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Issue Six

Issue Six: Research Methodology Online

Behaviour in Public? : Ethics in Online Ethnography

By Allison Cavanagh (

Articles on ethics in social research can often seem somewhat thin on the ground. Although volumes are dedicated to a wide variety of issues within research practice, ethics tends to be overlooked. As sociologists we must consider whether there is a reason for this. Writing on ethics is surely one of the least popular activities a sociologist can do, for it is a subject which carries with it an aura of moralising which sits uncomfortably with us. After all, we all, as sociologists and researchers, have clear codes of what constitutes ethical behaviour to which we all adhere. This work is not, therefore, an attempt to describe a moral platform but to consider internet research through the lens of established paradigms in social research. Of late there has been a rising interest in what has come to be referred to as online ethnography. This is considered to be a variant of traditional ethnomethodological techniques, utilising a spectrum of observational and other qualitative methods to examine the ways in which meaning is constructed in online environments and gleans much of its’ analytical framework from derivations of conversation analysis. This work considers a slightly different variant of this in looking at the applicability to studies of internet interaction of the model of research pursued by Erving Goffman. In "Behaviour in Public Places"(1963) and "Relations in Public"(1971), Goffman’s concern is with social relationships, social order and public life. His analysis centres on the complex interrelation between the public and the private, which is used here to illuminate the nature and forms of online interaction. The questions which I hope to use Goffman’s analysis to open up for debate are those which are fundamental to the use of internet media in any research context. Can we justifiably regard online interactions on bulletin boards, mailing lists and in chat rooms as "public status" or do they constitute, as others may argue, a form of private conversation which is embedded within a public space? Or does the fact of private conversations occurring constitute these arenas as private spaces into which we, as researchers, are intruding? What are the natures and forms of intrusion online? And finally, and most significantly, what is the status of text in a world where the self is invested in the act of textual creation and no other? These issues clearly have considerable ramifications for a consideration of what would constitute a code of ethics in the age of information, and the establishment of such a code is particularly pressing now, when debate on the nature and forms of electronic life, in both on and off-line arenas, increasingly takes its cue from a moral panic over privacy and intrusion in the electronic age.

Firstly, however, we need to examine some contextual and theoretical considerations concerning the applicability of the use of a Goffmanian framework of analysis to online interaction. The key distinguishing feature of online behaviour is that it occurs solely through text and the exchange of text. Thus all "fronts", "settings" and "vehicles for conveying signs" of self can only be that which can be rendered in text. This is, some may argue, a fundamentally different proposition from the forms of embodied communication and intercorporeal self production (Crossley, 1995) which are investigated by Goffman. For Goffman, like Austin, language (speech) is performative, which is to say, it does something. "Each utterance presupposes, and contributes to the presuppositions of, a jointly inhabitable mental world"(Goffman, 1983). The truth of this assertion is nowhere more evident than in the case of online environments where utterances are all we can use to produce self. Yet in "Relations in Public"(1971), for example, language is given no privileged status as a means of constructing reality. Rather it is grouped along with embodied acts as a form of communicative or social ritual, one which reflexively affirms/creates social orders and relationships. However, the specific conception of speech as a form of ritual act is precisely what makes Goffman’s perspective so valuable to a consideration of internet communication, for this new arena raises serious questions about the nature of textual communication and issues a challenge to old ways of thinking.

We are accustomed, howsoever erroneously (Foucault, 1979) to regarding written language as the product of a single autonomous author. Writing is privileged within Western culture as a an expression of, rather than a constitution of, a single conscious self, as the views, opinions, subj ectivity and experiences of a person. Thus we tend to see text as autonomous, produced in isolation and on a conscious level, apart from the co-ordination of interaction. As Giddens contends, textual creation and interpretation "occurs without certain elements of the mutual knowledge involved in co-presence within a setting, and without the co-ordinated monitoring which co-present individuals carry on as part of on-going talk"(1990: p.100). In short then, texts are located within a realm defined by autonomy and distance from the mechanics of co-present production of self. It is this conception that textual interaction in electronic environments challenges and it does so through forcing a redefinition of key elements in the debate, namely those of co-presence, of means of co-ordination, and of producing self.

In online environments and in considerations of the nature of cyberspace the self is systematically problematised. It has become an article of faith amongst cyberspace commentators that the cyber-self is an infinitely flexible creation of an autonomous individual. From the concealment of aspects of stigmatised identity, through to the idea of gender as an elective, through postmodernist fantasies of the elimination of the embodied–self and a retreat into cyberspace, the recurring theme is that of agency in the production of online selves. In accounts of internet interaction the self is seen as an article of individual genius, the creation solely of its’ controller, a creature apart from and uninfluenced by the social world. This stance, then, depends upon a philosophical commitment to a transcendent self, a commitment which is outside the remit of an ethnographical perspective. In Goffman’s terms the self may be seen as a reflexive constitution by and of the social world. The cyber-self, no less than its embodied counterpart, may be argued to be produced through ritual, through the practices and relations which constitute the intersubjective fabric of the online social world. "Self.." argues Goffman " is not an entity half concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them" (1974:573). It is "a code that makes sense out of…the individual’s activities and provides a basis for organizing them" (1971:366). If this is so in everyday life, it can b e no less true of interaction in online environments. It is simply that the signifying resources available to a particular construction and presentation of self are qualitatively different.

In "Relations in Public"(1971) Goffman delineates eight areas or territories of the self, which we attempt to control in interaction with others. These territories range from the body itself and its covering (the sheath), through personal possessions, to the information preserve, the set of facts about ourselves, biographical details and so forth which we reveal or conceal according to the situation. It is through control of these territories, the placement of individuals within the spaces of the territories in relation to the self, that we define our relations to others, the social world formed out of the nexus of these relations, and therefore ourselves. What emerges from the relocation of social interaction in the online environment is a curious tension between intensification of control over the territories of the self and its dissolution.

On the one hand we can attempt to present self in any terms of our choosing, and the lack of visible evidence and of biographical and situational information increases the chances of "passing", diminishing the potential for a contradiction of self claims. We gain control over our information preserves in this process. Yet even here one’s gain is another’s loss, as aspects of identity and self claims may be appropriated by others. Sherri Turkle (1986), for example, has spoken of the profound sense of unease she felt upon being confronted with an avatar which carried her name, her sense that an aspect of herself had been reified and removed from her.

Moreover, it can be argued that at the same time we lose control over the dissemination of the self we present. It is the conversational preserve, which Goffman defines as including "the right of a set of individuals once engaged in talk to have their circle protected from entrance and overhearing by others" (1971:64) which is most violated in this. The offence of overhearing is, in Goffman’s scheme, that of encroachment, of taking from an individual information not intended to be overheard, the penetration of a territory defined as own by the speaker, and the defilement of same through the process of intrusion.

Thus we have arranged the elements of Goffman’s analysis which are of most application to the analysis of online interaction, namely, the territories of self; the notion of self as an intersubjective construction of social interaction; public and private spaces as the production of interaction; ritual as social reality; and interaction as ritual. The question to which we now turn is that of the implications of this stance for the ethics of social research online. Our starting point must be a consideration of the status of online interaction, whether as public or private. Whether internet communicative forms are regarded as public or as private clearly has considerable ramifications for how we may treat the wealth of sociological "data" which scrolls before our eyes when we log on. Here it is the problematic notion of text which must be anatomised. If we treat online texts, whether on web sites, distributed through mailing lists, or as exchanges in chat rooms as texts per se, then it is evident that our only responsibilities as researchers lie in issues of intellectual property rights. However, if these texts are seen as interaction then the situation is somewhat different. In seeing textual production online as a form of self presentation and production which occurs within co-present, co-ordinated spaces of interaction we divorce the text from the subjectivity of the "author", aligning it instead as interactive ritual. Thus we are considering, not the expression of individual personalities, but the strategic means and forms of interaction within the media. The data is therefore, by implication, a product not of individual agency but of social ritual, in much the same manner as the pedestrian behaviour studied by Goffman may be considered to be separate from the will of any specific observed individual. In this instance, as Homan (1991:46) has argued, the data takes the form of an insight which is not peculiar to any specific individual and therefore does not attach a need to obtain informed consent from the participants.

If we are observing interactional ritual in this way, does it then follow that we may liken our research online to the position of a researcher who stands in a public place and observes the behaviour of those within it? Sociology has long accepted that public behaviours are a legitimate object for research insofar as such research focuses upon the forms of interaction, rather than the acts of any individual. Hence it is acceptable to observe the behaviour of people at town meetings, in churches, pedestrian behaviour in the streets and shops without needing to obtain informed consent. The reasons for this may partly reside in the difficulty of obtaining informed consent in these situations (a difficulty which is not applicable to online environments, where an obvious means to communicate the fact of a study in progress readily presents itself), but mainly centre on the lack of necessity for it. Thus behaviour in public places is a legitimate object of scrutiny for the social researcher, whereas that in private is not, unless consent is given.

As Homan(1991)has argued, whether a space is public or private is always relative to the definitions of those who occupy it and this is particularly true of internet communities, where ther e are/were no pre-existing cultural understandings of the nature of the media to appeal to or be guided by in defining the situation. Two areas may be considered to be revealing in this context, the views of the users as expressed through the conceptual and verbal apparatuses of the environments, and the actions of the internet community in the case of "lurkers".

The ways in which electronic environments are described constitute a conceptual apparatus, a tool for defining the spaces which we occupy when online. As Correll (1997)demonstrated in the case of the Lesbian cyber cafe upon which she conducted an ethnographic study, the creation and maintenance of physical spaces is one of the key rituals in the organisation of interaction. In a space where setting can only be evoked textually, patrons of the cyber cafe used descriptions of physical artefacts to organise the spaces of interaction, to define relationships to each other and create/ maintain a social order(Correll :1997). When we consider this in relation to spaces of online interaction in general it can be seen that descriptions of place serve to reflexively create arenas as public spaces. The diffusion of references to town halls, town pumps, villages and cafes all give ample testimony to an overriding definition of electronic forums as public status. These spaces, then, are communal spaces, and this implies that the interaction which occurs within them is also public and thus falls within the remit of an observational sociology which is directed at understanding behaviour in public spaces, whether on or off-line.

This idea is further supported by the actions of community participants with regard to "lurkers" or non-contributors. Lurking is at the very least tolerated in online environments and as Correll (1997) has pointed out lurkers often receive a warm welcome from communities when changing status to participant and acknowledging their previous activities. Such a tolerance may only be regarded as intelligible from the stance that internet interactions occur within a public arena and are therefore matters for public consumption. If we imagine an interaction in the offline world where one party listened attentively but did not make his/her presence known to the others taking part, we can only construe this in terms of "eavesdropping&quo t;. Th is definition would be contingent upon our understanding of the conversation as being private and therefore of the information being divulged as the preserve only of those co-present when it was revealed.

However, this comparison reveals a problem, namely the definition of co-presence as applied to internet communities. Although real time interactions over IRC must be exempted from this, since there is a temporal dimension involved in communication through that media, on mailing lists, web sites and to some extent in MUDs and on bulletin boards, the community to which we address ourselves is one that extends beyond the confines of the immediately co-present. Our posts to a BBS for example, may be replied to hours or days after we have produced them. We address ourselves in these environments, therefore, to the community as a whole, rather than those logged in at the time. A researcher may be a part of this community, whether as a researcher or simply in his/her own right as an individual and is thus amongst the addressed in receiving this ritual of interaction.

However, it must be acknowledged that, just as Goffman saw private spaces as existing within public ones, so in online spaces individuals can delineate a private arena into which others transgress at their peril. Through an exposition of the rituals and procedures by which public spaces may be transformed into private ones, Goffman demon strates that public and private are far from monolithic definitions to guide action. Rather all such definitions are locally produced and are therefore relative to the individual communal structures within which they are rendered meaningful. In online interaction it is acknowledged that some spaces are private to the specific community of users. Thus Mitra has referred to online ghettos and the gradual fracturing of internet life into multiple communities which share little in terms of a common culture or over-riding definition of themselves as "Netizens"(Hauben, 1997). Moreover, and to complicate matters, Correll’s research has indicated that the use of public forums for "private" engagements is widespread, with individuals often "breaking off" to form enclaves of private conversation. So how do we, as researchers, distinguish between interactions which are intended for the entire community of Net users, to which we might with validity be said to belong; those focused on a specific community, such as the ethnic groups studied by Mitra; and those directed at the maintenance of a private space between individuals? Only an engagement with the frameworks of meaning and relevance of the individual communities as revealed through the forms and rituals of interaction can yield an understanding of these issues.

The above discussion, I hope, exposes some of the complexities surround ing the issue of electronic interaction online and points the way to a discussion of the key issues which we, as researchers, face when venturing online. As always with matters of such complexity, any discussion inevitably raises more questions than it answers. Can the sociological researcher who participates in an electronic community leave his/her sociological subjectivity behind, or is, as Homan has suggested, the condition of being a sociologist an ontological state which cannot be divorced from the self of the researcher? How can we have an informed and informing ethnomethodological account of cyberspace when it itself is distinguished by a schism between identity and avatar? Who or what can give informed consent to participation in research in a world where an adult presenting avatar may be the construct of a child? Upon what terms and with reference to what means are online selves produced? Such questions have no easy answers, for the nature of online life is such that many of the main tenets of social life are, if not undermined at least rendered problematic and therefore available for reinterpretation. These are, however, issues which cry out for debate if sociology is to acquire a meaningful and informed understanding of social life online. If this article has sketched out a framework for the consideration of these issues and the resources available for their discussion, it has done what I intended.


Correll, Shelley (1995)"The Ethnography of an Electronic Bar: The Lesbian Cafe" pp. 270-298 in "The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography" Vol. 24 No. 3 October 1995

Crossley, Nick (1995)"Body techniques, agency and intercorporeality: On Goffman’s Relations in Public" Sociology Vol. 29 No. 1 February 1995 pp. 133-149

Foucault, Michel "What is an author?" 1979 Reproduced in Bocock, R and Thompson, K "Social and Cultural Forms of Modernity" Polity Press, Cambridge 1992

Giddens, Anthony(1990) "Social Theory and Modern Sociology" Polity, Cambridge

Goffman, Erving (1963) "Behaviour in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings" Free Press/ MacMillan , New York

Goffman, Erving (1969)"The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" Penguin, Harmondsworth

Goffman, Erving (1971)"Relations In Public: Microstudies of the Public Order" Penguin, Harmondsworth

Goffman, Erving (1974) "Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience" Harper and Row, New York.

Goffman, Erving (1983) "Felicity’s Condition" American Journal of Sociology 89 (1) pp.25-51

Hauben, M and Hauben, R (1997)"Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usene t and the Internet" 1997 IEEE Computer Society Press, California

Homan, Roger (1991) "The Ethics of Social Research" Longman, Essex

Jordan, Tim (1999)"Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet" Routledge, London

Mitra, Ananda (1997) "Virtual Commonality: Looking for India on the Internet" pp 55-79 in Jones, S (ed.) "Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety", Sage, London 1997

Turkle, Sherry (1996) " Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of Internet" Phoenix, London

Contents Page

Issue Six