From "participant" to "friend": the role of Facebook engagement in ethnographic research

Prabash Edirisingha, Jamal Abarashi, Shelagh Ferguson, Rob Aitken

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    9 Citations (Scopus)
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    Engaging with participants on Facebook during ethnographic fieldwork has become increasingly prevalent in research, especially when exploring complex and sensitive consumption issues (Chenail, 2011; Piacenti et al., 2014). Such engagement not only provides a complementary medium of communication but also provides a context and a source of data from which emic and etic interpretations can be made (Baker, 2013; Dogruer et al., 2011). Despite, extant literature focuses predominantly on "how-to" aspects of integrating Facebook in ethnographic research (Baker, 2013), thus, creating a need to amiliorate epistemological and methodological issues of integrating Facebook in ethnographic research. For example, further research can help ethnographic researchers to understand the ways in which Facebook, as a methodological tool in ethnographic research, can encourage close rapport with participants leading to rich and thick interpretations of complex phenomena. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to theorise epistemological and methodological implications of integrating Facebook in conventional ethnographic research. Accordingly, we present three research questions. Firstly, how to engage with participants on their Facebook profiles to build a productive rapport with them during ethnographic fieldwork? Building on friendship theories (Owton and Allen-Collinson, 2014; Tillmann-Healy, 2003), we suggest that Facebook engagement encourages rapport building by enabling researchers to gradually develop dialogical researcher-participant relationships by paying close attention to aspects such as practice, pace, context, and the 'ethics of friendships' (Tillmann-Healy, 2003). Secondly, what challenges inherent to conventional ethnographic research does increased rapport enable researchers to overcome? We propose that Facebook helps overcome three challenges inherent to conventional ethnography: 1) negotiating access and immersion, 2) developing multiple perspectives, and 3) providing rich and thick interpretations. Thirdly, how Facebook engagement enables the navigation of these challenges? Our findings contribute to consumer and cross disciplinary ethnographic literature (Baker, 2013; Piacenti et al., 2014) and provide evidence that utilising Facebook allows researchers to overcome such challenges by expanding the researcher's field, improving participants' trust and confidence of the researcher, bringing both insider and outsider perspectives, and diluting the power hierarchy often found in participant-researcher relationships. However, we also propose that our contributions have implications beyond conventional ethnography and are relevant to wider netnographic(Kozinets, 2010; 2015) and social mediaoriented ethnographic research (Postill and Pink, 2012). Our proposed framework could be useful for netnographic researchers seeking to build a close rapport with participants as it sheds light on epistemological and methodological issues about one of the popular social networking sites that provides, as Kozinets (2015, p. 35) classifies, a "hyving social experience". In addition, we also contribute to an emerging body of cross-disciplinary literature on "friendship as method" (Owton and Allen-Collinson, 2014; Ellis, 2007; Glesne, 1989; Tillmann-Healy, 2003) by theorising the role of Facebook engagement in inspiring and sustaining 'friendships' with participants during ethnographic research. We have structured the paper as follows: Firstly, we engage with cross-disciplinary literature on ethnography, netnography, theories of friendship, and Facebook. Secondly, we introduce the research methodology, and the overarching ethnographic research process. Thirdly, we draw from our ethnographic fieldwork to illustrate how integrating Facebook facilitates friendships with participants and allows us to investigate deeper and richer details of their everyday lived experiences during important transitions, in our case, the transition from single to marital status. Finally, we discuss some of the important ethical/moral implications of "friendship as method" and the complexities of integrating Facebook in ethnographic research and elaborate on the ways in which we addressed such complexities.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)416-434
    JournalQualitative Market Research: An International Journal
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2 Aug 2017


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