Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet

By Christine Hine | Go to book overview

10
Doing Anthropology in Cyberspace:
Fieldwork Boundaries and Social
Environments

Mário J. L. Guimarães Jr

The quest for socio-anthropological methodological guidelines in cyberspace faces the very same problems as offline research: the massive diversity of human social experiences. In addition to that, the huge range of analytical themes and perspectives by which the online can be approached makes it virtually impossible to elaborate a methodology that could be employed widely in different online contexts. Nevertheless, it is always possible to compile some research tricks and empirical strategies that can be useful for the development of methodological approaches to deal with specific cases. At the end of the day, perhaps this chapter simply states something obvious for any ethnographer, that is, that the techniques to study any social group should be adapted to its own social and cultural context. The less obvious outcome of applying this basic principle to social groups that gather in cyberspace is to determine what exactly those contexts are about and how to draw their boundaries. In order to deal with these problems I put forward a way to circumscribe social groups in relation to the social and cultural bonds that tie them and not the spaces where they meet, whether physical places or cyberspace sites.

This chapter summarizes the methodological approaches and some of the theoretical framework employed in an ethnography of a sociability environment in cyberspace.1 The environment studied is based on The Palace, a graphical platform where the user’s presence is visually represented through avatars. These avatars can alter their appearance, exchange objects and emit sounds as well as wander inside a space whose architecture can be changed. The ethnography was done from an anthropology of performance perspective, seeking to capture the way in which the multimedia resources of Palace platform are appropriated and resignified by users through analysis of the interactions that take place inside it.

After describing briefly the Palace platform and its main features, I present two of the theoretical perspectives employed in my research. These are concerned with

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