Lecturer, PhD student, Faculty of Social Sciences, Research Assistant, International Laboratory for Social Integration Research, National Research University Higher School of Economics
Ethnographic approach for studying interactions in virtual communities: a case study of Russian-speaking sociological online community
In recent years traditional principles of ethnographic research have become very blurred due to a growing variety of subject areas, to which the ethnographic approach is applied. One of these relatively new areas for the ethnographic approach is the online space.
The methodological foundations of ethnography, developed long before the emergence of the internet, hardly fit into the modern digital context. The study of virtual communities differs significantly from ethnography in its traditional form. The nature of communication in the online environment does not allow researchers to observe the people under study using the tools familiar to ethnographic research. Online fieldwork raises many questions about its principles and procedures (Markham, 2013).
Conceptually blurred views on principles, procedures and results of studying online communities have contributed to the formation of different styles and practices of online ethnography: virtual ethnography, digital ethnography, netnography, etc.
In recent years there has been a trend towards a convergence between ethnography and quantitative methodology (Hine, 2015). Based on the analysis of archival data, in some of the most radical types of online ethnography, it is proposed to abandon the fieldwork, which is the methodological basis in classical field ethnography (Geiger, Ribes, 2011). Ethnographic interviews with the people being studied are replaced by the analysis of digital traces - large amount of data about the behavior of people in the online space. This format of online ethnography, based on the use of a large amount of quantitative data (“big data”), is recognized as a more powerful in terms of the scope of the study (Hine, 2015), but it is actively criticized for its “archival nature” (Hampton, 2017).
This study develops an ethnographic approach to the study of online communities, which allows, on the one hand, to use the capabilities of existing online technologies and digital methods, on the other hand, to achieve emersion in the field, as required by the ethnographic method.
The empirical part of the study was conducted in the format of an ethnographic case study of the Russian-speaking sociological online community. To obtain a comprehensive descriptive analysis of the phenomenon under study I used a mixed methods research strategy. In particular, the “additional coverage design” (Morgan, 2014) was chosen. It involved a parallel combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to solve different research tasks.
The quantitative stage was used to describe the portrait of participants, identify the structure and topics of interaction in the community. As an empirical base, I used online data on the community under study, the analysis of which was carried out using a wide range of research methods: quantitative content analysis, social network analysis, and topic modeling. The qualitative stage of the research was implemented in the form of covert online observation. The main task of this stage was to describe the topics of interaction more conceptually, as well as highlight the norms and conflicts in the community under study.