I’m currently working on.  

This is a draft review article I submitted to the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI) a couple of days ago. In a previous blog post it was titled “The cultural significance of Internet practices” but then I realised this title was too specific.  

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BOELLSTORFF, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

HINKELBEIN, O. 2008. Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bremen.

KELTY, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

ROIG, A. 2008. Cap al cinema col.laboratiu: pràctiques culturals i formes de producció participatives. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

The turn of the millennium saw the publication of four important Internet ethnographies: Hakken’s (1999) Cyborgs@Cyberspace, Zurawski’s (2000) Virtuelle Ethnizität, Hine’s (2000) Virtual Ethnography, and Miller and Slater’s (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. The authors of those pioneering studies grappled with difficult questions that still occupy Internet researchers today, such as interaction and identity in cyberspace, the virtual vs. the actual, technological appropriation and obsolescence, the digital divide, or the prospects and limitations of online ethnography.  

Of the four monographs, it is arguably Miller and Slater’s that best foreshadows the studies reviewed in the present article. These authors investigated the late 1990s uses of the Internet by Trinidadians both at home and abroad. Distancing themselves from the ICT domestication literature (see Silverstone and Hirsch 1994) they argue that Trinidadians are not merely ‘appropriating’ the Internet; rather they are putting themselves on the global stage via the Internet just as much as users in metropolitan centres. Miller and Slater take issue with much of the earlier Internet literature for its postmodern celebration of fluid/blurred online identities, which they found had little bearing on Trinidadian uses of the Internet, and for its assumption that ‘cyberspace’ is a placeless ‘virtual’ domain divorced from actual physical places. Instead they urge Internet scholars to start from the opposite assumption, namely that online domains are part of – not apart from – everyday offline contexts. To these ethnographers, the Internet involves ‘many different technologies, practices, contexts: it is no one thing, and our study encompassed a wide range of contexts, from ways of doing business to socializing in cybercafes’ (Miller and Slater 2000: 3). One key finding was Trinidadians’ seemingly ‘natural’ affinity with the Internet, even in low-income areas where many people’s access was mediated by friends or family. This finding complicated their pre-fieldwork expectations of a vast ‘digital divide’ separating rich and poor Trinidadians – and indeed Trinidadians from Westerners (2000: 27).

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