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Ethnography and Virtual Worlds

by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pierce, & T. L. Taylor
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012
264 pp. Trade, $70.00; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-14950-9; ISBN: 978-0-691-14951-6.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver

jfbarber@eaze.net

Undertaking an ethnographic study of writing teachers learning to utilize a collaborative, online writing program in the early days of web browsers, online communities, and virtual worlds, I very much could have used Ethnography and Virtual Worlds with its goal of providing ethnographers with “a practical set of tools and approaches for conducting successful fieldwork in virtual worlds” (1). The authors, Tom Boellstorff (Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human), Bonnie Nardi (My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft), Celia Pierce (Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds), and T. L. Taylor (Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture), set out with the intention “to elucidate as succinctly as possible what it means to ethnographically investigate a virtual world” (2). The result is a “handbook,” both in length and practicality that can “be stashed in a backpack, easily consulted, and kept ‘on hand’ when doing fieldwork—even when the ‘field’ in question is online [including both game and nongame environments” (2).

Ethnography, say the authors, all leading ethnographers of virtual worlds, is an approach to studying everyday life as lived by groups of people or individuals. Informed by methodological frameworks of ethnographic research and technological change, the practice of ethnography is, they argue, well suited to virtual worlds. In the first two chapters, the authors discuss the history, practice, and promise of ethnographic methods. Chapter 1 addresses the questions of “Why ethnographic methods and why virtual worlds?” and “Why a handbook?” Chapter 2 provides three brief histories: of ethnographic methods, virtual worlds, and virtual world cultures. The result is intentional: to position ethnography as a tool for studying both local and distant cultures, through its attention to everyday practice and meanings and its conceptual disruptions of Self and Other. Such a lens will be revealing when focused on critical cultural issues, technology, and society encountered by millions of people now inhabiting virtual worlds.

Chapter 3, “Ten Myths about Ethnography,” will, with the first two chapters, prove useful to researchers considering working in virtual or online worlds. The ten myths are: Ethnography is unscientific; less valid than quantitative research; simply anecdotal; undermined by subjectivity; merely intuitive; writing about your personal experience; contaminated by the researcher’s presence; identical to grounded theory; the same as ethnomethodology; and destined to become obsolete. These myths speak to confusions and misunderstandings about the role and value of ethnography because it “does not follow the standard hypothesis-driven model of science many of us were first taught in school” (29).

Going forward, the remaining chapters walk the ethnographic researcher through the process of designing, undertaking, and reporting research in virtual worlds. Chapter 4 deals with research design and preparation. Chapter 5 examines participant observation in virtual worlds. Chapter 6 focuses on interviews and virtual worlds research. Chapter 7 offers solid insights regarding other data collection methods for virtual worlds research: chatlogs, screenshots, video, audio, historical and archival research, virtual artifacts, offline interviews and participant observation, and using quantitative data.

Chapter 8 deals with ethics: informed consent, mitigating institutional and legal risk, anonymity, deception, taking leave, accurate portrayal, and more. Chapter 9 concentrates on human subject clearance and institutional review boards (IRB), especially preparing a protocol for IRB review, and working with IRBs.

Chapter 10 is devoted to data analysis, working with participant observation data, images, video, and textual data, and moving from data analysis to themes to narratives and arguments. Chapter 11 provides solid information and advice on writing up, presenting, and publishing ethnographic research.

Either at the chapter level, or as a whole, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds provides invaluable advice, tips, guidelines, principles, and further resources to aid researchers through every stage of a participant observation virtual worlds research project, from choosing the online field site to writing and publishing the results. As noted by George Marcus in his foreword, this book makes online worlds and their inhabitants/participants “as accessible as physical world groups to the application of ethnographic methods at their highest standards of practice” (xvii).


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