Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap

Editor’s note: In this guest post, James Robson discusses how he used Google docs as a platform to conduct a series of life history interviews with Religious Education subject teachers in which he would ask interviewees to write about their lives in response to a few questions and then build on their responses with requests for clarification over the period of about 2 months. James writes that this format benefited from what is often seen as a weakness of email interviews  (the ability of interviewees to tap into the stories that people told about themselves) and enabled him to build sufficient trust among interviews to request face to face meetings, where he was able to use the narrative documents that they had produced as a stimulus for further questions. 

James Robson is a DPhil student at the Department of Education at Oxford University who is interested in ICT and religious education. He is currently focused on the contribution ICT can make to secondary school Religious Education (RE) teachers’ aspirations for their subject and how RE teachers perceive ICT as an aid to forging subject meaning.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers


There are a few issues that always seem to come up again and again in the context of digital ethnography, but one of the most prominent is the issue of how to study phenomena or groups that exist across online and offline contexts.  An increasing number of studies take such a focus, often using various forms of multi-sited ethnography as suggested by Marcus.  However, such an approach can involve issues of disconnection between sites when the ethnographer moves between online and offline contexts and disconnected data gathering methods.  This problem is exemplified by a common research design, much criticized by Boellstorff in his chapter in Horst and Miller’s recent book, Digital Anthropology (2012), where researchers conduct interviews in isolation, paired with analysis of text from online communities.  This raises ontological and epistemological concerns relating to the extent to which culture can be consciously known by those within it and risks becoming a disconnected light analysis of more expansive issues.

This was a major concern (although there were many more) that I grappled with when starting my doctorate – investigating teachers’ use of online social spaces, focusing particularly on how online engagement with peers influences the construction of their professional identities.  Now that I’ve finished my fieldwork, am writing up, and am (hopefully) in my final year, I want to share here how I came up with a solution to the online-offline issue since it worked pretty well for me. Hopefully it might be useful for somebody else.

From the beginning it was clear to me that my field constituted multiple sites, both online and offline since secondary school teacher identity, even if partially constructed through interaction online, is still rooted and negotiated in other spaces – most obviously schools, but also conferences and continuing professional development (CPD) activities (e.g. training afternoons).  Therefore, I knew that I needed a way of bringing the online and offline together in a meaningful and holistic way (without failing to note the inherent differences between them).  My research design was essentially based around participant observations in three main online social spaces and several offline settings (mainly conferences and schools) and life history interviews.  Therefore, in the first instance, in order to ensure my observations were properly linked with my interviews, I recruited interviewees online through my own participation in the relevant online sites.

I then developed a slightly modified method of life history interviewing which would take place in both online and offline ethnographic contexts and would enhance certain aspects of each.  Building on the life history approach where the interviewer is viewed as a co-constructor of the participants’ narratives, I set up an online collaborative document, in this case a Google Doc, for each participant.  In it were some basic questions eliciting their life story in relation their use of the online social spaces I was studying, but also going further into their stories of how they became teachers, descriptions of their schools and examples of how their online interaction fits into their daily lives.  Then as part of an ongoing iterative process, lasting around two months, I placed questions inside the text and highlighted sections that required more information or clarification.  As time went on, these documents grew and grew into lengthy co-constructed narratives that were incredibly detailed and rich.

An example of an online interview in Google Docs

I felt the technique was ideally suited to life history interviewing as some of the criticisms often leveled at online interviews (particularly asynchronous ones) that interviewees are given time and space to rehearse and craft an answer, were actually beneficial here.  For life history interviewing, the aim is to tap into the stories people tell about themselves, which are often well rehearsed and without spontaneity, so the time and space allowed by the online context actually helped this.  Then the collaborative nature of the narrative production allowed for these stories to be jointly analysed and interrogated and a very thoughtful way.

As mentioned, this kind of online interviewing took place over a period of at least two month for each of my 18 participants and generally involved daily questions and answers.  The length of time meant that not only could we discuss ongoing observed online behaviour, but also that I build up sufficient trust, and in some cases real friendships, to request to move the interviews offline and meet the participants in person.  When we did meet, I was able to use the lengthy narrative documents we had produced as stimuli for these offline interviews.  This helped build a bridge between the offline and online contexts and provide a different mode of interviewing suited to the context.  While participants were able to craft their responses online, offline they were forced to give more spontaneous and in many ways more vulnerable answers.  This allowed us to explore their narratives more deeply as well as facilitating a freer, more natural movement between discussing online and offline behaviour and spaces.

I felt that this kind of online collaborative co-construction of a narrative coupled with offline meeting where the document was used as an interview stimulus was really useful in three main ways.  Firstly, by starting online, I was able to link my online observations with my interviews.  Secondly, the mode of online interviewing was very effective at building the trust required to facilitate a smooth move into an offline setting.  Finally, the combination of the online and offline interviews enabled me to then follow and observe participants in their offline sites.  This meant that the online and the offline field sites were held together as a whole by interviews that straddled both contexts.

Bridging the gap between online and offline field sites

When I first came up with the research design I was concerned that the demands placed on participants, might be problematic when it came to recruiting people.  However, I was really surprised at how much everyone seemed to enjoy getting involved in producing the narratives, often sending me reminders if they thought I hadn’t responded quickly enough, and after the investment of all that time, how willing they were to meet me in person.  It just goes to show that you can never underestimate the attraction of talking about yourself.

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4 Responses to “Digital Ethnography: Bridging the online and offline gap”

  1. Nick P
    November 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this. It is a very interesting way to use collaborative technologies to co-produce ethnographies. I’m wondering if you have thought about how you would cite these documents in your research since they are created over time (unlike an interview or email that has a fixed date)?

    • November 30, 2012 at 9:30 am #

      Hi Nick, thanks for your comment, it’s an excellent question. When I was doing it I saved and dated each draft and considered doing some kind of conversation analysis on the developing ‘conversation’. Unfortunately, this just led to masses of data and not particularly useful iterations (in the context of my study anyway). So apart from using the drafts to give a good overview of how the narrative developed and marking the dates of key events, I ended up just analysing the finished product. But I tried to maintain that sense of development by linking it to my participant observations and fieldnotes, and of course face to face interviews as well. Cheers James

  2. December 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Really interesting – and potentially helpful to my own project. My project consists of a blog on disability/para-sport that I co-author with several Paralympic athletes (the blog team) exploring issues and debates in disability sport. The secondary piece is that I have been interviewing individuals who read the blog and participate in the online conversations. Their online comments have proven to be an excellent starting point for discussion when we meet in person. Thanks for sharing.

    • December 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      Thanks Andrea, that sounds like a really interesting piece of research

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