Expanding the Opportunities for Research with Virtual Ethnography

By Katherine Sinyavin

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many undergraduates majoring in a social science, as well as graduate students in MA and PhD programs, found their research projects and thesis plans disrupted. Many fields within the social sciences, including anthropology and sociology, use ethnography -- the study of different people or cultures through direct, face-to-face interaction -- as an integral methodology. But because of the public health impacts of the coronavirus, many of those practices are no longer possible. “Virtual Ethnographic Field Research Methods,” a class offered as part of the Summer Institute of Social Research Methods and developed in response to the pandemic, offers students the opportunity to develop and practice new skills that will allow them to revise their research projects in a socially distanced world.

Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela, an anthropologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, teaches the course. On the first day of class, he told his students, “We’ve all been hit by this pandemic. We could throw our hands up and take it as a blow to our research plans for the summer and for the future, or we can conceive of the pandemic as a way to take some of the most fundamental aspects and methodological approaches of traditional ethnography and retool and adapt them to do research in virtual worlds.”

Fogarty-Valenzuela sees ethnography as “a democratizing form of knowledge production and an attempt to grapple with the irreducibility of human experience through conversations with everyday people whose lives are caught up in the micro and macro phenomena that one is interested in studying.” The challenge of this class, then, is to transfer ethnography to virtual and online interactions while still preserving its spirit of unique human engagement.

Peter Forberg, a fourth year in the College who is taking the course, already had experience with virtual ethnography, both in other classes and from his thesis work on online radical political communities. He chose to enroll because the class “spoke to interests both in things that I have done before but didn’t have much guidance in and in things that I’m doing now that I would like more guidance in.”

“We’re currently at a moment where a lot of social work is necessarily being translated online, so it is helpful to be thinking about alternative routes for looking at how communities and societies are enacted online,” Forberg adds.

The class is organized into three components. The first is a discussion of readings about a particular topic in ethnographic research that is being explored that week in class, including ethics and politics; field note taking; interviews and semi-structured interviews; and multimodal ethnography.

Next, students engage in fieldwork that allows them to practice the ethnographic method discussed in class in a virtual world or online platform. Their task is to critically observe and engage with that world and, as Fogarty-Valenzuela says, “to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar” by looking at “normal” things from a different perspective and to make the strange logical and familiar.

For this component, one of the virtual worlds that Forberg chose to explore is an online game called Project Zomboid, a game in which one’s avatar is stranded in an abandoned, post-apocalyptic world. While this is a single-player game, Forberg noticed how players “find ways of enacting community within the game, sometimes by taking over suburbs and giving everyone a house or by leaving supplies at a warehouse for new players to find. Communication platforms like Discord and Facebook allow for conversations outside the game, and friends are made through a shared love of the game itself.”

The last component of the class is a workshop that “harness[es] the mind power of the whole class,” Professor Fogarty-Valenzuela explains. Each week, a few students present the results of their fieldwork, and the class discusses how to improve the work.

For Forberg, “it is interesting to see how other people do ethnography because something that you thought was obvious or the right way to do it becomes just the way that you did it. You get to learn a lot by seeing how other people’s backgrounds and experiences and personalities and ideas about ethnography are translated into actual work and practice.”

Each week, students post their findings, their works in progress, and their reflections on the various methods explored in this class onto an online research portfolio. The final assignment is a multimodal project that draws from multiple communicative mediums and textual, auditory, and visual platforms. The goal is to “exceed traditional, text-based scholarly argumentation,” Fogarty-Valenzuela explains.

Forberg’s project is called Algorithmic Ethnography, which explores digital communities through user experience.

The shift of courses onto the virtual environment as a result of the spread of Covid-19 has caused Fogarty-Valenzuela to realize how much unutilized potential in-person teaching has. “It has been striking the way in which the classroom experience has been able to translate and carry over to remote learning,” he says.

The class not only provides the necessary skills to students who wish to pursue their ethnographic research online, but also, by doing so in an engaging and interactive way, exemplifies that the human interaction so integral to ethnographic research can, to a certain extent, be fostered online. He adds, “the fact that this is possible speaks to a whole range of innovations and improvements and pedagogical approaches that could be making the in-person classroom experience a lot more dynamic and engaging and creative.”