Cyber-Mediated Ethnography: The Next Best Thing to Being There

Deborah Jackson, Earlham College
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Initial Publication Date: March 20, 2013


This research project is inspired by ethnography: that is, spending an extended period of time in a community, interacting with people, consuming the local media, attending gatherings, interviewing individuals, and generally observing and participating in the experiences and circumstances of community members. Since actual ethnography is not possible in most classes, I have developed a technique I call "cyber-mediated ethnography" to replicate as closely as possible the kinds of interactions and experiences that characterize actual ethnographic research.

For this activity, students access websites, weblogs, facebook, twitter, and podcasts of government agencies, environmental groups, scientific research organizations, industrial corporations, and media outlets to gain a sense of how environmental problems are being portrayed, perpetuated, and protested within various locales and communities. Through email and telephone, students can engage in conversations and conduct interviews. And with benefit of Google Earth technology, they can survey the area visually and even drive down the streets of the locale they are studying. The advantage of these on-line resources and communications, and what makes them a form of ethnography, is that they capture the look of the place, the ways in which local individuals and groups present themselves and respond to others, the degree and type of knowledge available to them, and the general climate of the community with regard to the issue being studied (in this case, environmental injustices). In these ways, cyber-mediated ethnography captures at least some of the sense of living in a community that characterizes actual ethnography; in this way truly is the next best thing to being there.

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Learning Goals

By simulating ethnographic encounters with the place, the people, and the local manifestations of the issue they are studying, students are able to move beyond "environmental justice" as an abstract concept to gain a more grounded sense of the specific conditions experienced by residents of the area. They also learn a great deal about: toxic substances; health conditions associated with these toxics; industry practices regarding emissions; local knowledge and attitudes about these issues; and laws and policies governing environmental pollution at local, county, state and national levels. Furthermore, in future versions of the course I would like to incorporate opportunities to learn about geological factors relevant to these conditions, as well.

Students gain experience in combining evidence from a range of different kinds of sources to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the issues, especially with regard to the experience of those most directly affected by environmental injustices in the form of lessened quality of life and, more seriously, life threatening illnesses related to toxic emissions from industrial facilities.

They learn about ethnographic techniques, including ethical issues concerning human subjects, and how to apply these techniques and protocols to their cyber-mediated ethnographic studies. Geoscience could be incorporated as students learn about the geological formations and processes of the area, such as the way the water flows in rivers and streams, how sediments settle, the properties of local water tables and movements of ground water, how all this relates to the retention and movement of toxic pollutants through the area, and the potential for exposure of humans to these substances.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for a relatively small class (20 – 30 students) at a liberal arts college. The class is broken into small groups, with each group focusing on a particular city, county, or other such location that is experiencing industrial pollution and its effects disproportionately compared with other such communities. Earlham College is on the semester system, and I begin this activity about five weeks into the semester, after the students have been oriented to the basics of environmental anthropology as a subdiscipline, environmental (in)justice as a concept, ethnography as a method, and the general environmental issues at play in the region on which we are focusing (in this case, the St. Clair Channel that connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and that is considered to be the most polluted section of the Great Lakes). The class meets twice a week for lecture/ discussion and has a weekly lab period which is dedicated to the virtual ethnography projects throughout most of the semester. I would think that this project could be carried out in any college or university where classes are relatively small and a lab period can be arranged.

Description and Teaching Materials

With regard to their particular location (Windsor, Ontario; Sarnia, Ontario; St. Clair County, Michigan; Southwest Detroit, Michigan), group members research: the nature and extent of local environmental problems, in the context of the Great Lakes region and U.S./Canada relations; which, if any, segments of the population are disproportionately affected (e.g., low-income people, minorities, workers in the industry, etc.) and the extent and nature of these effects; the main industy(ies) involved, and whatever national/bi-national/global connections they might have; perspectives of both corporate leaders and workers/unions in that industry, and the nature of those connections; relevant government policies and politics at all levels (local, state or province, national, bi-national); various discourses used by differently positioned stakeholders in defining/describing local environmental issues; individuals and organizations that have been especially active in efforts to ameliorate the problems, assist victims of pollution in various ways, and/or promote environmental justice.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Ethical concerns are very similar to those that apply to actual ethnography, or any other research involving human subjects. That is, individuals who enter into correspondence, become facebook friends, and so on with students engaged in cyber-mediated ethnography need to be informed about the research and its uses and give consent to participate, and their identity must be protected.

A more mundane challenge is that of holding all group members accountable to reduce the problem of some students doing very little work and riding along on the hard work of one or two group members. I address this concern by having each group turn in bi-weekly progress reports on their work in which each student summarizes the type and amount of work he/she has done, and all students sign off on the report.

In addition, it is important to convey to students that the cyber-mediated approach to ethnography includes a focus not just on the information itself, but also on the way in which it is presented (e.g., the particular information chosen to include on a webpage, what gets left out, the visuals used, and so on).


The total number of points for the cyber-mediated ethnography is 70 (35% of course grade)

Progress Reports: During the second half of the semester, each group is responsible for turning in, via email, a series of bi-weekly progress reports on what is being accomplished and by whom. These reports can be informal, but must include the following information: the nature of tasks engaged in, who is doing what, the amount of time spent on each task, any problems the group has encountered, and what the plan is for the next two-week period to move the project forward. There are three such reports at 5 points each in the group, for a total of 15 pts. (7.5% of course grade).

Website: The main product of the research is a website (technical assistance is provided) giving all the important information and links that have been found. The group also gives a presentation to the class so that each group can learn about the results of research on the other three. Two written items must be turned in at the time the group presents the website to the class: 1) a listing of all work done since Progress Report #3, giving a brief description of each task completed by each group member in preparing the website and the presentation of it, and the amount of time spent on each task. This, like the progress reports, must be a composite listing, agreed upon by all [5 pts]; 2) an annotated bibliography giving all sources that were consulted during the research that do not show up on the website itself. The annotation should describe the source and explain its relevance to the research project [10 pts].

In addition, each individual can potentially receive 25 points for his/her contributions to the overall result (website), and the group as a whole can receive as much as 15 points for the quality of the website (in this case, the same score will be awarded to each member of the group).

References and Resources

Website created by students in the Fall 2012 "Cultural Politics of Environment: Great Lakes Region" class: