Digital ethnography is needed to study our digital societies

Author: Daniel Mullins

The way that people behave is being radically changed by recent technological advances, and the way that we study how people behave now has to work to catch up, according to ethnographers Alan Howard and Alexander Mawyer. Their ambitious and forward-looking chapter in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (2015) outlines the many ways in which technological changes are affecting the process of creating and using ethnographies as well as the objects and objectives of ethnographic inquiry. Howard and Mawyer provide four key categories in which the exciting and important area of digital ethnography can be fruitfully explored, summarized in the following graphic (click to enlarge).

Infographic summary of digital ethnography

Howard and Mawyer contend that ethnographers should shake off the limitations of what they see as the prevailing goal of many modern ethnographers—to create a static and linear literary ethnographic works that address overly-narrow topics of marginal and/or fleeting theoretical concern. Instead, digital ethnographers or ‘netnographers’ can employ new digital tools to drastically expand the theoretical scope and descriptive richness of ethnographic research. In particular, Howard and Mawyer emphasize the promise that linked hypermedia ethnography has for drastically expanding the scope of ethnographic inquiry. By abandoning the traditional models of ethnographic writing, Howard and Mawyer contend that both ethnographic creators and users of linked hypermedia ethnography will be able to explore a broader range of theoretical concerns. Ethnographic users (who interact with ethnographic outputs) will be able to quickly navigate through detailed ethnographic descriptions that better reflect the totality of an ethnographer’s observations, accessing those materials that are most relevant to their own interests.

Howard and Mawyer’s call to use linked data in the course of research is mirrored in the linked-data history utilized by the Seshat: Global History Databank. Researchers in Seshat and other like-minded digital scholars would all benefit greatly if ethnographers took up Howard and Mawyer’s call to produce rich, descriptive, and broad-ranging ethnographies with structured inter- and intra-document linking indexical systems and searchable content. Indeed, linked hypermedia ethnographies would allow Seshat researchers to access topics of theoretical concern more readily while creating a transparent and readily accessible digital connection between ‘thick’ ethnographic descriptions and the quantitative codes produced by these descriptions that are necessary to adjudicate between rival predictions.

To explore Howard and Mawyer’s publication, see their publisher’s website.

Notes for Editors: 

  • For further information contact Jill Levine via email
  • Seshat: Global History Databank is a large, international, multidisciplinary team of evolutionary scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, economists, and other social scientists. Our team includes scholars from various backgrounds, policy makers, and enthusiastic volunteers. Seshat is governed by an editorial board, who oversee work done by postdoctoral researchers, collaborators and consultants, and research assistants all over the world.
  • Cite this page: “Digital ethnography is needed to study our digital social worlds”

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