Digital ethnography

Digital ethnography is a specific approach to research ‘on online practices and communications, and on offline practices shaped by digitalisation’ (Varis 2016). For the broader frame of ethnography, see this Wiki entry.

Different types of digital ethnography

Ethnographic research on online practices and communications, and on offline practices shaped by digitalisation, has become increasingly popular. This research takes a myriad of forms, appearing within different disciplines and under several different labels such as ‘digital ethnography’, ‘virtual ethnography’, ‘cyberethnography’, ‘discourse-centred online ethnography’, ‘internet ethnography’ , ‘ethnography on the internet’, ‘ethnography of virtual spaces’, ‘ethnographic research on the internet’, ‘internet-related ethnography’  and ‘netnography’.

The common denominator for these studies is that they all include some kind of online data, and they all employ (a particular version or understanding of) ethnography in the research process. This is basically where the commonalities end; so diverse is the field – if such a field can even clearly be identified – of ethnographic research on digital culture and practices.

This is not least because of the various types of data and environments covered in research on digital communication – social network sites, blogs, forums, gaming environments, websites, dating sites, wikis etc. – but also due to seemingly different understandings of what exactly ‘ethnography’ is, ranging from limiting it to specific techniques or data collection methods (mainly observation and interviews) to seeing it as an approach rather than a set of techniques. 

Digitalisation and online communications provide researchers with unprecedented opportunities for accessing and examining people’s communicative repertoires – the complexities of the ‘global’, the ‘local’ and the ‘translocal’, and the ways in which people make (globally) circulating semiotic materials part of their own communicative repertoires, can all be traced online . Digital ethnography is one approach for capturing the shape and nature of such communicative practices.


This entry is fully based on Varis, P. (2016). Digital Ethnography. In Georgakopoulou, A. & T. Spilioti (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Language and Digital Communication. London: Routledge, 55-68.