Is Netnography Just a Synonym for Online Ethnography?

netnography_artAt the risk of turning this blog into an advice column, I want to share an interested letter I just received. This sort of correspondence is actually fairly common, and I think the question and answer may be of wider general interest to the readers of this blog.
“Dear R. Kozinets,

My name is Maria Luisa Malerba and I am a PhD student at the Open University of Catalonia (Barcelona, Spain). I am writing because I am currently writing my PhD thesis after the field work and I have a problem of terminology. Despite having read your book, which I found extremely helpful for my investigation, I am still confused about the correct meaning and the exact difference (if any) existing among the following neologisms:

  • netnography
  • virtual ethnography
  • online ethnography
  • digital ethnography
In my investigation I conduct an analysis of informal second language learners on online communites” designed for language learning, such as Livemocha and Busuu. Being this study about learners’ behaviours, the online aspect plays a fundamental role and this research has a primarily netnographic focus. I conducted participant observation, I submitted an online survey, I interviewed learners online and I analyzed the online interaction occurred through the chat that learners submitted to me.My question is: is there a clear distinction among the aforementioned expressions? If I use the term “netnography”, how do I justify that I do not adopt the other expressions, which to me sound like synonyms?Thank you in advance. Looking forward for your answer.

Maria-Luisa Malerba”

In my answer, I tried to be brief but to the point.

“Dear Maria-Luisa:

Thank you for your question. A lot of people ask this, so I will write more about it.

Online ethnography and digital ethnography are generic terms for doing any sort of ethnographic work using some sort of online or digital method. When you use those terms, it is unclear what you have done in terms of what procedures you used, what the methodology is, such as what ethical guidelines you used for example. The literature base you will cite is also a bit amorphous.

Virtual ethnography is the term coined by Christine Hine, and it refers to a method that sees online work as only partial and incomplete. I would expect that if you called your online ethnography a virtual ethnography, then you would adhere fairly closely to the research attitudes and practices, in fact the methodology of combined research philosophy and actions, of Professor Hine as she demonstrated them in her book.

Netnography refers to a specific set of online ethnographic procedures characterized by a particular methodology, including an epistemological background, analytic frameworks, and a consistent and evolving set of guidelines for entree, observation, data analysis, ethics, and so on.

Does that help?

And at what point is something not a neologism? Ethnography, as I write in the book, was a neologism at one time. Netnography is now 18 years old, old enough to vote, drink, marry, and drive in many nations. Hey, netnography, pass me a beer.

Regards,
Rob.”


To my mind, you can say you are a healer, or you can say you are a cardiologist, or an acupuncturist, or a chiropractor, or an energetic healer. When you link yourself with a particular practice, you do more than simply adopt a neologism. You link yourself to a rigorous set of practices and a set of related literatures. Certainly, there is room for innovation. But clarity is very important in the social sciences. And clarity is something that has not been particular well-served by the rapidity of change and silos present in the social media research field.
Is that clearer?

One thought on “Is Netnography Just a Synonym for Online Ethnography?

  1. renanpwagner

    Hi Rob,

    unfortunately I haven’t yet read your whole argument re netnography, but I should do in the early future as I need to finish my methodology chapter.

    what I was wondering was if the other approaches assumed a certain form of duality between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ ethnography, putting an authentic weight to the former.

    so netnography would be a Derridean form of treating this imbalanced duality within the social sciences, where the ‘real’ life is (or was) hegemonically still regarded as the ‘physical’ life, and the virtual would be just a sort of an ‘imaginary world’ (non-real).

    and moving forward, it seems to me that to some extent if we as researchers do not look at the ‘virtual’, we are probably missing a big part of the contemporaneous social world. Ethnography should be nethnography at the very end. Not collecting visual data, not performing participant observation, not talking to individuals, and now, not engaging ‘online’ would be as not doing ‘properly’ (n)ethnography.

    or am I missing something?

    renan