Startseite > summerschool2010 > Learning and Doing Virtual Ethnography While You Are Winking in the fluid world of Second Life.

Learning and Doing Virtual Ethnography While You Are Winking in the fluid world of Second Life.


by Mohammad T. Abbasi Shavazi

We had the great opportunity to attend the Summer School „How virtual is Reality“ at the Jacobs University Bremen. One of the most interesting teaching units of the summer school was Ethnography in Fluid World by Gregory Price Grieve,  who is associate professor of Religious Studies and the Director of MERGE: A Network for Interdisciplinary and Collaborative Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is researching and teaching in the intersection of South Asian religions, New Media, and postmodern and pluralistic approaches to the study of religion. One of the apparent signs which indicate he is a ready to write ethnographer (one of the basic and important skills in ethnography) is that you can see a pencil behind his ear! often.

I think it comes from his long term ethnographic works in actual world, where ethnographers should always have their pen and notebook for taking notes and memos in the social and cultural context they are studying. Greg and his pen are like a soldier with a gun in an uncovered world, he is ready to shoot, I mean to take a note! And write, write and write. But it seems for ethnographic work in virtual worlds where you have many possibilities to copy and paste and record ongoing events and type your memos by keyboard may be it is not necessary to have a pencil, unless you do not trust to new media and typing! But Greg also advised us to have our pencil with us even when we are doing virtual ethnography in front of screen.

Finally the fifth day of the summer school arrived, the day which all of students were waiting to listen to Greg’s teaching unit „Ethnography in Fluid World“. This subject is very interesting because it consists of two terms (ethnography and fluid world): one of them is old and the other very new and emerging. Ethnography (modern one) is a research tradition in cultural anthropology and sociology since 1900, research tradition in which ethnographer doing field work in the actual world. But fluid worlds or virtual worlds are new phenomena, new context and subsequence of new communication technologies in late modernity. How anthropologists will adapt this method to Fluid World, might be interesting. It should be mentioned that new communication technologies like internet not only have changed social world, but also research methods and methodologies.

New communication technologies like internet are not only a medium for transformation of information, sending and receiving, but they have created new social spaces in which people can make a network and imagine they are a community. Now we have a new world parallel to actual world in which social and cultural phenomena have different characteristics. Sociologists, anthropologists and cultural analysts are increasingly documenting the everyday realities of social actors whose social relationships are mediated by and through the internet. The internet has itself created various kinds of ‘virtual community’, who not only exist in ‘cyberspace’ but can be studied via the internet itself.

For studying these new social world and phenomena like religion in virtual world we need research methodologies and methods which are adjusted to this new world. Qualitative researchers and other social scientists have not been indifferent to these new communication technologies and new world created by them. One of the new research methods which are trying to adjust itself to this social-technological environment is Ethnography.

The idea of applying ethnographic technique to the study of internet interactions became popular in the 1990s when it became clear that interesting social formation were beginning to emerge in what we then had come to call cyber space“ (Hine, 2009:259).

We can apply new kind of Ethnography for studying social and cultural phenomena in the new context of fluid world but there are some questions: How we can use ethnography in fluid worlds like Second Life (SL)? What should we do in this new context as an ethnographer? How  can we transfer and adapt central methods or techniques of ethnography, like thick description and participant observation, into SL? These are some questions which Greg answered on his day in the summer school. Here I will try to outline and reflect what he discussed, very shortly.

Four important parts of his class were as follow:

  1. What is ethnography?
  2. Theorize distinction between virtual and actual!
  3. Describe “thick description” and “Participant observation“ and how to do these in SL.
  4. Two exercises: ‚winking ‚ and online survey (practical part of class).

Before Greg started to teach us how we can do virtual ethnography in second life he dealt with the definition of ethnography and theorizing distinction between virtual an actual. So, the first question raised and answered was „What is ethnography? He started with a critical minimum definition of ethnography from American Anthropological Association

Ethnography involves the researcher’s study of human behavior in the natural settings in which people live. Specifically, ethnography refers to the description of cultural systems or an aspect of culture based on fieldwork in which the investigator is immersed in the ongoing everyday activities of the designated community for the purpose of describing the social context, relationships and processes relevant to the topic under consideration. (

This definition concentrates on the practice of participant observation with which an investigator studies the life of a group by sharing their activities.

One of the very important questions regarding researching in virtual space like second life is what is virtual and actual world? And how we can theorize their connection? Some researchers use different terms such as ‚Virtual‘, ‚Cyber‘, and ‚Online‘ for describing phenomena on the internet. For referring to the same phenomena in real world they use ‚Real‘, ‚Offline‘ and ‚Actual‘ as terms. Using online and offline dichotomy seems to be not proper because these are two different types of communication taking place on the internet, on the line, online refers to synchronous communication and offline asynchronous. Then referring by ‚offline‘ to phenomena in real life is not suitable. Another dichotomy is Virtual and Real but it seems to be improper, too. Because identifying a phenomena like community as virtual communities for distinguishing them from real communities can imply that virtual community are based on something false in compare to real communities. One of the interesting things I learned from Greg was if you use the term Actual in instead of Real in Virtual-Real dichotomy the problem will be resolved. Therefore, from this point onward I will use Virtual and Actual Dichotomy for referring to phenomena in Virtual space and real space.

Relation between Virtual and Actual

Greg discussed four typical models of relationship between the Virtual and the Actual. The first one is the Correspondence Theory which argues that the virtual is simulation of the actual. Suppletion Theory which is that the virtual is substitution for the actual, this theory is utopian approach. Apocalyptic notion of the virtual and the actual is people understanding that the virtual is going to destroy actual.

Cardean(the Hing) model, with which Greg is doing his researches in second life on his base, argues:

„Virtuality are neither “fake,” nor immaterial, but are desubtantialized. That is, the virtual cannot be reduced to material or ideal, but is a set of processes dependent on the actual, and realized in it, but irreducible to a physical system. For instance, the experience created by watching a film is dependent on the physical celluloid but its significance cannot be reduced to it. Nondualism indicates that things appear distinct while not being separate, and affirms the understanding that while distinctions exist, dichotomies are illusory phenomena“ (Greg’s Speech).

Thick Description and Participant Observation

Anthropologists argue that the two main techniques in ethnography are „Thick Description“ and „Participant observation“, on this base Greg had a long talk for teaching us what exactly are these two techniques; with some examples from second life and real life.

He emphasized that for understanding what Clifford Geertz is talking about ‚Thick Description‘, it is important to know his notion of what culture is. We had a glance on his important work „Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In „The Interpretation of Cultures“ where he writes „Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical. But this pro- nouncement, a doctrine in a clause, demands itself some explication“(Geertz, 1973: 5). Greg added that for Geertz culture is not something happening inside the head, culture is not system of beliefs but manifestation of communication, talking about something concrete something is material. Then for Geertz this material culture is what we should study.

In Geertz’s notion, Thick description „describes both a social practice and also the context in order for that practice to become meaningful to an outsider. We had a long and interesting discussion about what exactly thick description means and how we can do it in real and second life. Greg gave us a few example of thick description about winking „;)“ in RL and SL, and rapping on the table as a tradition in German academic setting for admiring, what exactly rapping on the table means in a class?

Another important technique in ethnography is Participant Observation, which was our topic in the afternoon session. Classical notion of this technique is „to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment „; so, it is different to other methodologies in natural science. That in this method the investigator goes and lives with people he/she is studying in natural setting but not in laboratory. So, we can use this definition for virtual ethnography or ethnography in second life, as well. He talked about his experiences of participant observation in his ethnography in Real Life for three years in Nepal and also three year ethnography in Sl. Here you can see some pictures of his work in ReaL and Second Life (all of these pictures are taken from his presentation):

One of the differences between ethnography in RL and SL is that the environment in SL is international and you can see avatars from all over the world. Another interesting difference which Greg discussed was the instability of SL; every time you go online you see things are changing, you go to the location and see the location is not there anymore and it is flat it is not like RL which you go back to la ocation and find everything is there some times with a little changes. So there is no trace of history, places are changing and people are so fluent. Greg believed that the most prominent thing in these changes is groups. Therefore he advised us to concentrate on groups and communities in our research in SL.

With attention to the fact that groups and communities are the most stable thing you can study in SL; Greg introduced us another interesting concept which was very interesting to me that is „Cloud Community“ which Greg defined as „an online group that is temporary, flexible, elastic and is inexpensive in the social capital required to join or to leave“ (Source: Greg’s Presentation).

Maybe the question comes to mind that what exactly we should write when we are doing participant observation in cloud communities of SL? I will summarize some advises Greg gave us:

  1. In general you should write about where is there? Who is there? What is happening ? And what activity is occurring?(these are basic for participant observation)
  2. When you are writing field work for a thick description it would be good to start a huge description of what is going on. Don’t forget time and date, title as well.
  3. Don’t forget to write details, not everything but details of the particular thing you are studying. Write as soon as possible and don’t discuss with anyone else. Don’t edit it.
  4. Be aware when you are participating do not forget to observe! Do not forget to step back and observe.
  5. Write it down as much as you can, even your feelings

Here is one of Greg’s field note he offered us as an example I found it very interesting and useful to mention here:

It is the evening of December 12, 2008. I’m running late as I arrive at the home of Hope Long, the avatar hosting the Second Life ABG (Agnostic Buddhist Group)’s Friday night open discussion. When I entered the room, Hope walks over and says, “Clint. love your robes ; ) [an emoticon for winking].

Hope Long is the founding member of ABG, and holds much authority in the group, often directing the flow of conversation with just a few well-chosen words: or, in this case, a single emoticon. I am logged on as my research avatar Clint Clavenham, who is a tall imposing male figure, with a stern face, shaved head, bookish glasses and full Buddhist monk robes. I look around, and notice to my surprise that none of the sixteen other avatars are wearing vestments. Instead, they are dressed in fairly typical everyday Second Life attire — short sparkly skirts, ball gowns, faded jeans, t-shirts and someone in a Native American costume(source: Greg’s presentation).

Wink Exercise: Entering the Field of Second Life and Doing Ethnography

After these theoretical and pragmatic parts of class it was supposed for participant in summer school to log in SL and do ethnography; hte first exercise was winking to someone in SL and to do thick description. Our duty was to:

  1. Form a team with two other students.
  2. Create a google doc titled “[your name here]’s wink.” Share with Group.
  3. Talk amongst ourselves. Describe thick description; what it is, a couple of RL examples, and what limitations it might encounter.
  4. Log on to Second Life — wink at some one ; ).
  5. Write down the thick description of your winking.
  6. Post to Google Docs. Read and comment on your team members’s google docs.
  7. Be prepared as a group to report out to entire class after lunch.

In the afternoon session we had another exercise: the blended method, mix of ethnography and online survey. We was supposed to return to our groups again and discuss about our experiences and findings in former exercise, then design a research question and find a field site in SL. Create a five questions survey with Survey Monkey as an online survey. And administer survey to 15 people in second life.

The participants were doing virtual ethnography in their group in the morning session and also afternoon. It was very interesting to look at SL different from before; SL as a field in which you can study different religious group from Islam, Christianity, Judaism to Buddhism and so on. Being with other students from different countries in a team and discussing and doing field work was a great experience. Some times while we were sitting next to each other we teleported each other to same location and were discussing to each other in 3D environment of SL via chat. And we were winking at other people to see what their reaction to the wink is ;).

One interesting thing I found was that when my avatar was a young men with very simple clouds nobody found me interesting to answer my ;) , but when I changed my avatar as a very cute white cat, at the moment I was changing my avatar shape to the cat, my avatar winked at a girl who was tall, fashioned and nice. She was looking at me and finally told: „what a nice cat you are ;). I don’t know how I can come over what a cute are you“ she was suggesting me a bed; actually she wanted to pick me up! I was thinking and deciding to go or not, may be experiencing another new phenomena in second life. At this moment, Kerstin asked all participants to leave the computer lab, actually it was lunch time. And I preferred to go and have lunch because I was hungry but my avatar didn’t feel hungry! ;)

Erik, another student of summer school had an experience like me he also had been teleported to very private session of cybersex only with a wink.

Greg’s lecture was full of examples and experiences regarding ethnography in both RL and SL, with a lot of fun. I really enjoyed his teaching unit. But some important questions were unanswered after the class for me. Can we study social and cultural phenomena in Second life and other virtual environment with ontological and epistemological assumptions which we are studying phenomena in RL, like Positivism, Interpretivism and so on? Or do we need new ontological and epistemological assumption about what exactly Avatar as residents of second life are? What exactly this new world of virtual world is? What is relationship between these two worlds? What are ethical considerations of researching in SL?

Suggested Readings:

  • Golub , Alex (2010)“ Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game“. Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 83, Number 1, pp. 17-45
  • James Clifford (1997) „Spatial Practices: Fieldwork, Travel, and the Disciplining of Anthropology“ in Routes: travel and translation in the late twentieth century, Harvard University Press
  • Escobar, Arturo (1994) „Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture“Current Anthropology, Vol. 35, No. 3. pp. 211-231.
  • Geertz, Clifford (1973) „Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture„. In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. pp 3–30. New York: Basic Books.


  • Hine, Christine (2009).“Virtual Ethnography: Modes, Verities, Affordances.“ in Nigel Fielding, Raymond M. Lee, Grant Blank (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of online research methods. Sage Publications. Pp: 257-270.
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