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ASU anthropologists design method for studying groups on social media

The study of modern culture may start with your next post, but analyzing these online materials requires new research methods

photo of laptops in coffee shop
September 12, 2017

It’s official: Anthropology has gone high tech. From online museum exhibits to digital repositories and even the use of satellites to survey archaeological sites, there’s a 21st-century twist on nearly every facet of this evolving field.

That includes ethnography, the study of cultures. Though ethnographers have historically observed their subjects in person, the fact that we now live so much of our lives online means these scientists also have a growing interest in the virtual human experience.

The challenge, as discovered by one team at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, is that while there are many standard methods for conducting traditional research, there are currently none to help guide the scientific study of online texts such as blogs and social-media posts.

In a pioneering effort, the team designed a study tracking blogs to better understand how people support each other in weight-loss efforts online. Along the way, they ended up addressing complex challenges such as how search results can generate a representative sample of a group, or how scientists can best respect subjects’ online lives and identities — which may be very similar or vastly different from their physical ones.

We sat down with the team members — students Liza Kurtz, Melissa Beresford and Monet Niesluchowski; postdoctoral scholar Sarah Trainer; and Professors Amber Wutich and Alexandra Brewis Slade — to discuss the unique implications and requirements for this type of study, and how the relatively unexplored digital space is ripe with potential for insights into humankind.

Q: What inspired you to look into online ethnography?

Amber Wutich: The Center for Global Health has been doing research on fat stigma — the negative treatment endured by people with large bodies — for many years. We knew that people were talking about and experiencing fat stigma in important ways online, and we needed new methods to track and interpret how fat stigma develops and impacts people, over time, online.

Liza Kurtz: I think we were all struck by how much more present digital social platforms are in our lives than they were 10 or even five years ago. We knew these online experiences were becoming embedded in our own everyday lives, and we wanted to know how this integration might affect something very personal and very physical, but also laden with social meaning.

"You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history."

— Liza Kurtz, global health graduate student

Q: Could you explain your study a bit more? What were your goals?

Alexandra Brewis Slade: From the four-year ethnographic study Obesity Solutions conducted with weight-loss patients at Mayo Clinic, we knew how emotionally challenging weight loss can be. We wondered if online communities, where the body is not physically present in every interaction, might be a place where people were able to try to lose weight and feel better about it.

Sarah Trainer: It turned out that virtual weight-loss attempts were just as emotionally fraught for people as in-person ones, and most people documented long-term personal failures at it. Beyond this fact, though, the project also allowed us to work through some new, complex challenges about how you actually collect and analyze data from the stories of bloggers.

Melissa Beresford: For example, when gathering a representative group to “study,” we found that search engines’ results — based on predictions of what users want to see — kept us from getting an unbiased sample. Our solution was to systematically gather search results from top search engines and then compile that information with results from DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t optimize results.

We also ran up against ethical concerns related to protecting blogger privacy, intellectual property and identity, which we addressed by setting up strict parameters on what sources we gathered from and how we cited blogger material.

Trainer: This was one of the hardest parts of the study to manage, because we found ourselves entering completely new territory. Social-science protocols around these kinds of issues are being redrawn as we speak.

Monet Niesluchowski: The volume of materials you can draw from for this research is huge. You have to carefully decide, and justify, what to exclude and include. Plus, the materials change — a blog can sit around in cyberspace for years or be deleted at any moment by its author. It was so different compared to my experiences doing ethnographic interviews in the field, where the challenge is mostly to make sure you have enough people to include in your study.

Q: Why is it important to create standards for this type of online ethnographic research?

Wutich: Increasingly, people are living their lives online. Major decisions about dating, purchases, travel and so forth are filtered through online interactions. “Big data” methods are important, but ethnographic methods help us understand and interpret cultural data in ways other methods can’t. Anthropologists like us need to update our research methods to ensure that they can capture and help us interpret that data.

Kurtz: In other areas of anthropology and ethnography, there is a certain tool kit of broadly accepted research methods that have been shown to produce thoughtful, robust results. In our most recent publication, focused on the methods in particular, our goal was to further the conversation around online ethnography and hopefully start moving towards a similar tool kit specific to digital spaces.

screen shot of publishing a public post
Public vs. private forums require different research approaches.

Q: After finishing the study, do you think that any eventual standards will be rigid, or will flexible adaptation be the name of the game, much like social media itself?

Beresford: There must be somewhat flexible standards for online research, because there are so many different types of online environments. Conducting research on Twitter posts, where everything said is in a public forum, is very different than conducting research in a private Facebook group, where people expect some sort of privacy. Blogs are particularly tricky because some people may be posting to the public, while other people may start a blog for their own private reflection.

Kurtz: Rigorous research methods are always a worthwhile goal, but the research methods are ultimately dictated by the question a researcher is asking, so a certain flexibility is called for. Hopefully online research strategies continue to develop so researchers have a broader array of tools at their disposal, but there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all answer.

Q: What kinds of questions will online ethnographic study be uniquely able to answer?

Wutich: Ethnographic research has always been adaptable as humans themselves are in the myriad environments we inhabit. Understanding the new, social world humans experience online helps us more scientifically and definitively answer questions like, how do people construct meaning there? What sorts of cultural norms govern online behavior? How do social worlds created online differ from the spaces people physically inhabit, and how does that affect life in the “real world”?

Kurtz: We are increasingly interested in ethnographies that explore the relative anonymity of the internet, and how people may be willing to digitally present themselves in ways they would never consider in real life. Weight loss is just one example. But this work will also shed new light on old concepts, like how people build personas through group affiliations, or how communities create group identity from shared history and events.

Q: Do you think that this is the future of ethnography, as more people around the world create digital presences?

Beresford: I don’t think that online research will ever replace in-person research efforts, with real people, but it can complement it. The purpose of ethnographic research is to gain a holistic view of a culture. And our online lives are just one aspect of our overall existence.

Kurtz: I certainly think that online ethnography will be an increasingly important part of understanding people’s lived experiences and societies’ collective meanings. We’re already seeing how important the digital sphere is, from very personal endeavors such as weight loss to large-scale political movements in the United States. You can’t ignore the power of online spaces at this point in our history.

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

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