Fox House, on the outskirts of Sheffield.

The Virtual and the Visual in Ethnography

The ethnography I will be conducting for “Picturing the Social’ will be looking at practices of sharing photographs on social media. So is this to be a visual ethnography? A virtual ethnography? Or some kind of combination? Both of these approaches entail different theoretical and methodological models (Ardévol, 2012), which I will now briefly consider, along with outlining where this ethnography is situated in relation. Looking at these fields separately is not to suggest that they do not overlap — on the contrary, I believe that the visual and the virtual share many similarities. Photography is very much a social technology, in that images are typically created with the intention of sharing (Bourdieu, 1990), to the extent that photography has been termed the ‘original’ social media.


The Internet can be used as a means for collecting data, or as the topic of research in itself (Markham and Baym, 2009). Much of the discussion of virtual ethnography considers this first function, in which the Internet is used to access participants. Studies of computer-mediated communication, on the other hand, focus on the specific features of online spaces, such as virtual worlds and games. This particular ethnography will be a combination of both, in that I am not using social media simply to find people to observe, but rather am interested specifically in their online practices. Therefore this is an ethnography of the virtual, rather than an ethnography which makes use of the virtual.

One of my areas of interest relates to the relationship between online and offline space, and the collapse of the division between the two. For example, how does the online construction of notions of Sheffield affect subjects’ experience of it offline? For some members of the social media groups I am considering, their predominant experience of Sheffield is now online, as they live elsewhere — how perhaps should this be conceptualised in regards to the online/offline divide? Additionally, not all online spaces are to be conceptualised alike, as the aims and objectives of virtual worlds, social networks and discussion forums are markedly different from one another. The photography groups I am looking to study as part of this ethnography are communities of interest, in which various motivations — including sharing memories, discussing contemporary issues and soliciting feedback on creative practice — must be explored and understood as affordances of these online spaces.

Internet ethnography offers a useful opportunity to participate in the same settings as participants, and to use the same tools for interactions and expression. This parity of access means that ethnography of online spaces is “meaningfully different” from the study of offline social practices (Kozinets, 2010: 5). Hine conceptualises this difference in terms of an emphasis on flow and connectivity, in contrast to ethnography’s prior focus on location and boundaries (2000). O’Reilly similarly states that virtual ethnography is challenging assumptions of what constitutes a ‘field site’, in that “instead of thinking in terms of places or locations, our Internet ethnographer looks to connections between things” (O’Reilly, 2009: 217). Pink also stresses the importance of considering connections and the “potential forms of relatedness” constituted online, in which online and offline materials and localities “become interwoven in everyday and research narratives” (Pink, 2012). I am particularly interested to explore how theories of place and space will be useful for this ethnography, in that the groups’ focus on Sheffield as a physical and conceptual place is mediated and constituted through online spaces. How do these different notions of place and space entangle, and how do they affect each other in order to create new notions of what constitutes Sheffield and people’s relationship to it? My early observations have already yielded an interesting example of the online representation of a sensory experience of Sheffield as locality and as history — a video uploaded to one Sheffield-themed social media group documents a walk through the post-industrial landscape, in which the participant draws attention to the shift from Sheffield’s identity as a steel working city, to a collection of vacant lots and empty office buildings. The online space is therefore used to provide not just a commentary on contemporary politics, but also to capture a physical experience, and an emotional reaction to it.


Ethnographies frequently use participant-generated photographs to explore the perspectives of those involved, enabling them to ‘speak’ through images (see Mitchell, 2011). As I am not inviting participants to produce materials for this project, but using those that they have made already, this approach is not applicable here. Although I will be considering people’s use of photography to discuss issues that are of relevance to them — relating to history, sport, wildlife, weather and so on — my aim is not to use photography to access those beliefs, but rather to explore the specific role of photographs in this process. Much as I stressed above regarding the virtual, this is not an ethnography that uses the visual, but is rather an ethnography of the visual.

I therefore similarly will not be using images within this ethnography in order to supplement my findings, or to ‘show’ something under the pretence of unmediated communication. This function, in which images act as a kind of supporting evidence, is problematic for numerous reasons, in that it assumes that images can be regarded as objective, but only fragmentary, adjuncts to text. As this ethnography is focused upon the practice and discussion of photography, such an approach to the visual would be inappropriate, as it fails to acknowledge that images must be studied as cultural objects in their own right. Therefore this ethnography of the visual will consider how images — at the level of objects as well as the production of objects — function within broader social relations (Pink, 2012: 5). As such, I will need to employ a range of theoretical approaches, which explore photography as a social process, as a form of identity negotiation, and as a phenomenon that continually remakes its own cultural circumstances of production.

Pauwels (2012) provides a particularly useful overview of conducting visual research, in which the status of the materials, and the extent to which they matter, is of primary concern. This is one of my main topics of investigation — not so much what images are of, but why they matter to people, what they enable viewers to do, say and think, and why they have been shared in the first place. For me, this is the key concern of contemporary visual research: what is it that makes social media photography — from the taking of snaps on Snapchat, to the sharing of photographs on Flickr — so important?

It will be my aim, therefore, to study how the visual and the virtual combine in the notion of ‘photographic sharing’. In particular, the social media communities in which these photographs are circulated will offer an important means for studying how notions of place are negotiated and constituted through the co-presence that is facilitated by looking at images online.

Ardévol, E. (2012) Virtual/Visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage.

Markham, A. N. & Baym, N. K. (2009) Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mitchell, C. (2011) Doing Visual Research. London: Sage.

O’Reilly, K. (2009) Key Concepts in Ethnography. London: Sage.

Pauwels, L. (2012) Contemplating the State of Visual Research. In: Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

Pink, S. (2012) Advances in Visual Methodology. London: Sage.

‘Picturing the Social: Transforming our Understanding of Images in Social Media and Big Data research’ is an 18-month research project that started in September 2014 and is based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It is funded through an ESRC’s Transformative Research grant and is focused on transforming the social science research landscape by carving out a more central place for image research within the emerging fields of social media and Big Data research. The project aims to better understand the huge volumes of images that are now routinely shared on social media and what this means for society. This project involves an interdisciplinary team of seven researchers from four universities as well as industry with expertise in: Media and Communication Studies (Farida Vis and Anne Burns, University of Sheffield), Visual Culture (Simon Faulkner and Jim Aulich, Manchester School of Art), Software Studies and Sociology (Olga Goriunova, Warwick University), Computer and Information Science (Francesco D’Orazio, Pulsar and Mike Thelwall, University of Wolverhampton). The project is part of the Visual Social Media Lab.

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