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Researching online consumer culture

Netnography
Anthropologists study culture using ethnography with traditional ethnographic studies typically involving some combination of participant observation and field interviews. Traditionally therefore, the purpose of an ethnographic research design is for researchers to bring stories back from the field. Like ethnography, netnography is conducted in a naturalistic setting, where researchers become immersed in the cultural context for purposes of observation and active participation. More precisely, traditional ethnographic studies are typically field studies and netnography has developed in response to the emergence of the online world as a social and cultural context.

While ethnographic studies feature extensive, highly time consuming, and potentially expensive fieldwork, the abundance of online interactions, forums, and communities, radically transforms the opportunity to conduct research in a timely manner. Analysis of historical archives of online interactions, forums, and communities, further opens the online world for investigative purposes. However, the role of the researcher conducting an online ethnography as necessarily reflexive and sensitive. The lack of physical presence of the researcher hinders the documentation of intricate and idiosyncratic details that a traditional ethnographer in the field may accurately capture. However, the internet is not one place or one technology, but a diversity of people interacting in multiple ways and therefore online researchers must be duly sensitive to these inherent complexities.

Netnography enables a depth of understanding of the diverse, increasingly globalized online brand communities through detailed and accurate descriptions of social behavior Various terminologies are being used in this regard including digital ethnography, virtual ethnography, online ethnography, cyberethnography, webnography, and netnography. Yet, netnographic methods in market research are still largely undeveloped relative to the increasingly high consumer usage of the internet. Developments of netnography include integration of online and offline research methods. In contrast to a mixed methods netnographic approach, other research demonstrates the benefit of a stand-alone and rigorous netnographic approach where the researchers access, observe, and analyze online consumer interactions and communications from publicly available online discourse. Another benefit of netnography is the access that researchers have to spontaneous, natural, real, and heartfelt consumer talk. As well and in contrast to other qualitative approaches, netnography allows timely research that is less expensive to conduct and complete. However, participants in netnographic research may post anonymously and this aspect of netnography is potentially disadvantageous in terms of research rigor. Anonymous posts, avatars, and username handles may disguise the real identity of participants. Question or skepticism around trustworthiness, participant authenticity, and the lack of social and demographic cues can be countered some, by considering the unit of analysis as the act of online consumer behavior rather than the individual themselves.  

Methodological considerations also include the participatory role of netnographic researchers spanning from a non-participatory role where researchers adopt a complete outsider perspective, to an insider perspective where researchers are either participating as a passive observer or active and full participant. Netnography may also be autobiographical. Advocating non-participant observation, most tourism researchers have adopted a passive lurker approach. Similarly, covert observation is suggested by some to be useful for sensitive topics. However, covert observation is a research method based on deception. As with traditional ethnographic fieldwork netnographers must necessarily immerse themselves in the virtual space. Active and overt participant observation is the ultimate in observational methods because of the fully disclosed research purpose and active researcher involvement. Variations of fully online and overt netnography include the textual analysis of blogs, YouTube, message boards and forums, chatrooms, virtual communities, brand communities , and brand communities within social network environments.

Essentially, netnography is a rigorous, but largely yet to be developed, research method.

Watch this space!

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