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Posted by on Oct 18, 2010

Virtual Ethnography: A Narrative of Travel

First observations on reading the Digital Objects of Ethnography chapter from Hine led me squarely to this quote:

“Travel has played an important part in the construction of an ethnographic authority. The days of reliance on second-hand accounts and the tales of travellers are cast as the bad-old days, in which the ethnographer was insufficiently embroiled with what was going on to be able to provide an authoritative analysis, and, worse, could be misled by relying on the re-representations of others ” (44).

This notion of travel, of actually situating oneself in the place being observed and analyzed, is critical to understanding. It is like presenting the emotional substance to back the intellectual claims. One is impossible without the other, especially if we are looking for a measure of authenticity in our observations. However, merely being in there does not equate to being of there. Let me explain.

If we want to keep with the motif of traveler’s accounts, these memoirs can be equally misleading, but for different reasons. An ethnographer as traveler implies simply passing through, a lack of situatedness in the process of observation. This element of transience will likely lead to skewed perceptions about what elements in a society serve as structure, which are merely ephemeral, which represent culture itself. This is true in both digital and physical cultures. I lived in Korea for eight years and didn’t feel terribly confident in my understanding of the culture and the motivations. I was a perpetual outsider, always on the outside looking in. However, this role can be liberating. I wasn’t expected to know, to participate fully, to ascribe to every detail of every bow, every custom, every more. It was a freedom of observation, one that seems conducive to ethnography. However, I would expand on travel as a metaphor and include some sense of situatedness; an expat rather than a backpacker.

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