When we see a finished piece of writing, we rarely see all the mess that went into creating it. As Annette M. Markham and Nancy K. Baym point out in their book, Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method,
Research reports are carefully edited retrospectives, selected among different story lines and options, depending on one's audience and goals. Within these reports, research designs are generally presented as a series of logical and chronologically ordered steps. Seasoned scholars know there's a complex backstage story line and have experienced such complexities themselves. But for novice scholars, it is easy to imagine that the researcher's route was successfully mapped out in advance and that interpretive findings simply emerged from the ground or fell conveniently into the path. Qualitative research requires a tolerance for chaos, ambiguity, and inductive thinking, yet its written accomplishments—particularly those published in chapters and articles rather than monographs—rarely display the researchers' inductive pathways or the decisions that led them down those routes.
Two of my voice values are transparency and helpfulness, and I want to share some of the messier bits of my writing process. I have hopes of showing off some beautiful, colorful pen-marked-up copies of memos and notes to you in the future, but today, I’m just offering a few thoughts on freewriting.
I often hit a point where I’ve thought and thought and thought about something, ideas are all kind of swirly in my head, I’ve made notes, I’ve mapped concepts, and I’m still not ready to do formal writing for an audience that’s not me. I might be in a good place to talk to somebody, but honestly, I’m rarely around people who actually want to hear about things like affinity space ethnography (now I’m trying to imagine explaining ethnography to my 3 year old). When I’m in that place, eventually, I realize I need to…
So I open up a new document and type out what I’ve got in my head, with notes to myself but also with citations. I know I’m not inventing anything new here, but this is part of the writing process that I think it’s easy for academics to forget.
Here’s what I freewrote today:
Ethnographic methods are appropriate for studying information literacy practices that are social and occur in an affinity space, as this looks at a sociocultural phenomenon, in a naturalistic setting. These methods cannot produce a full ethnography, but rather must be partial (Hine 2000). (BUT WHY? LIKE, THERE ARE REASONS, LEARN TO ARTICULATE THEM.) Online spaces, however, present challenges to traditional ethnographic methods. Primary among these is the problem of location-based research; using spatial metaphors to define ethnographic research sites is limiting, because: Practices travel across various online “spaces.” Boundaries of online spaces are porous. And, more and more, boundaries between online and offline activity are also porous. (Hine, 2000; Leander & McKim, 2003; Wargo 2015, 2017) Ethnography has some key features.
There are ways to approximate these features online. The field site is the trickiest bit. It’s possible to select one environment (for example, fanfiction.net) and consider its boundaries to be the boundaries of the field site, but this lends an incomplete picture.
- The selection of a “field site.”
- Observation or participant observation.
- Artifact analysis.
Now, this is not a useful introduction to ethnography for anyone. It’s incomplete, it privileges data collection over more conceptual issues. But it’s helping me move forward in my writing.