Reflections on virtual ethnography
Anne Beaulieu (VKS)
In my work on this topic, I consider what it means to understand co-presence in the form of face-to-face interactions as the basis for participant observation. I discuss the implications of moving away from this model, and suggest some new forms of engagement, where unfolding action can be witnessed.
I address this topic from the field of science and technology studies (STS), in which the strategy of using ethnography to do laboratory studies has been successful and has become well accepted as an approach to understanding the social dimensions of knowledge. To study the social practices that sustain knowledge-making, the advice has been to follow the actors around (Latour and Woolgar 1986). This approach has been predominantly pursued by going into the ‘lab’. As other sites have become of interest, the relevant places in which to follow actors has also expanded beyond the lab as privileged site, and scientists have been followed into the ‘field’, into the public, into politics, etc. Connective ethnography has been significant in conceptualizing what it might mean to follow actors into more, and more diverse types of settings (Hine; Tsing; Fischer, Marcus).
In spite of this increasing diversity of settings, following actors around still largely means being co-present in shared space(s), in a face-to-face situation. This element of ethnographic work, however, seems challenged by the increasing importance of mediating tools and mediated contexts for the production of knowledge. Arrangements of discourse, persons and things remain important for knowledge production (Lynch 1991) in e-science, but the ways of apprehending them and their constitution may rely to a more limited extent on a face-to face version of copresence.
In order to think about what might be new about forms of co-presence in virtual settings in which electronic networked resources and digital information abound, I draw on two cases where co-presence seems to differ from the model prevalent in STS lab studies which rely on the face to face model of co-presence. The first is a project of large-scale ethnographic work, “Mass-Observation” pursued in the 30s and 40s in the UK. The second is my ongoing fieldwork in women’s studies. From these cases, I draw inspiration from ethnographic traditions and hope to better reflect on (1) the challenges of making co-presence a key element of the ethnographic study of e-science; (2) the implications of this shift away from the notion of field, especially in terms of ‘time’ and (3) the place of ethnographic case studies in STS.