Virtual ethnography is a recent development in the area of anthropology, science & technology studies, and internet research (Mason 1996; Hine 2000; Howard 2002; Beaulieu 2004; Beaulieu forthcoming 2005; Hine forthcoming 2005). It extends the notions of field and ethnographic observation from the exclusive study of co-present and face to face interactions, to a focus on mediated and distributed ones (Hine forthcoming 2005). It combines two related but distinct ideas. First, virtual ethnography tries to create virtual counterparts of the basic ethnographic concepts and interrogates whether they can be applied to mediated interaction. Second, virtual ethnography aims to change the notion of the fieldsite from a localised space into a network of interlinked mediated settings. In this, it is related to the ethnography of networks (Newman 1998). Virtual ethnography maintains a number of values of traditional ethnographic work. It aims to sustain practices of “thick description”(Geertz 1983), and to achieve this by paying attention to the perspective of the actors themselves (Ward 1999; Slater 2002). This makes virtual ethnography distinct from Web site content analysis or Webometric studies, although it may make use of the same qualitative and quantitative techniques to locate networks and Web sites (Scharnhorst 2003), or to understand media forms.
The key research question in the Virtual Ethnography Focus is: how can ethnography be pursued in mediated settings? Research in this focus will establish which aspects of ethnographic research are challenged in particular in the shift from face to face interaction to mediated digitised interaction. This should make clear how ethnography can be conceived as a flexible practice, while remaining recognisable as a specific methodology.
More specific questions that will be dealt with are which new concepts of “field” or “research site” are needed for virtual ethnography, how virtual elements can be integrated in traditional fieldwork, and which new ethical issues arise in the practice of virtual ethnography (Fox 2000). In the field of internet research, a fair amount of work has already been devoted to the challenge to crucial notions of research ethics in the context of mediated social science research, and the Studio research will elaborate on these guidelines and reflections in the course of doing research.
Web Archiving for scholarly research
This focus will develop a new methodology for systematic, longitudinal analysis of the Web sites that are produced in the sciences and humanities. It is clear that Web and internet data are central in many ways in e-research, also in the humanities and social sciences. To the extent that researchers and scholars are creating more and more presentations on the Web (the Web is the dominant interface with the internet in academia), Web data are clearly important to understand the development of these fields. However, presently there is no clear way how to make Web data available for scholarly research. Libraries and archives are only beginning to develop concepts that enable the medium- and long-term archiving of Web sites. They are confronted, among others, with the problem that the concept of the document is not adequate for this area. The Studio will not take it on to crawl and archive the Web itself: this must be the responsibility of libraries and archives. It will however in cooperation with the WebArchivist organisation , the Internet Preservation Consortium, the Internet Archive , and the nascent European Internet Archive, develop methods and techniques to conceptualise Web archives in such a way that they can produce datasets for social science and humanities research.
In this effort, the emphasis will be on Web archiving of the Dutch and European academic Web. This work will build on a current project at NIWI-KNAW on digitisation of two KNAW institutes and expand the scope of this effort in order to be able to analyse the whole of “the academic Web”for analysis. A “Web sphere”is conceptualised in this research as a linked set of dynamically defined digital resources spanning multiple Web sites that together demarcate a specific type of content or action in online structures (Foot and Schneider 2002). Presently, there are still many methodological problems that need to be solved before one can analyse the dynamics of digitisation as represented in the Web sites produced by scientific and scholarly research. This research aims to solve these problems by using a suite of software tools, developed by WebArchivist.org, based on lessons learned through collaborative projects with the US Library of Congress and the Internet Archive. In collaboration with the internet researchers involved in developing this tool, at the University of Washington (Seattle) and the Institute of Technology of the State University of New York (Utica), this method will be adapted to the study of scientific Web sites.
The work in this methodological focus will “scale up” this project by developing methods to combine in-depth qualitative Web site analysis with large-scale comparative “surface analysis” of the Web. The central question is which specifications and analytical tools are needed for the extraction of meaningful data sets for research in the humanities and social sciences from the flood of raw Web data.
The extended use of data visualisation technologies and virtual reality techniques in simulation research methods is often seen as one of the hallmarks of e-science (Berman, Fox et al. 2003). Computer based simulation and modelling has become a standard repertoire in the natural and technical sciences and is increasingly used in the life sciences and medicine (Fishwick 1995; Banks 1998). In a number of social sciences and humanities, models have been a standard tool for decades (eg. economics, sociology, archeology) (Gilbert and Troitzsch 1999; Burenhult 2002; Schweitzer 2002). The use of simulation is however a more recent phenomenon in these fields. Moreover, the value of simulating and modelling as a research method is often not undisputed.
The aim of the research in the methodological focus Simulation in the Studio is to develop further expertise in simulations and systematic reflection on the heuristic value of modelling and simulation for theory building in the social sciences and humanities. The research will not focus primarily on the creation of new models since there is already a large variety of models and simulation techniques available. Instead, the respecification of general models for research questions in the social sciences and humanities will be central. Both agent-based and network-oriented models and simulations will be included in the research agenda. The study of the heuristic and epistemic value of modelling and simulating as a research strategy is intrinsic part of this respecification. For example, from the perspective of social theory one might wish to give agents in large systems as many individual traits as possible. However, this easily leads to an exponential increase of the degrees of freedom of the model. This raises the question how low-dimensional approaches can be combined with individualisation of agents in multi-agent models and simulations.
The research in this methodological focus will focus on evolutionary modelling (including the modelling of innovation), the application of evolutionary strategies as heuristic concept and as mathematical tools, and the diffusion of simulation into the humanities (Scharnhorst 1998; Scharnhorst 2001; Ratto and Scharnhorst 2004). We expect that this might also lead to a toolbox of simulation principles in combination with principles for the reflection on the conceptual implications of such models (which are often not explicitly discussed in the literature). The simulation will moreover be developed in close collaboration with domain-specific experts in the social sciences and humanities. This may also produce interactive simulations that can be used in different contexts in research and teaching.