Review of Christine Hine, Ethnography for the Internet

Here’s my review of Christine Hine, Ethnography for the Internet.  I’ve also posted it on Amazon.com.

Multiple Meanings and Mishmash

We need reliable information about the Internet, but you can’t get it from Christine Hine, Ethnography for the Internet.  That’s because this book is based on what people say in face-to-face and email interviews, what they say on Internet discussion boards, and what they say on websites; i.e., it’s based on self reports—and self reports are unreliable. “[T]he problem of self report. . . . [is:] How are we to know what is true if we . . . depend on what interested parties tell us”? (R. C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books, 4/20/1995).

Hine, however, is not interested in whether any “account . . . offered is actually true”. She acknowledges many times that the self reports she relies on are often contradictory; for example, that what’s said in an interview about some aspect of the Internet is not consistent with what’s said about the same topic on an online discussion board. The “difference[s], “`divergences’”, and “disparat[ies]” produced by the self reports she analyzes do not bother her, and she’s more than content with the absence of “clear answers” and the “muddy ambiguity and multiple trails” because “multiple meanings of a single phenomenon” can . . . be the basis for “insights” (one of her favorite words) into any phenomenon. At one point she articulates her reluctance to accept validation of self reports with observations; it’s better, she writes, to obtain “insights from the researcher’s own experiences”. Her goal is not truth, accuracy, or correctness but, rather, insights.

Hine melds results of insight, autoethnography, interviewing, and other methods of data collection; interpreting information/data obtained by each method “alongside the accounts of the others”. Everything produced by every method, including conflicting results, is accepted and made compatible. A is both A and ~A. The ensuing mishmash fits with her other enthusiasms: “embrac[ing] . . . uncertainty” and valu[ing] “understanding . . . that evades linguistic expression”.

Here’s my advice when you want reliable information about the Internet: (1) Don’t follow Hine and rely on self reports. If all you have are self reports, all you have is unreliable information. Science is not based on self reports, but rather on observations and experiments. (2) Don’t follow Hine and accept data from any single source. Instead, check or verify data from each source with data from two or more other sources. Research should be—and in the natural sciences, always is—based on data from multiple sources (e.g., from multiple observations and/or experiments). Sometimes this is called “triangulation”.

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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