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Book Chapter

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Oxford University Press


As the rapid rate of the adoption and normative use of information technologies accelerates, sociologists must expand the sociological imagination to explore a host of questions related to mediated communication. From Twitter to YouTube, the media convergence anticipated at the close of the millennium is coming into being. Blogs, vlogs, Web browsing, e-mail, and old time television, radio, and phone are all increasingly accessible via digital technologies. Furthermore, not only can we consume these digital media, but we can now produce them easily and quickly. Yet, sociological methods have not kept pace with the profound changes in communication ensuing from the Information Revolution. Although the quotidian use of new media continues to grow by leaps and bounds, there is little consensus on how we can best collect and analyze new media data.

This chapter begins to address these issues by examining how ethnographic methods have been adapted to explore new media and digital communication. We find that three central tensions have shaped the adoption of ethnographic methods in new media environments since the advent of cyberethnography in the mid 1990s. The three tensions that we identify and discuss are the character of mediated interaction (e-mail, IM, blogging, texting, etc.) as a social process, text as interaction, and the relationship between the observer and the observed. Our analysis draws upon both the current work in the fi eld and foundational works that established cyberethnography as a legitimate methodological undertaking. Each section presents a history of salient texts detailing methodological growth and innovation. We bring these texts together to close each section with an eye to methodological and ethical implications under the heading “Stories from the Field.” This section provides analysis of challenges in methodological adaptation and related ethical concerns that will be of increasing importance vis-à-vis user-driven content.

We close our chapter with a review of how the strengths of traditional ethnography are especially suited to examine future waves of digital phenomena. In evaluating the commonalities between traditional and mediated ethnographic practice, we argue that although new twists in the evolution of the Internet may require ethnographers to continually adapt their methodological tool kits, they will not reduce the salience of the method. In reviewing different tensions in the evolution of cyberethnographic methods, we find that the seeming newness of much of the cyberethnographic endeavor is a reworking, rather than a replacing, of traditional ethnographic methods. Finally, just as cyberethnographers argued a decade ago that the novelty of the Web will likely fade as information technology increasingly becomes just another taken-for-granted part of everyday life (Webb, 1999), we argue that once cyberethnography has been incorporated into the corpus of sociological methods, its legitimacy will be beyond question.

Chapter of

The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research


Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber


Copyright © 2011 Oxford University Press. Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. This material was originally published in The Handbook of Emergent Technologies in Social Research edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. For permission to reuse this material, please visit

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