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Virtual ethnography and online fieldwork (2)

February 10, 2009

This is a further comment on virtual ethnography and online fieldwork I posted on Tuesday, 10 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 this thread.

There is so much to digest and reflect upon in Don Slater’s detailed response to my post about suburban internet practices and ethnographic research that I’ll just take up briefly his third point about the notion of ‘practice’, namely:

3. Does the idea that suburbs have some similar properties (and therefore (?) comparable internet practices) in Kuala Lumpur and Toronto necessitate recourse to concepts of macro structure and global processes? Don’t think so, in which case I’m not that bothered. I’ve probably got a very complicated process to unravel, and vast range of contingencies to track, so that I can see how these similar properties might arise from similar architectural and spatial arrangements, work/life relations, domestic arrangements (nuclear family?), class cultures, the practices of transnational corporations, and so on. And on, and on. Many of us have found the notion of ‘practice’ very useful in many of these studies as it posits an elementary unit of analysis that embraces so many features of a social setting without reducing them to structures.

I wholly agree with Don’s practice-theoretical stance, which is the one I’ve adopted in my own recent work (synthesised with field theory). There is no need to resort to ‘concepts of macro structure and global processes’ to account for the emergence of analogous internet-related practices in geographically remote localities, in this particular case practices related to residential activism in middle-class suburbs. Given roughly equivalent issues on the ground (traffic, schools, crime, etc) suburban people in different parts of the world will come up with similar (internet) practices to address them – these local processes and the resulting practices are analogous but independent from one another. Of course, from a comparative perspective the contrasts are as interesting as the similarities.

I think of local residential politics as being an L-shaped Bourdieuan field of practice, with the vertical axis (= subfield) representing the three tiers of government (four in EU countries), and the horizontal axis representing the non-governmental subfield of residential activism, a subfield increasingly mediated by internet and mobile technologies. I hope this can be a way around the macro-micro problem mentioned by Don. Internet-related practices sustain this resilient L-shaped field: they may allow for more fluid and egalitarian interactions among leading residents, but they do not alter the vertical/hierarchical subfield of government.

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