EPIC 2005 Abstract on sociality #3

Ramblings for an abstract: bits will come from here

Illusory boundaries in the “cyber-sociality” of virtual teams: ethnographic methods, the offline in the online and cautionary tales of business cyber ethnography.


If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cyber-sociality lies in the details of engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated interconnectedness, often within what Strauss would consider multiple “social worlds”. Reacting to the embrace of graphical simulation, the emergence of “virtual reality” and the promise of artificially intelligent agents, Gibson’s cyber (meaning helmsman in Greek) is the system that is in control that offers a place “jack in”, away from this corporeal world.

Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated, tele-sociality of the physically disconnected.

We have been using ethnographic methods to paint in the details of these acts of interconnection in the context of the abstracted “global corporation” and “virtual” team. We ask: if work is in cyberspace, in virtual teams, what can we as ethnographers add to the understandings of such work, but also (being inevitably reflexive) what can we contribute to presenting the methods and representations of our own work. In our studies, where we triangulate online and offline observation, we find that people make sense of the world in familiar ways in both contexts – and that their actions are as bounded by what lies off-line as what occurs online. Although perhaps not a great surprise, this does have enormous implications for how we conduct our studies, what we can address and how we present our results.

We have been carrying out ethnographies of sociality in mediated contexts. In this paper we present highlights from three case studies, which we believe lie along a continuum of personal agency and control of the technology itself to manage the tele-mediated interaction: 1. distributed teams collaborating primarily through video conferences and email; 2. collaborative work in a text-based virtual environment; and 3. interactions in massively multiplayer environments, where collaboration and commerce are growing. In all three cases, we present an ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection practices.

These case studies are used to render visible the often tacit boundaries of ethnographic data collection methods and reportage. While we draw on methods in all cases that have been loosely called “cyber-ethnography”, interested as we are in sociality in mediated situations, we illustrate how an understanding of that which lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames what is understood, and therefore drives new forms of data analysis. Sometimes generating these understandings is positively maddening in its methodological complexity. Humans have always, in fact, lived lives beyond our gaze.

But in these studies, we have experienced restrictions at many levels which can be broadly characterized as 1. what can be recorded (logistically, it is getting increasingly important that we are very technically oriented to gather our data; many field sites in business contexts create restrictions that curtail broad data collection; many ethical issues arise); 2. what can be analysed (time is the biggest constraint in many business ethnography settings, and this is amplified in studying these distributed settings), and finally 3. what can be reported (in many settings what is seen cannot be reported or will not be heard).

What does this mean for what we understand of sociality, and what does it mean for reflection of what can and cannot, has and has not been inferred. Ultimately in this paper, we consider what are data, and who owns the data for consent to be given for its collection, analysis and reportage: what does it mean for an avatar, one persona of many even in an organization for example, to grant me permission to record? Just as technology-supported communication generates new work practices, we are experiencing the old phenomena of multiple selves in interaction in new worlds. This paper reflects on the issues involved. Each example will consider 1. the importance for work practice analysis, 2. the need for agility in method, and 3. the importance of deep analysis for patterns over time and technologies.

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