Ethnography, ideology & internet research

[This is another brain dump of a core piece of my PhD research on Facebook and privacy. Huge thanks to Phil Moore, one of my advisors and an ethnographic guru, for helping me think this all out and make the connections.]

While it may seem that they are one and the same, there is an important distinction between an ethnography of users versus an ethnography of a social media site. The latter is an ethnography of a system (or culture, or space, or context) which can be deployed to expose and examine the ideologies and philosophies embedded in a system, such as Facebook (as is the case in my research). I would argue that this type of ethnography is the most useful for internet researchers. As Christine Hine argues in her Virtual Ethnography, one of the strengths of ethnography is rendering problematic the things we take for granted (again, like Facebook), thus opening them up for enquiry.

From an educational perspective, we can say that an ethnography of a system can expose the hidden curriculum (thanks to Jason Nolan and Melanie McBride for this connection). Or, from semiotics, it exposes hidden codes of behavior (as one of my undergraduate profs, Bart Testa noted, drawing on Barthes, we all know not to go into a restaurant and order just sauce. Why? Because we all implicitly know the code and syntax of food.)

Indeed, my reason for choosing this ethnographic mode stemmed from my frustration with the majority of social media research implicitly treating sites like Facebook as neutral and free of ideology (as you can see in my previous post on the Philosophy of Facebook, this just isn’t the case). As an ethnography of Facebook, my research aim is not to create an exhaustive list the specific and different ways in which people use and understand Facebook with respect to privacy, or to make general statements about how most people behave on Facebook, but rather to push it further and look at the meanings behind those behaviours. In other words, I’m using those specifics to see and understand context/culture/hidden curriculum (or philosophy) of Facebook and what that does to privacy. The generality, then, is not in behaviours, but in what those behaviours reveal about the design of Facebook, the ideologies within that design, and privacy. As C. Wright Mills pointed out in The Sociological Imagination, personal problems can often reflect on larger public issues and help us to understand them. Put simply, the personal is the political.

In Phil Moore’s eloquent phrasing: Words are not culture. They are manifestations of culture. But we can only get to the culture through the words. The important question is ‘What sort of world (or system) makes these words possible?’ Like the code and syntax of the restaurant, the hidden curriculum is not written down (hence the term hidden).

So, the point and power of an ethnography of a system is to bring out the hidden world. It allows us to see how meaning is embedded, how ideologies run through systems like Facebook and how meaning plays out. It acknowledges that the world is not found in our words, it is found in between our words and within our practice. It recognizes the human disposition towards knowing, without knowing we know it. But most of all, it provides a holistic and excellent way for poking (at) the why, how and what of Facebook and privacy.

Ethnography, ideology & internet research

2 Responses

  1. try leigh starr’s Ethnography of Infrastructure

    jeremy December 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm #
  2. Interesting, Kate.

    Totally agree that there is a difference between the micro and the macro in terms of ethnographic practice. Have you come across the terms objectivism and constructionism? Pardon my insulting of your intelligence if you have! I wrote a blog post on them but the basic difference (if applied to Facebook) is that taking an objectivist approach you would argue how it shapes individual behaviours and interactions as opposed to individuals shaping Facebook. In terms of privacy, I suspect that a combination of views would be required as I doubt they can be seen in isolation. This “hidden world” you speak of was discussed in a seminar I attended recently looking at the neutrality of IT systems. I don’t have any references, but can try find some. The presenter tried to say IT systems are neutral but failed to appreciate that they are often built to perform a function which is anything but neutral.

    Anyway, apologies for brain dump!

    Mark Hawker December 13, 2010 at 12:51 am #

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