Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sphenodontia: appeal of a virtual Harbin for some researchers and students of virtual worlds might be new methodological possibilities

Harbin ethnography:

... While Clifford is writing about the Mashpee, and their land claims of the past few decades, in what is now the state of Massachusetts, I extend his language to help frame the emergence of Harbin identity - not quite a tribe as I see it although this language is sometimes used - out of the contested '60s. Here at Harbin, residents, visitors and guests visit, and have visited, the springs to earn a living or to get away from the city, and because they like the fabric of life, in the context of modernity, and now do this online in the context of the digital revolution.

One appeal of a virtual Harbin for some researchers and students of virtual worlds might be new methodological possibilities to use, for example, “elicitation” approaches (Boellstorff 2008:68), that is, slightly more structured interview approaches, as well as statistical analyses, especially linguistically, than participant observation, to understand 'culture' here, especially as Harbin residents understand Harbin culture at actual or in virtual Harbin. A definition of culture as rule-informed might appeal to communications and virtual world researchers who see possibilities in information technologies' remarkable structure for more systematic research, method-wise, than some of these researchers might see in participant observation, as method. Historically, actual Harbin's 'culture,' since 1972, has a lot of 'water under the bridge,' so to speak, which I, as ethnographer, don't know, but which influences this '60s-informed culture in far-reaching ways, as I interpret Harbin. Virtual Harbin in Open Simulator is new, the first one was stolen, and the relationship between the actual Harbin, with its history since the 1960s, and 1972 when Ishvara bought the land, and the emergent, virtual Harbin, could easily make 'elicitation' approaches, as I see it, problematic. “Elicitation methods,” per Boellstorff, involve an assumption that informants have conscious understandings specifically of the culture in which they live, or the significance of the warm waters in which they soak here, which isn't usually the case with informants, and that tools like interviews and surveys, can 'elicit' these conscious understandings, explicitly and more effectively than participant observation. Participation observation, on the other hand, which includes interviews, is more fluid in its methodological approach to learning how, here, residents think of Harbin's fabric of life, especially 'culture's' latent qualities. Virtual Harbin does make possible many modes of communication for the avatar-ethnographer, and doesn't assume any 'cultural' knowledge of virtual worlds', or virtual Harbin's, culture, on the part of any informants. Methodologically, however, the lack of structure of culture itself, per Clifford's definition above, makes any new methodological approaches arising due to information technologies and virtual worlds problematic, in the same way that trying to tease the 'culture' of a people long past out of texts, or via contemporary linguistic usage, especially reflexively, for a group of informants, is problematic. Yet in contemporary virtual world technologies, cultural communication possibilities increase, as do group landscape and cultural artifact building processes (a form of Techne in virtual worlds like Second Life), making participant observation, as method, even richer than only in the actual, in some ways; the 'actual' (e.g. actual Harbin) is already extraordinarily rich, actually. 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. ...

( - November 24, 2010)

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