Digital technologies in the process of social research: theoretical and methodological reflections through virtual ethnography

Publication date:
Elisenda Ardèvol y Edgar Gómez Cruz

On the platform YouTube –perhaps the best-known social network for distributing and showing videos on the Internet– there is an old black-and-white advertisement dating from 1927 that was screened in US cinemas and which explained how to use rotary dial telephones (previously telephones had worked via a system of operators). This little change, which for those watching the video today seems simple and insignificant, completely transformed the relationship that people had had until that that time with the telephone as a communication device. The tools and technologies with which we coexist on a daily basis, and which we often take for granted were, at some point in time, innovations that were slowly incorporated into people’s everyday practices. This anecdote serves as an ideal introduction to the reflections we would like to present here concerning the role that is played by information and communication technologies in different areas of our everyday activities, including scientific work. Technology has always been linked with the production of scientific knowledge, as part of its process and as a product of its activity, but its role has tended to be minimised and made invisible in the social sciences (and especially in qualitative methodologies), not to mention in the humanities. Far from envisaging technology as a revolutionary innovation or as an invisible, epistemologically neutral tool, we propose to reflect on the role of the technological in the process of social research and, very particularly, to rethink the relation between method and object of study in the creation of knowledge, based on our experience of ethnographic field work in the social and cultural study of digital technologies, or the new media.