Reading an ethnography: Coming of Age in Second Life

If you’re not an anthropologist but are interested in reading an ethnography, particularly one on virtual worlds, I recommend Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life (2008).

Boellstorf provides an ethnographic portrait of the culture of Second Life, which is an online, graphical virtual world developed by a company called Linden Lab in 2003.

Written for both anthropologists and non-anthropologists

Ethnographic texts are primarily aimed at anthropological audiences rather than a general readership. Boellstorff’s ethnography is unusual because he is explicitly writing for audiences other than just anthropologists. He wants the book to be read and debated by several different groups of people, not only anthropologists but scholars, students, and designers in fields such as game studies, informatics, and science and technology studies as well as people who participate in virtual worlds or online games (p. 6).

However, by writing for such a diverse audience, Boellstorff has to make visible ethnographic techniques that would ordinarily be implicit and understood by anthropologists. For example:

  • He explains that his continuous dialectical tacking between detail and context is a classic ethnographic strategy, and that his method of citing in the book is the practice of most anthropologists.
  • He also discusses concepts and terms (pp. 60-86) that are familiar to anthropologists—participant observation, ethnographic interviews, ethics, and reflexivity—and would not be included in an ethnography.

Different from contemporary ethnographies

When you read Boellstorff’s ethnography, be aware that it differs from contemporary ethnographies in the following ways:

  • Typically, fieldwork narrative and argument are woven throughout an ethnography to build an overall coherent argument rather than presented at the end.
  • Boellstorff’s approach evokes older-style, classic ethnographies that dealt with different aspects of a culture in separate chapters (e.g. kinship, agriculture). (This is in line with his aim to focus on Second Life culture as a whole.)

Traditional ethnographic methods are relevant for studying virtual worlds

For me, Boellstorff’s ethnography is a book-length argument for the relevance of traditional ethnographic methods in studying radically new virtual worlds. Boellstorff states that virtual worlds are fundamentally places (p. 216) and as such legitimate sites of culture (p. 61). By legitimating Second Life as a research field, it enables Boellstorff to argue for the potential of ethnography for studying virtual worlds (p. 24). His book, therefore, is both an exercise in demonstrating that virtual worlds are indeed sites of culture and that participant observation can be successfully used to study them.

Boellstorff’s ethnography shows that the virtual world of Second Life is as ‘real’ as actual life. He achieves this by arguing convincingly that humans have always been virtual (p. 33) and exploring culture in Second Life through topics such as place and time, gender, race, and embodiment, friendships and relationships, as well as community. In doing so, Boellstorff demonstrates the relevance of anthropology in studying new online technologies, not just the exotic Other, by showing that it can contribute to understanding culture in virtual worlds (p. 4).

Ethnography as anthropological conversation

All ethnographies form part of a larger anthropological conversation, in which an ethnographer locates themselves through their particular argument. As an ethnographer, Boellstorff is positioning himself within the wider debate about what constitutes a valid field of research. He is also arguing for the relevance of ethnographic methods in studying virtual worlds, particularly as anthropologists have been slow to acknowledge the usefulness of ethnography for studying them (pp. 68-69). His methodological point of difference is to conduct his fieldwork entirely inside Second Life (p. 4), which he says anthropologists might find controversial (p. 4) but his project is to show that this is not only feasible but crucial to developing research methods that keep up with the realities of technological change (p. 4). This is important given that many thousands of people are spending time in virtual worlds where forms of social action and meaning-making (p. 5) are taking place. In this way he is arguing for the validity of ethnographies of virtual worlds.

Cultural aspects of virtual worlds

Given his wide readership, Boellstorff often refers to his actual world research in Indonesia. By comparing his research in Indonesia to his research in Second Life, Boellstorff is demonstrating that Second Life is a (virtual world) culture that can be studied in much the same way as an actual world culture. He states that doing his actual world research on Indonesia alongside his virtual world research illuminated for him what aspects of cultures in virtual worlds are truly unprecedented, such as disabled bodies being nondisabled in Second Life, and which aspects are not (p. 25).

Virtual worlds are robust locations for culture

Boellstorff successfully shows that ethnographic methods can be used to study virtual worlds such as Second Life, and that virtual worlds are robust locations for culture” (p. 238) where meaning-making is taking place. He asserts that virtual worlds are distinct domains of human being, deserving of study in their own right (p. 238), and that an anthropology of virtual worlds (p. 249) is as valid as other anthropologies.

Ultimately, Coming of Age in Second Life shows that the ethnographic method, established early last century by Malinowski, still has relevance today for researching ‘new’ worlds. As Boellstorff states (p. 249), ethnography holds the promise of better understanding how it is that we, all of us, online and offline, are virtually human.

Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff is published by Princeton University Press.

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