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Notes on the 9th digital ethnography reading (Boellstorff et al 2012)

April 29, 2016 Allister Hill
PhD student
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

On Wednesday 13 April 2016, we spent the Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS) focusing on the value and controversy of participant observation, as well overlaps and differences between the practice of participant observation in the traditional/ real and virtual worlds. The reading was Chapter 5 of Boellstorff et al.’s (2012) Ethnography and Virtual Worlds – “Participant Observation in Virtual Worlds”.

While the group was smaller than usual (we were missing the enthusiastic contribution of a number of visiting internationals who unfortunately had to return home) there was, as always, some vigorous discussions to be had.

A fair amount of the discussion revolved around the question, as to whether or not the researcher has to be an expert. Stepping off from some insider knowledge of the background of the authors of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds we discussed the ongoing dialogue and debate between those ethnographers studying virtual world versus those studying gaming and game theory. Expertise in gaming is sometimes a difficult ask, as you may have to participate at an elite level to have some respect by the members of the community who are your informants. This lead to some discussion on the nature of ethnography in general, and how it has (as mapped out in the start of Ethnography and Virtual Worlds) evolved from armchair experts, to those participating in the field, to postmodernist reflections on the need to have members of the communities previously studied as ethnographers themselves. More recently, at-home practitioners have become a more integral part of the ethnographic canon. There has always been a debate about whether insider or outsider perspectives are preferred, and the relative merits of having enough know-how to understand something versus the stranger ethnographer’s ‘fresh eyes’ and perspective. There is also the argument that the ethnographer should keep enough distance and defamilarity to help maintain that element of naive wonder to keep yielding surprises and making the familiar somewhat strange.

Moving away from the digital, for a moment, there was reflection on a number of other ‘sporting’ or physical activity focused ethnographies. With some thought given to the possibility of a professional tennis ethnography – with talk revolving around whether or not you would have to play tennis itself to be able to understand the lives and culture of elite players. At the very least would you have to have a low level of competency, in playing tennis, to better understand what the players and others are going through?

Some talk of specific sporting ethnographies was undertaken with mention made of Mazer’s ‘Professional Wrestling’ (1998) and Wacquant’s ‘Body and Soul’ (2004). It is of interest to note that Sharon Mazer’s ethnography, which focuses on professional wrestlers, was subsequently critiqued by one of her own informants (see de Garis 1999) – himself an ethnographer. Mazer was accused of being an invisible subject who essentially hung on the peripheries of the wrestling scene without participating in the culture and physicality of the wrestling ring itself. Wacquant, in somewhat of an opposition, himself spent years training at the gym, under his ethnographic microscope, regularly ‘gloving up’ with both professional and amateur boxers in the gym and even entering a major tournament. Body & Soul was spoken of as a beautiful book that captures the actual embodiment of boxing and is able to uncover the temporal, physical and sensorial elements of the sport as well as the cultural elements.

The discussion then meandered around the various experience of the researchers present…

Temporality and time are really important in the world of gaming, for example, what happens to your research if you just go to the major gaming events, but are not present for the day to day lives of your informants or even just going to smaller more intimate gaming events. It was suggested that we, as ethnographers, need to keep going back to what is the object of study – which, itself, may incorporate the implications of time factors as well. This was relevant to one researcher’s study of hackathons, where they had difficulty getting publishers and funders to understand that they didn’t want to do a study of just the hackathon event itself, but we more interested in unravelling the expertise of hacking itself.

Another participant talked about the difference between studying digital communities online versus meeting them face to face – noting what a difference it made to their understanding of the community member’s lives by meeting people physically. The same researcher had also worked with studying school children’s experiences with video games in the classroom – how people understand different games and how can they be used as learning tools. This stemmed from a personal love of games and a desire to de-demonise their impact on children. In the end, however, the they were left with the impressions that there needs to be long-term temporality to better understand things than the short term exercises that were undertaken.

Another researcher talked about their experience doing a study of digital photography – where the PhD was written up as a traditional ethnographic monograph but subsequent writings are more about theoretical interpretations. An anecdote was also shared about the experience of submitting their PhD and that they got asked to add a chapter on ethnographic methodology by their supervisor – but in the end, they were told by the examiners that they didn’t need it, as it was not necessary and was in part showing an insecurity abut their position, especially given that they had such a detailed and well-referenced piece. In the end, as a number of authors have written, it’s about coming back to what is the object of the study and working from there ensuring that the research you do is valuable. The point was made that it is not necessarily what you get from the field, but it is what you give to the field. Ethnography, itself, can be thought of as a way of constructing the field. At the same time, ethnography itself is also part of your tool box and reflecting on how and why you used that toolbox is helpful for both giving context to the reader, as well as allowing them to follow in your footstep or at least learn from your mistakes.

We then spent some time reflecting on the overlaps between ethnography in sociology and anthropology, as explored in some detail at the beginning of Ethnography of Virtual Worlds – which incidentally was co-written by ethnographers identifying as anthropologists and sociologists. Lastly, we explored what some of us thought was the somewhat artificial distinction between ethnography and grounded theory. But, as Boellstorff et al. do acknowledge, while there is some overlap between the two disciplines, they are certainly not one and the same.

The May reading will be sections of ‘Body & Soul’ by Wacquant (2004) which will, admittedly, extend the discussion, on embodiment and ethnography, away from the digital. As discussed above, it will certainly be used as a framework to re-center on the digital.

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group


Boellstorff, T, Nardi, B, Pearce, C & Taylor, TL 2012, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method, Princeton University Press.

de Garis, L 1999 Experiments in Pro Wrestling: Toward a Performance and Sensuous Ethnography Sociology of Sport Journal 16, 1:65–7

Mazer, S 1998 Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle by Sharon Mazer. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson

Wacquant, L 2004, Body & Soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer, Oxford University Press, New York.


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