Table of Contents:
1. Introduction : An overview of communication mediums and what their use means to defining cultural identity. A brief explanation of the goals of this research project.
2. Research Methods : An outline of how research was conducted for the project. Includes a description of the methods used and a description of each of the participants.
3. Results and Findings : A description of the outcome of the research projects. Includes analysis of each individual used in the ethnographic study as well as selected answers to interview questions.
4. Analysis : A comprehensive look at what the interview answers suggest and what the ethnographic research means in a broader setting.
5. Conclusion : A wrap up of the project and suggestions for further research in this area or other closely related areas.
6. Appendix: Includes the questionnaire that was given to each individual as well as the answers to each question that were provided by those interviewed for this research project.
Communication is and always has been vital to survival. From the early days of our society and the even earlier beginnings of other societies, the need for a common written and communicable language has always been a priority. The standard methods of communication that were used long ago such as written and verbal communication still exist and are still the primary source of communication today. However, in recent years, new forms of communication have surfaced that could have a lasting impact on determining how we communicate in the years ahead.
The AM/FM radio was introduced many years ago and quickly became the standard for nationwide communication. Millions tuned in throughout the United States and could simultaneously listen to the same program as others across an entire local area. Shortly thereafter, the television was introduced which greatly impacted communication across our nation. People throughout our nation could watch and listen to the exact same thing at the exact same time by way of network television. Millions could effectively be communicated with by simply appearing on a single screen. This widespread impact changed communication forever. Communication had to be thought of in nationwide aspects. No longer could you simply send a message to a single audience or target a particular group of people. Communication had to have appeal to a broad audience.
The internet has recently emerged as the leading communication giant. The internet allows for instantaneous communication throughout the entire world. It allows users to communicate across the globe with other users. Furthermore, the internet is the first form of communication that is truly global and can be used in most countries by most people. The expansiveness of the internet means that it could become the most important medium or mode of communication. A question that arises surrounds how cultures use the internet, and how different groups of people use the internet for communication purposes. For this project, different subcultures will be evaluated and their use of the internet as a form of communication will be assessed.
In order to conduct an ethnographic based interview project, participants had to be selected. Due to limited knowledge of people with significantly different cultural backgrounds than myself, I was limited to selected individuals similar to myself, but entirely different in several ways. I decided to focus on subgroups within our particular culture. By our particular culture, I mean Americans that were born here is the United States. I choose three distinct individuals from different age or gender groups. I then observed their communication behavior both online and offline and assessed what role communication plays in determining their own cultural identities.
Subject 1 is a middle aged male and is 52 years old. He was chosen due to his background. He comes from a lower income family, and generally did not have access to the forms of communication that he does have access to today. The low income status meant that televisions and radios were not commonplace in his household when he was younger. He also lacks a high school diploma, which puts him into a group of underprivileged individuals. However, he now has access to the internet and is a middle class individual.
Subject 2 is a middle aged female and is 49 years old. She was also chosen due to her background and differences that exist between her upbringing and the upbringing that would be considered standard today. She comes from a large family with three brothers and three sisters. However, she attended a private Catholic school and obtained a high school diploma. She was raised in a household that had televisions and radio and would have been considered a middle class household at that time.
Subject 3 is a 70 year old female. She currently resides in Tennessee and has little connection with the new forms of technology and until very recently, has had no use or knowledge of the Internet. However, recently the internet has begun to change her life. Other forms of communication are much more prevalent in her life and will be used for contrast throughout this project.
The subjects were chosen on the basis of growing up in or currently living in a culture that is significantly different from my own culture. They were chosen to assess what impact culture has on communication and also what impact culture has on choosing a main medium or mode of communication. The ethnographic findings will be presented later in this project, and the answers to the interview questions can be found in the appendix section of this paper.
Results and Findings:
The text “The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach” by Daniel Miller and Don Slater suggests that the Internet is used for two different expansive reasons. This text suggests that the Internet is used for either expansive realization, or for expansive potential. According to the text, expansive realization views the “Internet as a means through which one can enact -often in highly idealized form- a version of oneself or culture that is regarded as old or even originary but can finally be realized: through these new means, one can become what one thinks one really is.” (10) This form of expansive realization applies to Subject 2 and Subject 3 of my ethnographic study. The other form of expansiveness of the Internet is termed expansive potential. According to the text, “expansive potential results from an encounter with the possibilities of the Internet and may allow one to envisage a quite novel vision of what one could be, a vision that is often projected as a feature of the Internet itself.”(11) Expansive potential applies to Subject 1 of my ethnographic study.
Subject 2 and Subject 3 both use the Internet for expansive realization. Subject 2 generally surfs the net searching for medical information from sites like the Mayo Clinic and WebMd. Her interest in diagnosing medical problems and finding treatments existed well before the Internet was introduced into her household. Aside from medical research, Subject 2 occasionally uses the Internet to email old friends and other family members. This appears to simply reinforce the phone calls and in person meetings that she has with the same individuals that she send emails to. Subject 2 would define her cultural identity based upon her life role. She defines herself as a mother, a grandmother, and a wife. She is proud of her cultural identity and proudly states who she is. Subject 2 does everything on the Internet that she does off of the Internet through other forms of media and modes of communication.
Subject 3 also uses the Internet for expansive realization. Subject 3 uses the Internet almost entirely for communication with friends and family. This may change as she gets more familiar with the Internet, but for now, communication is her priority. Offline, she is in constant touch with her friends and family. Most of her communication offline takes place in a face to face setting. She prefers face to face rather than talking on the phone because it is more personal. It will take time to find out if the distance and “lack of being” on the Internet will become an acceptable way of communicating with others. For now, she is happy to be able to email anyone, at anytime, day or night. Subject 3 states that her cultural identity is mainly linked to where she lives. She identifies herself as being Southern and more specifically as being a Sevierville native, the city in which she resides. She loves the southern way of life and loves being southern and that more than anything else defines her.
Subject 1 uses the Internet in an expansive potential nature. As stated earlier, he has no high school diploma and came from a lower class family. His education and knowledge could be considered below average. In general, he uses the Internet to research how to do many different things. He reads about home improvement, studies politics, comparatively shops for the best values and best products, reads local and national news, and keeps up to date on new computer software, viruses, and online connectivity options. The Internet is nearly boundless for him and is a major tool to further his education and learn new things. He realizes expansive potential by becoming very intelligent, becoming an active researcher, and re-educating himself in certain fields. However, once offline, this quest for knowledge comes to a halt. He does not read books, visit libraries, or read national news offline. This urge to find knowledge only exists online. Subject 1 would define his identity as a Chrysler employee. Beyond anything else, he considers himself a worker and a wage earner. His identity is infinitely bound to his job duties and job title.
All three subjects explore a unique online life. All three behave in certain predictable ways online. For two of the three subjects, the Internet simply reinforces or further strengthens their everyday life. It gives them more of what they already search for, need, or want. For the other subject, the Internet opens news doors and allows him to be someone that he isn’t in “real” life. He has become a new person while online, only to return to himself after signing off.
Throughout this ethnographic study, it became apparent that all three subjects access the Internet to explore the dynamics of objectification and the dynamics of mediation. Subject 1, in particular, used the Internet in regards to the dynamics of objectification. His use created his identity and help him to better define and realize what he may have felt was his existing identity. His use of the Internet also brought about a new identity.
Subjects two and three mainly used the Internet for the dynamics of mediation. They grew to understand what the Internet was and began to use it in such a manner that was consistent with their definition of the Internet. Therefore, when they identify the Internet as Subject 2 did as, “Online, the web, it’s used for research”, she began to use the web for the specific purpose of research. The Internet is much more than what this definition would suggest, but as defined by a single subject as such, its use becomes its definition.
In a broader sense, this ethnographic study has many possible implications. First and most obvious, everyone has a different understanding of what the Internet is and what the Internet should be used for. We could conclude that a universal definition of the Internet may lead to a better understanding of the Internet and better overall use of the capabilities of the Internet, but this would erase the individualistic aspect of the Internet. Users would no longer feel independent and capable as doing what they please while online. Instead, they may feel subjected to a new set of standards and rules that have to be followed.
Finally, this study has shown that the Internet plays an important role in the lives of all three subjects. However, that role has yet to extend outside of contacting friends and family. It is locally bound rather than nationally or internationally bound. This suggests that while the Internet is available and used throughout the world, and has the ability to connect individuals across the globe; its use for this purpose seems very minor. None of the subjects interviewed have ever contacted anyone outside of this country and did not seem likely to at any point in the near future.
This ethnographic study is intended to provide insight into the Internet use and how it affects or contributes to one’s cultural identity. All three subjects were asked the interviewee questions and then observed for a period of time while they were online. In general, the subject gave interview answers that had little to no actual correspondence with how they spent their time online. Many of the subjects answers were actually incorrect when compared to what I observed them doing. The likely conclusion would be that the subjects have little knowledge of what they actually do online, or have a difficult time remembering how they spend their time online. This created a discrepancy in the answers to the questions and the real life observation of the subjects.
This study helped show how the Internet has at least begun to impact nearly everyone. Even Subject 3, who is new to the Internet, can spend several hours a day online. The other two subjects in my study generally spend between 1 and 2 hours a day online. The Internet has drawn people away from other forms of media and communication and has become the primary source for communication for many individuals.
Further research in this area would be beneficial. Several subjects need to be observed from different cultures. Furthermore, my research did not include any subject who did not use the Internet as a primary source of communication and media outlet. All three subjects in this study have turned to the Internet, at least at some point in time, as a means for communication, as a medium for news, as a tool for research and so on. Further research should include a comparison of those who have no Internet knowledge or use, compared with those who use the Internet regularly. This comparison would allow us to see the actual impact that the Internet has had on people throughout the world.