Academic journal article Human Organization

Researching Global Spaces Ethnographically: Queries on Methods for the Study of Virtual Populations

Academic journal article Human Organization

Researching Global Spaces Ethnographically: Queries on Methods for the Study of Virtual Populations

Article excerpt

As with other nation-states, the United States population comprises people living both within as well as outside its geographical borders. Studying United States nationals living abroad presents interesting methodological challenges: on the one hand, there is paucity of demographic data, and, on the other, there is a heavy reliance on virtual communications. Conventional ethnography, based on face-to-face interaction with informants selected at geographically defined sites, proved to be insufficient to understand this population. This paper will explore the methodological challenges of studying transnational populations who communicate through virtual and physical means. Based on a study of United States nationals in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the paper describes the stages of creating a study population and reports on strategies for studying it ethnographically. The result was a virtual ethnography that both provided a background and helped contextualize conventional ethnography. The use of virtual ethnography as a preliminary exploration of the study population contributed to a reflection on the epistemological, methodological, and ethical issues of conventional and virtual ethnography.

Key words: United States nationals abroad, ethnographic methodology, virtual ethnography, conventional ethnography, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Introduction

As in the case of other nation-states, the United States population comprises people living both within and outside its geographical borders. Studying United States nationals living abroad - expatriates as they call themselves, or expats for short - presents two interesting methodological challenges underlying the anthropological study of diasporic and dispersed populations: the identification of a general and an ethnographic study population. A third methodological challenge came to be apparent during my research studying expat communities living in Buenos Aires (BA), Argentina.

In the course of following their own networks, I found that a central characteristic of these populations was their heavy reliance on virtual communication as if it was an integral component of the expat transnational persona. Expats not only used the Internet to communicate about coping with daily life by circulating information about goods, services, and jobs, but also informed each other about social networking opportunities. But while apparently sharing strategies about living outside their country of birth, virtual communications also revealed issues of concern that could not have been addressed through face-to-face communication. This brought on a third methodological challenge, the simultaneous use of virtual and conventional ethnography.

I use the term virtual ethnography when ( 1 ) the field site is comprised of Internet users; (2) the object of study is their experience; (3) the practices observed are virtual communications, that is, not face-to-face; and (4) the purpose of virtual interaction is information exchange. In this paper, I entertain the idea that virtual ethnography provides an opportunity to reflect on the anthropological conceptualization of field sites and the very practice of ethnography. A reflection on methods becomes critical since methods "are not neutral devices" but rather "play a large part in shaping the phenomena which are observed" (Hine 2005:7).

In this paper, I share the methodological challenges I faced studying expats in Buenos Aires, Argentina. First, I present data to demonstrate that virtual ethnography helps understand the expat experience. Second, I argue for an integration of the virtual-conventional ethnographic paradigm. These methodological considerations are offered as a contribution to the study of dispersed populations with heavy reliance on the Internet. The choice to communicate virtually reflects how technology has ". . .affected the capacity of migrants to cross borders - physically and virtually - to maintain close ties with family and friends in the homeland, and to form communities and welcoming social spaces in a new land" (Croucher 2009:80) that translate "into differences in migrants' access to informal, but crucial knowledge and networks for success in the mainstream" (Uevitt and Jaworsky 2007:22). …

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