Author Archives | jameslrobson

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. Read More…