The Anthropological Question: To Research Online or Offline?
Does online or offline research provide a more accurate answer to an anthropological question?
The answer to this question can vary drastically depending on the kind of anthropological question one is asking. The main component used when answering an anthropological question typically is ethnographic study, and many anthropologists employ outdoor fieldwork to employ this method. Fieldwork is sometimes even considered a sort of rite of passage for students since it is so different from the kind of study that students are typically accustomed to. Outdoor fieldwork exposes students to a variety of new aspects, such as autonomous learning, critical thinking, teamwork, the development of technical and practical skills, and the hands-on acquisition of discipline-specific knowledge, among others (Munge, Thomas, and Heck 2018).
Especially when studying different cultures around the world, outdoor fieldwork provides a much more detailed, personal experience compared to the knowledge that could be acquired about the same subject from a textbook or a lecture alone. Students engaged in outdoor fieldwork are able to directly interact with individuals, their culture, language, society, and way of life, as well as experiencing and having to adapt to the new environment itself. By observation and taking notes, a student would be able to acquire huge amounts of information from fieldwork alone. However, outdoor fieldwork is not the only correct way to do fieldwork, although other methods might not be taken as seriously.
Online fieldwork and research is certainly different than the kind students encounter offline, but the differences do not necessarily make one method better than the other. In fact, there are several benefits to conducting online research in contrast to offline research. One of the most obvious is how a massive pool of information is available in an instant thanks to the internet. People are able to gather large amounts of information about any subject with ease without the trouble that would likely be encountered in gathering information offline, such as struggling to search through a library to find a book on a particular subject or not being able to find it at all. Online fieldwork also has some interesting advantages and disadvantages in contrast to offline fieldwork. Since it is a relatively new method of ethnographic study, many people may not know much about it, but this is not to say it does not provide just as reliable results as work out in the physical field.
The Anthropological Question
Without being physically present before another person, students are still able to interact with others via the internet in great detail through methods such as interviews through e-mail, observing interactions between people in online spaces such as chat rooms, social media platforms, or online video games, and collaboration with others through documentation, like with Wikipedia pages for example (Mejias 2017). Through these methods of data collection, people are able to gather information with ease with results of the same high quality of information collected from offline fieldwork, only without the obstructions that may be encountered through physical fieldwork.
As the world of the internet continues to grow and starts to become practically unavoidable, many more students and institutions, especially in the field of anthropology, are beginning to see that the internet can be exceptionally helpful when gathering information. Of course, we have not reached the point where physical methods of study have entirely been abandoned, but there have been some interesting mixing of online and offline methods of study.
For example, the field of archaeology, which seems like a field that would always be utilizing entirely hands-on and offline methods of study, has actually been employing virtual methods where students are able to study dig sites through 3-D or 2-D models. This is possible due to a particular virtual reality software which can recreate excavation areas in detailed 3-D models in order to teach students the basics of archaeology and the process of excavation. In addition to this, students who were taught archaeology and excavation with the virtual reality software were surveyed and actually had a better understanding of the subject matter compared to students who only studied the written material (Di Franco, Galeazzi and Camporesi 2012).
However, these virtual archaeological recreations are only used to mentor freshman students who are new to the subject matter, since virtual reality, no matter how detailed, cannot replace the physical environment in which artifacts are found and studied. There is no doubting, however, that virtual methods are indeed helpful when it comes to teaching and answering questions, but even more helpful when paired with offline methods.
When answering anthropological questions, it doesn’t seem that online or offline research methods necessarily answer those questions better or more accurately than the other, since the methods both provide reliable results but just reach those results through different ways. Online research methods have the potential to be instant or at least much faster than methods typically used offline, and they are able to study environments and social interactions that would be impossible to study in the real world, such as environments and interactions in online chatrooms or massively multiplayer online games.
Meanwhile, offline research methods allow the researcher to have a hands-on, personal approach to the study, able to physically interact with others and the environment, and able to study how real people interact and behave with each other and the physical world. Both offline and online research are helpful in answering anthropological questions, and instead of siding with one or the other in order to insist that on is better, it seems that the usage and mixing of both methods would be beneficial to students, teachers, and researchers.
Di Franco, P.D.G., Fabrizio, G., & Carlo, C. (2012). 3D Virtual Dig: a 3D Application for Teaching Fieldwork in Archaeology. Internet Archaeology, Iss 32 (2012), (32), doi:10.11141/ia.32.4. Retrieved from http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=64c252d7-cc3e-4ed0-b7b8-db28cdcf7023%40sessionmgr4006&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=edsdoj.741741f408ab4ef3a36da3ea6b3b7951&db=edsdoj.
Mejias, A. (2017). Virtual Fieldwork: A Review of The Internet: Understanding Qualitative Research. The Qualitative Report, 22(11), 3011+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/apps/doc/A520582252/AONE?u=gain40375&sid=AONE&xid=112c0919.
Munge, B., Thomas, G., & Heck, D. (2018). Outdoor Fieldwork in Higher Education: Learning From Multidisciplinary Experience. Journal Of Experiential Education, 41(1), 39-53. Retrieved from http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=64c252d7-cc3e-4ed0-b7b8-db28cdcf7023@sessionmgr4006.
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