Theoretical approach of how to conduct ethnographically-inspired audience research of web-based fandom of the soap opera Lindenstrasse

Term Paper 2003 18 Pages

Sociology - Methodology and Methods



1. Introduction

2. The study of cyberculture
2.1 Virtual ethnography – “real world” ethnography

3. Pilot study of Lindenstrasse: About the series
3.1 Classification of the pilot study
3.2 Fan practices
3.2.1 The absence of fan fiction
3.2.2 Human-Computer-Interaction: de.rec.tv.lindenstrasse
3.2.3 Face-to-face interaction: fan-meetings
3.2.4 Fanzines
3.3 Methodological aspects
3.4 Ethical aspects and problems

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

Ethnography is the central method of anthropology. Nevertheless, it has often been borrowed and adapted by other disciplines. While there is a central body of methodological texts within anthropology, this is not the case in relation to the use of ethnography outside the discipline and in relation to online fandom in particular.

This “absence of a central corpus of methodological texts” (Ruddock 1998, p.297) results in a broad range of diversity in so-called ethnographic writing. Harry F. Wolcott’s struggle (in Van Maanen 1995:92) to decide whether to call his study The Man in the Principal’s Office (1973) ethnographic or not, characterises very clearly the fuzziness and complexity of the method. Even when contemporary ethnographies, such as virtual ethnography, are intended to feature a much narrower focus, some of these difficulties remain.

The first ethnographers in the middle of the 19th century were the so-called “armchair-ethnologists.” Often their only sources of information were travelogues of missionaries. They accumulated their information without coming to direct contact with the human beings that were their objects of investigation. The research scientist only evaluated the data. This impersonal, anonymous basic approach resulted in distorted, superficial and extremely notional representations of societies. Around 1918, the “Malinowskian revolution” in ethnography demonstrated an approach of participant observation. The previous segregation between fieldworker and scientist ceased, which resulted in a single person acting as reporter, researcher and analytical scientist. Malinowski suggested that it is important not only to record the actions of the subject of exploration but also to understand the underlying motivations. “Ethnography has changed a lot since its origins as the method anthropologists used to develop an understanding of cultures in distant places” (Hine 2000, p.41). One of the last relics may be the original core approach of travelling to a foreign place and integrating into a community or society with the aim of understanding the actions and underlying motivations of its members. “It (ethnography) refers to a style of research that seeks to describe and interpret a cultural or social group or system, and involves the participation of the ethnographer(s)” (http://staff.bath.ac.uk/psssr/courses/mres ethnography.html). This original core approach is still dominant in anthropology and its sub-fields, although its methods have had to be modified and redefined. Against this background, it is instructive to examine, from a theoretical point of view, how to conduct ethnographically inspired audience research of a soap opera’s fandom. To achieve this, it is necessary to explore the phenomenon of cyberculture and its differences from “real world” ethnography. The German series Lindenstrasse provides a suitable subject for investigation. Two studies have been conducted on similar American subjects of research. Jenkins’ and Scodari’s studies offer interesting perspectives, concerning their approaches and methodologies, to ethnographically-inspired audience research of Lindenstrasse fandom. Nevertheless, there are differences between the American soap opera genre and Lindenstrasse. These differences relate not only to the genre, but to the audience and consequently to its resistance to ideologically positioned texts. Following Jenkins’ and Scodari’s approaches it is necessary to unfold Lindenstrasse fan practices and interactions before examining to practical methodological aspects. Ethical issues and problems associated with methodology are discussed at the end.

2. The study of cyberculture

David Silver (2000:1) distinguishes between three generations of cyberculture scholars: popular cyberculture, cyberculture studies and critical cyberculture studies. Terms like “Online Research” or “Internet Research” indicate that since the early 1990s a new field of study has established itself. “The first stage, popular cyberculture, is marked by its journalistic origins and characterized by its descriptive nature, limited dualism, and the use of the Internet-as-frontier metaphor” (Silver 2000, p.1). The second generation was typified by the works of Julian Dibbel (A Rape in Cyberspace, 1993) or Sherry Turkle (Identity in the Age of the Internet, 1995). These and other scholars “focused largely on virtual communities and online identities” (Silver 2000, p.1) and emphasized contextualization instead of description. Critical cyberculture studies have become established since the late 1990s. A study is usually assigned to critical cyberculture studies if it meets the following criteria:

- it explores social, cultural and economic interactions online
- it unfolds and examines the stories we tell about such interactions
- it analyses processes that make possible or thwart online interactions

- it assesses technological/design processes that form the interface of networks and users (http://www-fms.stir.ac.uk/newmediablog/Week3/tsld018.htm; Silver 2000, p.5) Scodari (2003:497) states: “Critical/cultural media scholars debate the extent to which audiences interpret and use hegemonic texts in resistive ways.” The purpose of this pilot study will follow this critical approach, based on German (not American) propositions.

2.1 Virtual ethnography – “real world” ethnography

Virtual ethnography is not totally different from “real world” ethnography. Rather, it is more a contemporary development of the original scientific approach that goes along with worldwide networking and the resulting interaction. Virtual ethnography’s field of study is based on and dependent on technology. This technology simulates the real world. Simulation also encloses the act of travelling. Silver (1998:8) cites Kollock (1996) who states: “Online environments should…include elements of the physical environment through which users travel.” Consequently, online environments represent an image of reality. The fact that users travel distinguishes it from the classical understanding of culture. Whereas Malinowski investigated cultures in the prototypical form of an isolated, underdeveloped tribe that was distinguished by visual, physical and behaviouristic characterisations, the medium of the Internet has caused certain changes in understanding of the term culture.

First, there is the contemporary understanding that someone is not restricted to be part of just one culture. Every member of a virtual world or another Internet community has a real life and is consequently member of a real life society. Of course these cultures intermingle which could be confusing for the person who belongs to multiple cultures on and off line.

Second, every culture marks itself out from other cultures and only accepts someone as part of its own culture if that person fulfils certain requirements. In virtual worlds or virtual communities certain barriers like netiquette or acronyms exist as gatekeepers. David Silver (2000:7) cites Gomez-Pena (1996) and Sifuentes (1994), who describe the entrance into cyberspace as “a digital space already largely ‘settled’ by ethnocentrism.” Silver (2000:7) further states: “The Net nation deploys shared knowledge and language to unite against outsider.” A scholar whose purpose is to conduct ethnographic research of a web-based community must consequently become a participant and observer; otherwise, that scholar will not be able to fulfil the claim of ethnographic holism. Jenkins has often been criticized for his research into fandom on the basis that he himself is a fan, which in a certain sense undermines his authority. This reveals the difficulties scholars face in keeping the right balance concerning their level of integration into a community. Too little might be insufficient to fulfil the requirement of a holistic approach; too much undermines authority. “Going native” is a criticism made of ethnographers who lose their impartiality. Consequently, every scholar has to explain what legitimizes him/her to do ethnography.

Third, the range of ethnography since the emergence of virtual ethnography has focused on more limited sample groups (Hine 2000, p.41). Class, race and education contribute to online access and typically create a male, white, middle-class prototype of an internet-user. The virtual ethnographer is mostly interested in sub-cultures and not in the whole net-population at all, but since Malinowski’s time the subject of investigation has reduced to a relatively tiny subset of internet-users. Results from a study of this subset have to be matched by restrictions in terms of generalizability and validity (over time).

Nevertheless, virtual ethnography offers advantages for the scholar. The ethnographer’s concern is to understand a culture by direct participant observation. Since the participant is physically absent, there is also no further need for the ethnographer literally to travel. “By definition, virtual ethnography describes places that are not spaces. Disembodied persons people those places” (http://les1.man.ac. uk/cric/Jason_Rutter/papers/Ethno.pdf). Christine Hine (2000/2001:70) says, using the example of the Louise Woodward case: “If events are no longer bounded in particular places, then ethnography can usefully attempt to follow.” Another advantage for the scholar is that virtual ethnography makes it much easier to integrate into a community without being recognised as foreign body whose only concern is for studious reasons. This allows the researcher to study the subject of investigation in its most natural environment.

3. Pilot study of Lindenstrasse: About the series

The television series Lindenstrasse was Germany’s first and is still one of the most popular soap operas on German television. It is also broadcast to Switzerland. The series has existed since 1985 and broadcast its 918th episode on Sunday, 06.07.2003 at 6:40 pm. The series is broadcast weekly and lists an average of 4.7 million viewers, which is over 20 percent of market share (http://www.lindenstrasse.de/lindenstrasse /lindenstrassecms.nsf/nonflashindex?openframeset). The series deals with the daily life, problems and interactions of neighbours, all of whom live in a street called Lindenstrasse, a popular street name in Germany. When Ruddock (1998:303) sums up the soap opera Emergency Room ’s categorisation: “it can be seen as aspiring to social realism, offering a commentary on life,” the same is to some extent valid for Lindenstrasse. Nevertheless, differences exist between the ‘typical American soap opera’ and Lindenstrasse. The term “social realism” can be understood in a sense that, for example, relevant political questions like unemployment are taken up. American soap operas usually feature something like a “happy ending”, in which “good” overcomes “evil”. Contrary to an American soap, Lindenstrasse does not feature this implicitness of a “happy ending”. Klempert (http://www.klempert.de/listra/lind4.php) even states that the difference from the American soap opera genre to Lindenstrasse is that the German series, contrary to American soaps, deals with controversial issues like child abuse. The purpose of the series is to address all topics relevant in society, sometimes with and sometimes without a “happy ending”. The British soap opera Coronation Street originally served as archetype for Lindenstrasse. There are analogies in the setting of the series (an ordinary street in an ordinary suburb) and the actors (all symbolise working-class affiliations).



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University of Canterbury – Department of Mass Communication and Journalism
Theoretical Lindenstrasse COMS Media Contemporary Theory



Title: Theoretical approach of how to conduct ethnographically-inspired audience research of web-based fandom of the soap opera Lindenstrasse