CASA 155/255:
Virtual Communities: Online Technologies and Ethnographic Practice
Fall Quarter 2006
Traditionally the fieldwork of cultural anthropologists has been based on face-to-face interaction with informants that typically belong to a local community. However, communities now exist in globally distributed, virtual spaces. Anthropologists are faced with the question of how to respond to these recent developments in their research. This course aims to introduce you to being an ethnographer in virtual communities.

Within the dimensions of the virtual and the physical space we will address three major areas: methodology, theory, and digital technology.


Cultural theory:
What is a community? What is a virtual community? How are virtual communities conceptualized and what is the relation to real communities? What is the meaning of 'virtual'? How did the first virtual communities come into being and how does that affect today's perception of virtual communities? What are theoretical frameworks to approach the analysis of virtual communities and cultures?

Ethnographic methods:
What is an ethnography? What is an online ethnography?
Where is the virtual fieldsite located? Where are the boundaries?
How is an ethnographic research project typically done?
What are differences between traditional and non-traditional ethnographies?
How are participant observation, interview, fieldnotes done online?
How does the ethnographer represent herself on the internet?
What is public, what is private on the internet?
What are ethical guidelines for online research?
How does online research affect human subjects issues?
How can ethnographic representations be produced in a virtual environment?
What are opportunities, what are obstacles?

Digital technologies included are:
blog, wiki, digital editing, spatial and qualitative analysis tools.

Learning Goals
  • To be familiar with the most relevant research on online communities
  • To understand the implications and challenges a virtual environment brings to ethnographic research
  • To gain experience in the use of digital tools and appropriate methods for doing online research as a cultural anthropologist
  • To critically apply non-traditional tools in ethnographic representations.


Claudia A Engel
office: building 110-111D
email: cengel at stanford
office hours tues 2-4

Time & Place

tue 10:15-1:05
building 110-111O
"..the universe of virtual communities seems to grow larger and larger as one's imagination stretches to accommodate the knowledge of what is happening right now. Discovering the existence and depth of this worldwide subculture is a little like discovering a previously unknown continent, teeming with unfamiliar forms of life." (H. Rheingold - The Virtual Community)
last updated 09/17/06