Ethnographic Methods and Virtual Worlds: Notes Towards a Typology

(a month or so ago I posted “a longish review”:/2008/06/13/more-on-coming-of-age-in-second-life/ of Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life. Tom has now whipped up this occasional contribution to expand some of his thoughts on the topic — enjoy! -R)

The Setup
1. I have been thinking about writing this essay for some time (in connection with an edited book project in its early planning stages), but was inspired to write it in this form in response to the interesting conversations that have appeared on this blog and elsewhere in regard to my book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. This essay is an experiment in two ways. First, in it I discuss emerging genres of ethnographic research with regard to virtual worlds. Second, I use the blog format to post a draft, in the hope that the feedback I receive will help me in writing the final version of this essay. There have been several recent experiments using blog-based peer review to complement more traditional forms of peer review. The best example of this to my knowledge is the case of Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s forthcoming book Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies. Part of the “experiment,” then, is to see how the comments I receive with regard to this essay help me revise it.

  1. Here is how I have set things up with these goals in mind. I have numbered the twenty paragraphs of this essay to facilitate commenting upon specific passages, and have kept the essay as succinct as possible. I see this essay as sharing genre features with the “conference talk,” a time-tested way to present work in progress. I have thus omitted endnotes, a bibliography, and most references to Coming of Age in Second Life, despite the fact that this essay extends arguments already present in that book. I encourage any and all comments on the essay, and would appreciate it if you could provide your name with your comment. If your comment inspires me in any way during the revision process, I will thank you in the acknowledgments section that will appear in the final version of the essay. I envision that final version being about twice the length of this draft, and of course as including endnotes and a bibliography.

The Background
3. Coming of Age in Second Life is an ethnographic study of the virtual world Second Life, as well as an analysis of the place of virtual worlds in human sociality more broadly. Since its unofficial release on April 21, 2008 and particularly since its official release on June 18, 2008, I have spoken in graduate seminars, been interviewed on radio stations, and appeared at a number of meet-the-author events (many of them taking place within Second Life itself). It is hardly a coincidence that in the same month as the official release of my book, the inaugural issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research was released. All this indicates that we are at a moment in which a new research community is coming into being, a community whose growth will only be stimulated by the continuing emergence of new virtual worlds, from Age of Conan to Google’s Lively. This research community includes a wide range of persons, from those who have researched virtual worlds for decades to students just beginning to think about new projects. It is an interdisciplinary research community, including persons from many academic disciplines, persons working in nonprofit and industry contexts, independent scholars, designers, journalists, and residents (these are, of course, not exclusive categories). Two key questions that emerge around this new research community (and in all likelihood, all new research communities) are: (1) what is the object of our study?, and (2) what do various methodologies bring to the table in researching this object of study?

  1. As with the case of my previous publications on Indonesia, it has been interesting to see what aspects of my analysis attract attention from different readerships. In both my Indonesia work and my Second Life work, discussions have emerged around questions of methodology and particularly the constitution of “the fieldsite.” I find this gratifying, because I have intentionally designed all my research projects to push on the boundaries of what we mean by “the fieldsite.” In Indonesia I have conducted research on gay Indonesians on three islands (Java, Bali, and Sulawesi), but in my books The Gay Archipelago and A Coincidence of Desires I discuss how, in a powerful sense, this research is not “multi-sited”: the fieldsite is “Indonesia” itself. This is because gay Indonesians have historically seen themselves as gay “Indonesians,” not gay Javanese, Balinese, and so on. There are many different kinds of spatial scales operative in human life, including local, national, regional, and global, and it is crucial not to equate culture with locality. Sometimes that equation is valid, sometimes not: it depends. Translocal cultural logics exist with regard to everything from religion to gender. In the case of gay Indonesians, while they may think of themselves in local terms with regard to some aspects of their lives, with regard to homosexuality they typically think of themselves as Indonesians. This makes sense given that the concept of gay subjectivity is associated with modernity, not learned from one’s parents or tradition, but the linkages to the nation turn out to be much more complex. I have suggested that one reason so little has been written on gay Indonesians is that these persons fall outside one’s analytical horizon if that horizon is founded in the spatial scale of locality. Researchers who equate culture with locality in Indonesia can miss the forest for the trees, so to speak: they will see all kinds of cultural logics that are local, but those that are translocal in some fashion will appear to be inauthentic impositions.

  2. My interest in challenging meanings of “the fieldsite” was strongly supported by my dissertation advisors at Stanford. One of these advisors, Akhil Gupta (now at UCLA) has co-written some key works about notions of the fieldsite with James Ferguson. James Ferguson was my colleague at Irvine for several years before moving to Stanford. I still have many colleagues at Irvine who support my interest in rethinking “the fieldsite,” including George Marcus, whose work on multi-sited ethnography is well known. When I began conducting research on virtual worlds, I thus came to the project with a prior interest in problematizing conceptions of the fieldsite. I soon realized that the conceptual tendencies with regard to virtual worlds were strikingly opposed to those I had encountered in Indonesia studies. Whereas in Indonesia studies, the presumption was in the direction of locality, in the study of virtual worlds the presumption has been in the direction of translocality. For instance, there were (and still are) persons claiming that all virtual-world research projects must include meeting persons in the actual world to be valid, or at least that such projects must always privilege the actual-world lives of virtual world residents.

    The “Four Confusions”

  3. As I discuss in Coming of Age in Second Life, both virtual worlds and the study of virtual worlds have histories to them. However, as noted above, the study of virtual worlds as a research community is in a formative stage, paralleling the recent growth in virtual worlds themselves. In such contexts of emergent inquiry, debates over definitions and terminologies are common, as a glance at the Table of Contents for the first issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research indicates. A difficulty in moving these debates forward is the remarkably negative attitude toward virtual worlds found not just in some quarters of anthropology, but even in science and technology studies. In part this may be due to the simultaneously utopian and dystopian narratives that often co-occur with new technologies. It may also be relevant that to date, the most prevalent popular-culture reference to virtual worlds is The Matrix movies, in which a virtual world is used to enslave humanity.

  4. I define virtual worlds as places of human culture realized by computer programs through the Internet. Before turning to my typology of ethnographic methods with regard for virtual worlds, it will prove helpful to set out what I term the “four confusions” regarding contemporary discussions of virtual worlds. Most of these confusions originate in mistaking something that frequently co-occurs with virtual worlds for a necessary condition of their existence.

  5. Games. Virtual worlds are not games. Historically they have been and continue to be shaped by video games; they may contain games within them; they may even be largely structured in a game-like manner; but there is no way to equate virtual worlds with games without defining “game” so vaguely as to include all social life under its purview. The confusion originates to some extent in the English-language distinction between “game” and “play,” a distinction not found in all languages and cultures. Because it is incorrect to assume, by fiat, that all virtual worlds are games, it follows that the use of theories from game studies to virtual worlds must be contextual: in some cases such theories will be highly effective, in other cases less so.

  6. Visuality. Despite the fact that at present, phrases like “3D web” are frequently used as synonyms for “virtual world,” virtual worlds need not be graphical or even visual. This is seen most clearly in the fact that historically, virtual worlds were exclusively text-based (as in the case of “MUDs”). The fact that nearly all contemporary virtual worlds are built around three-dimensional graphics is fascinating and important to study, but this does not mean that such graphics are a definitional precondition for deeming something a virtual world. For instance, one could in theory have a virtual world composed entirely of soundscapes, in which persons who are blind in the actual world would be on equal footing with the seeing. One could imagine a purely haptic virtual world, in which an interface technology like a glove allowed participants to navigate and interact solely through touch. There is no indication such virtual worlds would involve more than comparatively small communities were they to come into existence. If anything, the trend toward visuality seems to be accelerating. However, it remains crucial that we avoid conflating virtual worlds and visuality. Since most contemporary virtual worlds are structured around visuality, theories from visual studies will be crucial to understanding them, but it would prove less effective to use such theories to make categorical claims about virtual worlds.

  7. Mass Media. Because virtual worlds are places, they are not mass media, though they may contain mass media within them (everything from magazines, books, and embedded websites to streaming audio and video media). Virtual worlds need not mediate two or more places, since they are places in their own right. If anything, it is more accurate to think of a virtual world as a “medium,” in the sense of a material in which one crafts things. This has consequences for the use of mass media theory for understanding virtual worlds: we cannot assume ahead of time how such theories will need to be reworked for virtual-world contexts.

  8. Anonymity and roleplaying. The vast majority of existing virtual worlds require that participants have accounts in which their identity differs from their actual-world identity. For instance, in Second Life I am known as “Tom Bukowski,” because while one is allowed to choose any first name one wishes, last names must be selected from a pre-defined list. However, it is not a definitional precondition of virtual worlds that they be built around anonymity. One could imagine a virtual world that encouraged or required participants to use their actual-world names inworld, along the lines of social networking websites like Facebook. As virtual worlds are used increasingly in contexts like education, nonprofit work, and the corporate sphere, virtual worlds disallowing anonymity, or at least not mandating anonymity, may become more common. Linked to this question of anonymity is that of roleplaying. Since many virtual worlds are structured partially or overwhelmingly as games, and given the historical linkages between virtual worlds and fantasy fiction like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is unsurprising that forms of role play are crucial to many virtual worlds. Roleplay, however, is not a necessity for defining something as a virtual world.

  9. There are, of course, other possible confusions: this is to be expected given the degree to which the study of virtual worlds is an emerging field of inquiry. For instance, it is still unclear if virtual worlds must employ avatars. Text-based virtual worlds, for example, did not use avatars as typically understood: one could define the description of a resident as a textual avatar, but such descriptions seem more like a “profile” than an avatar. However, the four confusions described above seem to be the ones that most often sidetrack contemporary research agendas and discussions with regard to virtual worlds.

Research Questions and Ethnographic Design
13. With the preceding discussion in mind, I now turn to the issue of research design, setting out a three-part typology of methods for ethnographic research with regard to virtual worlds. I intend “typology” to be taken in a heuristic sense, not an exhaustive one. My undergraduate mentor in linguistics, the late Joseph Greenberg, talked about “splitters” and “clumpers” in linguistic typology: researchers who sought fine-grained categorizations versus those who worked to gather the world’s languages into the fewest possible groups. For the purposes of this essay I will be a clumper: I will heuristically group all ethnographic methods with regard to virtual worlds into only three categories. I could easily have set forth a typology with five or ten categories, but this more parsimonious typology has the benefit of brevity, and well as highlighting some key distinctions.

  1. It is crucial to foreground the relationship between “research question” and “method.” Any claim that a particular method is the best (or the only valid) method for researching virtual worlds misses how research always involves a coming-together of research question and methodology. How one conducts research is not determined by some essential property “out there;” it is shaped by the research questions one wishes to investigate. In my work as Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, I find that one of the most common reasons I end up rejecting a manuscript is that the research questions (while fascinating) and methodology (while rigorous) do not match up: the methods are not working to answer the questions the researcher has ostensibly chosen to examine. If I wish to study patterns of HIV infection in a certain social group, quantitative methods will prove invaluable. If I wish to understand how a certain population comes to think of itself as a “social group,” qualitative methods will in all likelihood be a better fit. Methodological partisanship is not helpful in moving these kinds of conversations forward: what ideally emerges is a research community, with researchers using different methods to answer differing research questions with regard to a shared field of interest. With this in mind, here is my “clumping,” preliminary typology of ethnographic methods with regard to virtual worlds:

  2. Virtual/Actual Interfaces. One class of ethnographic methods with regard to virtual worlds explores interfaces between virtual worlds and the actual world. An excellent example of this kind of research is T. L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture, which opens with the researcher attending a hotel convention for participants of Everquest. This class of methods builds off a history of examining such interfaces with regard to the Internet more generally. A well-known example of this is Daniel Miller and Don Slater’s The Internet: an Ethnographic Approach, which focuses upon how Trinidadians use the Internet to reconfigure Trinidadian identity and community. Since work in this genre tends to emphasize relationships between virtual-world and actual-world selfhood and sociality, a logical methodological outcome is that researchers strive to interview the same persons in the actual world as they encounter in a virtual world or worlds, and have as one research focus those instances where residents of a virtual world meet collectively in actual-world contexts.

  3. Virtual/Virtual Interfaces. Another class of ethnographic methods with regard to virtual worlds examines interfaces between two or more virtual worlds. In some cases, this can be a comparative research design in which residents of the virtual worlds in question do not (or mostly do not) move between the virtual worlds being studied. This is analogous to, say, Clifford Geertz’s book Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, in which the Moroccans and Indonesians studied do not travel between Morocco and Indonesia and are, indeed, largely unaware of each other’s existence. In other cases, this can be a research design that tracks a community or communities moving between virtual worlds. An excellent example of this is Celia Pearce’s forthcoming book Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds. In this work, Pearce examines the “Uru diaspora,” a community formed when the virtual world Uru shut down and residents worked to rebuild their lost virtual home in other virtual contexts like Second Life and One frequent topic addressed by research in this genre is how notions of selfhood and community are sustained and destabilized across differing virtual contexts.

  4. Virtual Worlds In Their Own Terms. The third class of ethnographic methods making up my heuristic typology involves studying a single virtual world. This is the primary method I employ in my book Coming of Age in Second Life, where I refer to it as studying a virtual world “in its own terms.” If Geertz’s book Islam Observed can serve as an analogue for studying virtual/virtual interfaces, then several of his other books (for instance, his first ethnography, The Religion of Java), can serve a similar purpose in regard to studying a virtual world “in its own terms.” Geertz’s Religion of Java is primarily a study of Islam, and there are by how hundreds of insightful ethnographies of Islam, exploring Muslim life around the world. That such ethnographies usually focus on particular places and communities does not mean they ignore that Muslims are found worldwide, that many Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, that persons migrate, and so on. Instead, it means that they examine how such translocal cultural logics and practices shape what is emicially understood to be a particular community or communities. It is absolutely crucial to recognize that an interest in intersectionality, translocality, and the co-constitution of cultural domains is typically common to all three classes of ethnographic methods I discuss in this essay. Some studies of virtual worlds “in their own terms” focus upon subcultures or specific topics (say, sexuality, or economics). Others strive for a more general portrait. In any case, researchers working in this genre are often interested in how shared practices and meanings emerge and are contested within a virtual world.

    Concluding Thoughts

  5. This rough typology of ethnographic methods with regard to studying virtual worlds is meant to underscore how different genres of research design allow for exploring varied sets of research questions. Most researchers end up working in all of these genres over time, but at any point in time the best research is based upon the difficult choice of focusing one’s methods in line with a particular avenue of investigation. Arriving at a workable and compelling design is perhaps the most challenging and important step in conducting research. It is not possible to do everything at once. In the emerging research community around virtual worlds, I have sometimes encountered a misreading of my colleague George Marcus’s work on multi-sited ethnography, wherein it seems to be assumed that the more “multi,” the better. In this misunderstanding, research on a single fieldsite is, a priori, suspect or outdated, while research on multiple fieldsites is, a priori, valorized as cutting-edge. In reality, both single-sited and multi-sited methods go back to the earliest decades of ethnographic research: indeed, nineteenth-century anthropology was dominated by evolutionary approaches that presumed multiple sites of research and comparison. This is why in 1896, Franz Boas, a founding figure in American anthropology, felt compelled to write his influential article “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology.”

  6. It should be clear that all three of the methodological approaches discussed above (or the many additional methods that I could have set forth with a more “splitter” typology) are valid approaches to researching virtual worlds. All have strengths, and all involve sacrifices in terms of honing a doable research plan. In what I find to be the best research in virtual worlds or the actual world, we are moving toward forms of what I have elsewhere termed “postreflexive” modes of ethnographic engagement, focusing upon how “the fieldsite” of any research project emerges through that ethnographic engagement, rather than being set in stone “out there.” It is by now well-acknowledged that the single fieldsite is, in this sense, an ethnographic fiction. The irony is that in virtual worlds research, what sometimes appears to be less well-acknowledged is that multiple fieldsites are also so constructed.

  7. What does the future hold? It appears that research on virtual worlds will continue to increase and diversify. A subset of that research will continue to be ethnographic in some sense, and this work bears every indication of representing an innovative set of contributions. Obviously, there is no need to choose between the various methods for ethnographic research with regard to virtual worlds that I have discussed above. All can be done well or badly, but none of them are by definition invalid. When properly keyed to appropriate research questions, each has something to offer. Each can contribute to building a body of ethnographic work that will help illuminate what virtual worlds are, as well as their changing place in human life. In some ways this body of work will be specific to virtual worlds, but it will continue to draw from a range of other fields as well. For instance, while (as noted above) virtual worlds are not necessarily visual and are not necessarily games, they do tend to be highly visual and often are games or emphasize play. As a result, theoretical perspectives from game studies and visual studies, among other disciplines, will continue to be crucial for understanding most virtual worlds. In turn, the growing body of research on virtual worlds, informed in part by various modes of ethnography, will have much to offer many other fields of inquiry. The conjunction of ethnography and virtual worlds will continue to stand as a vibrant field of research, contributing to central debates about human selfhood and sociality into the future.

—Tom Boellstorff is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, and Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

6 thoughts on “Ethnographic Methods and Virtual Worlds: Notes Towards a Typology

  1. Very interesting work, but your ethnographic fieldwork setting is about to be invaded. Have you thought about how your work will be McFatenized by the military? The Pentagon is in the midst of a big push seize and control a large multiplayer online game. Here is a look at what they’re after: There’s even talk of virtually training online cultural affairs or Human Terrain people on such programs. How can the military use your work towards this end?

  2. I am hardly a peer, so I will comment rather than review. I understand the essay to belong at least in part to the sort of piece handled masterfully well by Dell Hymes, which combined a little bit of the review, programmatic, and methodological genres. Anyway, here goes…

    Comments on particular paragraphs:
    6. Regarding films, I think you should not miss the opportunity to reference David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” at some point, perhaps in 9. when you discuss the possibility of a virtual world invoking touch.

    13. I have always heard and read the dichotomy as “lumper” vs. splitter, a distinction that goes beyond the discipline of linguistics if I am not mistaken. Perhaps Greenberg’s phrasing was distinct.

    18. I am not sure that your reference to Boas’ “Comparative method” paper hits the mark. If read in conjunction with his “Occurrence of similar inventions” I think it is clear that what he is attacking is a program of research that presumes a correlation between features of social organization and material culture at the expense of investigation of local history. There are multiple “Comparative Methods,” as in for example historical linguistics. Perhaps the Comparative Method of Radcliffe-Brown is a better fit here?

    General comments:
    I have the tendency to explicitly treat a great deal of phenomena as issues of social organization. I am never quite sure if other anthropologists are doing so implicitly or if the term is so old fashioned that a) they find the concept hackneyed or b) it never entered their vocabulary. I say this because I feel that the issues of scale you are bringing up are good entrees into a discussion of how not all social organization involves the face-to-face community or the local group.

    Hope some of this helps! I know e-mail has expanded informal review of work by allowing us to pass our papers around to friends and area specialists. It will be interesting to see if blogs are the next step in this sort of informal review process.

    —Matthew T. Bradley
    Indiana University

  3. I take the heart of this piece to be your virtual/actual interfaces, virtual/virtual interfaces, and virtual worlds in their own terms typology. In my own experience, WoW player experience is extremely multimodal — they talk on vent, they play in game, they go to barbecues, and so forth. For this reason I feel that virtual/actual interfaces must be central to the study of WoW.

    I appreciate that different research interests will lead to different methods, and I agree that the ‘in its own terms’ method you use in CASL is a legitimate choice. But is it the best one? I think maybe you are more interested in the multimodality of VR experiences than you might think…

    1. I think CASL underestimates how central virtual/actual and virtual/virtual interfaces are for SLers. Indeed, although you claim to be studying SL in its own terms, your own ethnography is constantly slipping into actual and non-SL virtual spaces (websites, letters to spouses, etc.). So I really do think there is an element of bad conscience in the book — it is constantly implicitly struggling to exceed the horizons you set for it.

    2. You might reply that the ‘its own terms’ method does not ignore translocal connections. This is fair, and I admit my point is a hard one to press home. But I really do think that CASL relies on things outsides of SL more deeply and seriously than can be accommodated by the ‘its own terms’ method, even when it is balanced by an awareness of translocal connections.

    3. Many people have rethought scale, the fieldsite, etc. in order to undo assumptions of locality that spring from doing fieldwork in one place (‘the village’). It seems to me that you are using that literature in order to _redo_ locality. That is, we have spent all of this time proving that islands are not isolates, but connected in complex ways, and are now attempting to take this literature and use it to turn SL back into an island.

    6. I think you would argue that islandizing SL bucks established trends because anthros don’t give respect to virtual worlds, and because we now have the freedom to imagine lots of different scales for our research. I admit we have freedom to rethink scale but… why does that freedom somehow make re-villagizing a fieldsite the best choice among other choices? It ends up eclipsing the multimodality of virtual world interactions is eclipsed. I would think someone who took the problematization of locality seriously would want to emphasize multimodality, not turn SL back into an island.

    7. Legitimizing SL as a space of research by islandizing it is, in some sense, using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house: you are legitimizing SL ‘in its own terms’ only by buying into assumptions drawn explicitly from stereotypes of ‘isolated’ Pacific islands. Is this such a good idea? As someone who lives in the Pacific, works with, and studies Pacific Islanders I think these notions of boundedness are so compromised that I wouldn’t want to rely on them for anything, even legitimizing the study of virtual worlds in themselves.

    8. I think your islandizing of SL is in line with current trends, rather than bucking them. Many SL residents are ‘immersionists’ who hold SL to be a distinct ‘place’. Similarly, popular press and much academic writing sees virtual worlds as ‘worlds’, an ‘electronic frontier’ as a place that people ‘migrate’ to in an ‘exodus’. Realistic 3d worlds have only exacerbated this tendency to understand virtual worlds as locales or ‘places’. Even those disgusted by SL are disgusted with it _because they understand it is a place_, and in particular one which is not an adequate replacement for the actual world.

    8. As I’ve said, I don’t think these understandings do justice to the complex phenomena of virtual worlds, which I increasingly see as a whole network of sites in which people engage each other in a variety of different modalities. I think we need to understand how people make their lives meaningful inside that network if we want to do justice to the phenomenon. This means problematizing virtual worlds as places in the exact same way that previous scholars problematized ‘the village’ as a place, not reinscribing in virtual space the same errors earlier ethnographers made in their r/l fieldsites.

    Furthermore… I think there is enough material in your own ethnography to demonstrate that deep down inside you agree with me on this one (!!!)

    At any rate thanks for the essay — it got me articulating stuff that has been in my mind for some time..

  4. REPLY

    Thanks so much to Montgamery, MTBradley, and Rex for these comments! This is the whole reason I did this experiment: it’s always flatting to get responses to one’s work, but it’s a real treat when I can actually take the comments into consideration when revising. I’ll have to let these comments perk in the back of my brain for a while because I have other projects ahead in line before the published version of this piece, so I’ll just provide quick responses here to each comment for the time being. I’ll check back in a week or two and if there are any other comments or responses, I will respond to those as well.

    Montgamery: You’re absolutely right that there is military interest in virtual worlds (and thus, social science research into virtual worlds, including anthropological research). I don’t think “about to be invaded” is the right phrase, since military involvement in these kinds of technologies goes way back. The Internet itself was developed with military interests in mind. Another example that I mention in my book is that of Battlezone, an Atari video game developed in 1980 that some historians of technology have identified as the first using first-person perspective. Soon after its released, the military worked with Atari to develop “Military Battlezone” (also known as “The Bradley Trainer”) for training soldiers.

    You raise the important question regarding how one’s work is used after it’s been published. I (like most social scientists I know) try to write in a way that is difficult to co-opt, but one can’t entirely predict how one’s work will be used after it’s been published. Just last week I was interviewed in The Jakarta Post, the major English-language periodical in Indonesia, about some recent demonizations of gay men in the national press. So far my books on gay Indonesians have been used in ways that support the rights of GLBT Indonesians (to my knowledge), but there’s always the chance that some fundamentalist group will cite a passage out of context in some way to do the opposite. One can’t control such things: one can do the best one can to make that difficult to pull off, but it’s just not possible to have total control, and that’s true whether one is talking about an actual-world context like Indonesia or a virtual world.

    MTBradley: Thanks for all those detailed comments: I’ll think through all of them. In terms of your general comment, I do think social organization is certainly an important and valid concept, and issues of spatial scale are just one point of entrée into questions of social organization (you could also talk about it in terms of class, gender, religion, on and on). By no means is social organization passé!

    Rex: Thanks as well for a very stimulating set of comments (and for the opportunity to post these notes more generally). I am once again in your debt. Your comments aren’t really about the draft essay, but about my book Coming of Age in Second Life, but I do find them interesting. They are a bit hard to follow because you contradict yourself along the way and ascribe to me views I don’t hold, but I enjoyed reading along as you were thinking out loud. As far as I understand the comments, I do think you are the one agreeing with me! Or perhaps can we just say “we agree with each other”–perish the thought?

    This goes back to my response to Montgamery: one can only do one’s best to foreclose misunderstandings and misappropriations (not to mention oversimplifications) ahead of time. I certainly wouldn’t accuse you of islandizing, re-villagizing, re-bounding, or other such juvenile intellectual sins when speaking of “WoW players,” “Pacific Islanders,” or “living in the Pacific.” What your comments really highlight for me is how a range of emerging technologies and technologically-mediated or enabled socialities, from virtual worlds and MMOGs to blogs, cellphones, websites, even email, will continue to pose productive challenges for ethnographic inquiry. I’m particularly interested in thinking about these ramifications for exploring how people understand themselves as belonging, in various ways, to specific place- and time- delimited communities and localities, and at the same time understand themselves as engaged in a range of translocal and historical relationships. That’s an age-old dynamic in one sense, but there are some truly new shifts underway. It’s a fascinating time to be involved in these conversations, isn’t it?

    For your comments and for posting my “notes toward a typology” in the first place, I hereby declare myself to owe you a beer at the American Anthropological Association meetings this November in San Francisco (assuming you will be there), and we can discuss all this in any terms you choose!

  5. I’d like to thank Tom for responding to some of the discussion we’ve had about his book and for provoking further discussion. I’m sorry I’m late, but I only had time to read this today after returning from my summer travels. (But then this is an asynchronous blog, not a real-time virtual world so I don’t have to worry about speaking to an empty room.)

    #4. I have no problem with the idea of a nation-state as a fieldsite, as you describe having done in your work in Indonesia. I haven’t read your book (its on my list!) but it sounds like something I would be comfortable with. Nor does it seem particularly radical to me. Many single-sited studies also take the nation-state as their implicit unit of analysis. What worries me are studies which buy into the “world is flat” ideology of neoliberal globalization by denying the importance of the nation-state. I’m afraid that your book on Second Life does just that.

    But I have another problem with the unit of analysis, which is that I don’t see virtual worlds as a “place” but as a “platform.” I know that SL uses a place-based metaphor, but I don’t see any reason our analysis of SL must accept its own metaphors. Would we talk about HTML as a “place”? (In fact we often do talk about “cyberspace” but I don’t find that particularly useful.) I worry that this fetishizes the technology, when (I believe) we should be doing the opposite. Why must we study virtual worlds “in their own terms”? Emic and etic analysis are both necessary for anthropology and I worry about privileging one over the other – especially when one is a corporate entity.

    6. Regarding dislike of virtual worlds, I think you are too dismissive of the many good reasons for not liking virtual worlds. For those of us who value the free and open internet, virtual worlds seem like a pretty version of AOL. To treat these criticisms as little more than worries of Matrix style robot enslavement is to ignore some of the key issues about how virtual worlds interface with the rest of the internet.

    I also worry about saying that everything is a virtual world, as you seem to do at several points in your book and in this essay. If virtuality is important it must be because of certain features which can be meaningfully delineated. Otherwise I suggest we drop using the word altogether and stick to more rigorously defined methodological terms, such as “communities of practice.” While not without its problems, at least CofP allows us to talk about overlapping social networks which include the virtual and the non-virtual.

  6. Kerim – don’t worry about being late with your reply, since no one will probably see this comment of mine posted a whole month later! That’s what I get for having an overfull plate. I think most of your points are incorrect, but they will still be very useful to me in the future when I work on the full version of this piece. Here are some quick responses to what seem to me to be four of your key points.

    #1 You said:
    “What worries me are studies which buy into the ‘world is flat’ ideology of neoliberal globalization by denying the importance of the nation-state. I’m afraid that your book on Second Life does just that.”

    My reply:
    Well that’s a pretty nasty (and incorrect) claim, and pretty odd given not just my work on virtual worlds but on sexuality and globalization! First of all, like Rex there seems to be an issue with getting people to comment on *this piece* and not Coming of Age in Second Life. Not that I mind that – I enjoy the continued engagement with the book – but it just makes it a bit awkward for me to figure out how to reply. In any case, short answer is: you’re wrong – in my book I do talk a lot not just about the nation-state but the “California ideology,” etc. What your perspective leaves you unable to answer is: how do you ethnographically analyze social formations where the participants do not even know the nation-states in which they are all residing in the actual world? Where the social formation takes place entirely in a virtual world? Will anyone who tries to study such formations be tarred as buying into the ideology of neoliberal globalization? Trying to study such social formations is something that interests me (obviously), and while it doesn’t mean we deny the importance of the nation-state, it also means we can’t ontologize it with reference to the virtual world context, a priori. There can of course be virtual worlds (or parts of virtual worlds) where the nation-state plays a bigger role, because of state sponsorship, language, explicit interest in a particular nation-state, making the virtual geography or design somehow invoke or reference a national topography, etc. There are examples of this kind of thing in Second Life (more and more actually, as it gets larger). But that’s not all of Second Life and not true for all virtual worlds.

    #2 You said:
    “I have another problem with the unit of analysis, which is that I don’t see virtual worlds as a ‘place’ but as a ‘platform’. I know that SL uses a place-based metaphor…”

    My reply:
    Why should we care what you think, right? As anthropologists, we are interested in the emic social formation (not just that as you note, but that’s an important thing to most anthropologists). When you say “I know that SL uses a place-based metaphor…,” your phrasing hides if you are referring to Linden Lab or to all people who participate in Second Life (???). I think you might mean the former; if so then you’re missing how there is a broad-based understanding of Second Life as a place by its participants (not everyone, nothing is ever unanimous, but it’s very broad). Are you going to say these people are wrong? That’s not an effective approach in my view. That is not fetishizing the technology, that’s listening to people. To map the corporate entity as “etic” and the social formations as “emic” further confuses the issue, since both can be examined in emic and etic ways. It’s not a matter of privileging one over the other, but of using a multifaced approach – which I find useful. I actually look at Second Life in both emic and etic ways in Coming of Age in Second Life, but really enjoyed exploring the emic side in detail since the vast majority of the writing out there on Second Life is resolutely etic and often concerned with questions of design and proscription. Some of that work is amazing and I use it all the time, but it’s not the only approach. Once again I’m confused because this comment of yours is also not really about the posting but about my book, but it’s still helpful to me.

    #3 You said:
    “Regarding dislike of virtual worlds, I think you are too dismissive of the many good reasons for not liking virtual worlds. For those of us who value the free and open internet, virtual worlds seem like a pretty version of AOL. To treat these criticisms as little more than worries of Matrix style robot enslavement is to ignore some of the key issues about how virtual worlds interface with the rest of the internet.”

    My reply:
    This also has nothing to do with my posting, sigh. So quickly: in your earlier comments on my book, your dislike of virtual worlds was about much, much more than this question of “siloing” you bring up here. That’s a rhetorical slight-of-hand on your part, belied even by your “speaking to an empty room” aside (which recalls your earlier complaints about Second Life seeming empty, and is not about the “free and open” issue: there are plenty of “free and open” websites that get no hits!). It really has nothing to do with “ignoring some of the key issues about how virtual worlds interface with the rest of the internet”—since I don’t do that. I talk about movement between virtual worlds and the rest of the internet (blogs, websites, email, etc.) in the book, for instance. Siloing is a legitimate concern (there are some interesting experiments under way with teleporting avies between virtual worlds, by the way, and the Open Sim project, etc.), but it’s misrepresenting what I’ve said to assume that I don’t care about it too. When you talk about “those of us who value the free and open internet,” you don’t get to exclude me from that club! I don’t see what all this has to do with anthropology or my work in any case. There are people who like virtual worlds and spend time in them. We want to understand these cultures of virtual worlds better. It doesn’t mean that as researchers we necessarily like them or not.

    #4 You say:
    “I also worry about saying that everything is a virtual world, as you seem to do at several points in your book and in this essay.”

    My reply:
    I think this is one of those cases where the author throws up their hands and says “you can’t force people to actually read the words you write.” I have no idea where your worry comes from (and it’s indicative you don’t actually cite anything I say), since I specifically talk about how everything is not a virtual world in the book and my methods essay! And to claim that “communities of practice” is more rigorously defined (without providing this mysterious rigorous definition): I don’t even know what to say. The definitions of virtual worlds that are out there – mine and those of others – are actually quite consistent: “virtual world” is as well-defined as “website” or “nation-state,” for instance. So I just don’t even know how to respond.

    So as you can see I find your comments rather confusing and disappointing, but they are still valuable to me, and I do thank you for them.

Comments are closed.