The difference between netnography and digital ethnography

The difference between netnography and digital ethnography


The 24th of June 2014 Leaft Coast Press released the “Handbook of Anthropology in Business” edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland. The work is a broad coverage of theory and practice around the world that demonstrates the vibrant tensions and innovation that emerge in intersections between anthropology and business and between corporate worlds and the lives of individual scholar-practitioners. It is the first major reference in this field and a creative production of more than 60 international scholar-practitioners working in corporate settings and universities in the fields of anthropology, marketing and consumer culture. Some of the illustrious names include Robert Kozinets, Bernard Cova, Albert Muñiz, Eric Arnould and Craig Thompson. I have personally contributed to the writing of this book with the chapter no. 35: “Ethnography in Digital Spaces: Ethnography of Virtual Worlds, Netnography, & Digital Ethnography”.

Beyond obvious reasons of self-promotion (which I hope you will forgive me), I decided to talk here about my work as in this chapter I am trying to reiterate different stiles of online ethnography by distinguishing between their specific theoretical, methodological and technical characteristics. To this purpose, I am focusing on three emblematic ethnographic styles: ethnography of the virtual worlds, netnography and digital ethnography. Hereby I will only discuss synthetically about netnography and digital ethnography, two labels that too often are mingled.



Definition. According to Robert Kozinets’s school of thought, netnography is a qualitative research method belonging to the ethnographic branch which uses naturalistic analysis techniques (that is immersive and not intrusive) that allow the researcher to empathetically enter the consumers’ online conversations. The focus on consumption is granted by the fact that Kozinets develops this method within the Consumer Culture Theory and the Tribal Marketing frame set.

Theoretical framework. Netnography focuses mainly on the study of the online consumer communities that usually belong to either one of these categories: brand communities (ex. Apple community, Nutella community, etc.) or communities of practice (ex. the community of IT experts, the community of chocolate lovers, etc.). If the interactions take place within the community itself, the netnographic approach conceives the user/consumer’s identity as a role that (s)he assumes within her/his belonging community. Kozinets’s famous model discerns between four categories of users/consumers: Devotee, Insider, Newbie and Mingler (see Kozinets 2010).

Methodological framework. Netnography actually places itself within the epistemological paradigm of the virtual methods. The virtual methods consists of an adaptation of the traditional research strategies developed offline (like surveys or face-to-face interviews) to the online environment. Netnography in fact is a promiscuous and hybrid method; promiscuous because it relies on a wide range of virtual techniques (virtual survey, chat interviews, email interviews, etc.) and hybrid, in the sense that it skillfully combines virtual techniques with traditional ones (ex. online and offline participatory observation).


Digital Ethnography

Definition. [At the Center of Digital Ethnography Studies] we don’t define digital ethnography as an Internet based ethnography but rather as an ethnography that is: a) strictly founded on the digital methods; and b) focused on the study of the new forms of digital life emerging from the Internet (See Digital Natives on Twitter).

Theoretical framework. The research field of digital ethnography is the public, or rather, the complex network of digital platforms transited by users (Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Forums, etc.) that constitute the natural ecosystem for their daily interactions on the Web. From this perspective, the concept of self-presentation becomes central for digital ethnography, which doesn’t conceive online social identity as a predefined role within a confined community, but rather as a dynamic instance that emerges, naturally, from the various self-presentation strategies that the users activate in front of the digital public (see #Aperitivo un’etnografia digitale su Instagram).

Methodological framework. Digital ethnography places itself, explicitly, within the digital methods epistemological paradigm. Digital methods, compared to virtual methods, do not try to adapt traditional methods to the online context (virtualizing them) but rather try to learn from the digital environment (follow the medium!), that is, to get methodological inspiration from the natural methods that the internet itself uses to collect, organize and analyze the digital data. That is why, rather than combining online and offline qualitative techniques, digital ethnography combines both quantitative (e.g. network and co-word analysis) and qualitative (e.g. sentiment and content analysis) natural digital techniques (see Etnografia Digitale delle Primarie su Twitter).


Alessandro Caliandro (@Caliviral) –  Translation by Corina Iamandi  

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  • Alessandro Caliandro

    thank you too Caylee for reading and commenting! see you soon 🙂

  • John Postill

    Many thanks, Alessandro.

    Hi Caylee, this paper may be of use as well: Postill, J. and S. Pink 2012. Social media ethnography: the digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia 145 , 123-134.

  • diraas.j

    thank you for explaining the difference between netnography and digital ethnography. but, im still wondering what the difference between virtual etnography (hine) and digital etnography?