... With actual and virtual Harbins, especially with still-rudimentary headsets that can read your 'brain waves,' for example, the articulations and conjunctions expand further, and actual and virtual participant observation, as method, can seek to understand new cultural temporalities and processes.
If culture, like identity, can be “conceived not as a boundary to be maintained but as a nexus of relations and transactions actively engaging a subject... ” (Clifford, 1988:344), ethnography has a rich tradition of research for studying this, making possible nuanced 'knowledge about' people, and the 'other,' representable, both actually and virtually. And objective study of such interactions, temporalities, emergences. conjunctures and processes is problematic, in a 'hard' science sense. While ethnography itself has multiple trajectories of analysis of the other – e.g. identifying with, by participating with the 'other,' or, observing the 'other' from a 'distanced,' epistemological perspective (Boellstorff 2008:69) – predicated on epistemic assumptions of knowledge-traditions concerning objectivity, ethnography of virtual worlds allows for new forms of conceiving of, and understanding, the 'other,' due to multimedia-informed interactions. Here, for example, anonymous avatars, representing you and I anywhere in the world, and which communicate openly via voice and text chat, and who can build worlds that we want, or envision, are new ethnographic subjects. While, for some researchers (e.g. in Communication Studies?), virtual worlds may hold promise for objective study of sociocultural phenomena, which ethnographers may also study, I haven't come across any studies with experimental rigor that meets a degree of skepticism I find important in 'hard' science; see, for example, the list of books at http://webnographers.org , a wiki bibliography for virtual ethnography, to which you can also add titles. What this actual / virtual Harbin Harbin Hot Springs' ethnography adds to knowledge production, vis-a-vis science, and the study of culture, objectively, is both comparison and generalization (Boellstorff 2008:69), where both Harbins here, novelly for anthropology, are compared, and virtual Harbin becomes a kind of generalization of actual Harbin. And, in my view, while ethnography does contribute to 'knowledge production about' sociocultural phenomena, which might be considered 'objects' of study or analysis, it also retains scientific approaches to understanding, and knowledge-production-about, the particular and singular, as well.
Not only does the actual and virtual ethnographic study of 'culture,' and here counterculture, contribute to knowledge conversations, scientifically understood (see, too, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy's entry of the philosophy of science, 2005:852), but virtual world building, additionally, “can be crucial … for imagining the kinds of communities that human groups can create with the help of emerging technologies” (Escobar 1994). ...
(November 25, 2010)