Dumb Luck as an Ethnographic Method

June 14th, 2007

As I’ve been writing up the methodology section for my dissertation proposal, I realize that the degree to which rather successfully I rely on happenstance probably seems unbelievable. Ethnographers are supposed to go out into the world to immerse themselves in the culture of interest, and so I spend thousands of dollars (largely out of my own pocket) to visit fan and tech conventions. The thing is, though, that ethnographers are really easy to switch into “researcher mode”—so every time I bump into something that seems even remotely relevant to my dissertation, I take a closer look. Nowadays, as it turns out, you can’t take two steps in any direction without stumbling over something geeky.

Take today, for instance. I check The Morning News every morning for interesting links and current events. It’s not a “geek” site per se, though it does have some pretty geeky graphic design links at times. Today it links to an article at 10 Zen Monkeys about “scientific laws of romance.” I’ve never seen 10 Zen Monkeys before, and I don’t bother reading the article. I scroll to the end, however, and notice a link that says “See also: Girls are Geeks, Too.” I head on over, and it’s an excerpt from an interview with the writers of She’s Such a Geek and a sociologist arguing about the roots of nerdity. I’ve already come across one interesting tidbit:

We originally wanted to call it “Female Nerds” and people complained. They felt like “nerd” was too negative, and that geek had been re-claimed as a badge of pride — kind of like “queer.”

Apparently a nature vs. nurture debate follows (or something along those lines), which I’ll get back to later.

My point, though, is that I come upon this kind of thing bizarrely frequently, and I don’t really know how to write that up as I explain my research methods. Normally you’re supposed to describe your sites of interest, what kind of sample or population you’re drawing from, even if it’s just that you picked certain movies and shows that were high profile enough to single out. I already bought She’s Such a Geek, but how do I explain that my daily web-browsing routine regularly pulls up useful supplemental materials? Is this a type of “virtual ethnography” not covered in existing literature (or which I just haven’t read about yet)?

As of now, I’ve written that the virtual component of my ethnography will involve reading a number of geek-oriented blogs and following certain comment threads (among other things), but that my approach is ultimately very flexible. If you know of anything I ought to be citing with regard to relying on happenstance, feel free to email at jason@geekstudies.org.

Update: I thought about this more today, and I keep coming back to the concept of the snowball sample (even if my “snowball” is built by following links between texts rather than between people). I have been reassured by one wise professor that the “dumb luck” method is fairly common in exploratory research and I shouldn’t be too worried about defining the exact parameters of encountering that kind of thing. I guess it’s just the expected result of genuinely deep immersion in geek culture, as it were.

Oh, and within an hour of writing this post, I came upon a link referring to “zombiephiles” as “nerds, video game addicts,” and others—again, not through the blogs I read for research but through a friend. Good thing some of my friends are nerds (the awesome kind, of course).

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