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Nov 11, 2006



The distinction is false. All "natives" are social theorists in their own way; there is no hard distinction between insider and outsider. Each participant brings a unique inherited experience (and connections, and other resources) to bear on the situation at hand. To think otherwise is to buy into a notion of "pure" experience that doesn't exist.

(I recommend Timothy Jenkins wonderful article:

Timothy Jenkins. (1994). Fieldwork and the Perception of Everyday Life. Man, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Jun., 1994), pp. 433-455 )


@Thomas: Yeah... and really, really, really dark pink = really, really, really light red. Sure.

Somebody who works in a sweat-shop for $.50 a day for 20 years in order to feed his/her kids and self is, I think, having a much more "pure" sweat-shop experience than a journalist who spends 60 hours there during the course of writing one story, no matter how much the journalist sympempathizes with him/her.

Likewise, a kid who plays WoW for 40 hours a week w/ teamspeak, has four level 60+ characters, knows 80+ other players pretty well, 50+ guildies real well, and 20+ good friends that he met online, and can play the game in his sleep is having a very different experience than someone who logs on just long enough to make it to level 20, group with 2 other people and write a story for their local suburban press.

No, there's no "pure" outsider or insider. But a difference in degree can certainly end up looking like a difference in kind.


Absolutely, Andy. The problem is when the difference in degree is mistaken for a difference in kind. Exploring the differences in degree in all their nuance is often less sexy than applying a label, but it has the benefit of leading to a more useful picture of how things are.


Just an observation: the Alphaville Herald (Second Life Herald) wasn't (isn't) an academic research project but something on the border of gameplay and meatspace news media. But yes, it has been known to stir shit up.


This reminds me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the psychologist conducting the experiment made the mistake of giving himself the role of Warden.

I'd also point out that difference in degree isn't necessarily a matter of how "native" someone is in a topic. Obviously it's a different experience, but the game itself isn't built around a 1-dimensional continuum. There are plenty of people who are very involved in playing a game and have very different experiences.

So perhaps the kid who plays 40+ hours a week has a much better idea of what one can do in WoW, such as raids. And maybe he has some experience with guild drama the person who only got to level 20 doesn't have. On the other hand, He's probably so used to his view of how to play the game that he doesn't see the possibility of having a different experience. Maybe the game feels like a job. Maybe he doesn't understand the potential fun in simply exploring the world.

Perhaps it's a matter of depth vs breadth. And it can be very very difficult to have the best of both worlds.



Stanford Prison Experiment...

...Perhaps it's a matter of depth vs breadth. And it can be very very difficult to have the best of both worlds.

I think you are pointing out two different areas of question here. Framed in terms of insider/outsiderness discussion above:

A.) do insiders have different perceptions of their virtual world? What are the trade-offs (e.g., your "breadth vs. depth", etc.)

B.) are insiders participants in ways that actively biases their world experience?

These don't strike me as independent. B. strikes me as a grey area with many areas of activities. First there is the benevolant argument - the world is different because the observer has state: are they able to subtract out the bits they should? Does this lead to differences in how they percieve and interact with the world. Is there also a stickiness from being a stakeholder - the insider is too a member of another tribe?



I agree that they don't seem independent. In my experience, insiders aren't so much stakeholders in a specific tribe or faction as they are stakeholders in their knowledge of the world. They believe that their way is the only way to play, or at least is the best way, or the most popular way.


At least for academics, your status as a outsider is grounded in your position as a translator between the object of your study and your audience. Your agenda and specialised knowledge separates you from the 'natives'.

A confessional report from a 'native' has a different value than the academic report of the informed member of a different group. The issue is not about 'pure experience', but rather about discourse communities.


It amounts to the same thing, and runs the risk of the same limitations, whether one puts it as "pure experience" or "discourse communities", if one sees it as a singular distinction. I have a colleague in the office next to me who is both a Maliseet Indian and a cultural anthropologist. He gave a talk just last week about his research on his "own" community, and happened to note in response to a question how unhelpful he finds attempts to frame accounts as coming from "insiders" or "outsiders".

That said, there is a difference, not in the persons involved, but in the projects in which relevant actors are involved. This is what leads to the differences in "discourse" (but it's just as much differences in practices). This doesn't divide people up into the "in" group and the "out" group; it enmeshes everyone in a complicated set of projects and obligations.

Another point, or way of talking about this, is that the insider/outsider distinction is problematic because it only talks about one boundary between groups.

[Warning: methodological soapbox being readied...]

If we think about social groups as having multiple layers of intimacy instead, then we have both a more accurate picture of human life and certain opportunities open for us methodologically (as always happens when we no longer assume what we should be explaining), at least for those of us who are social scientists. Changing levels of intimacy with different groups are more often marked by changing practices (in a Greek coffeehouse, at a certain point you begin to be able to "treat" others) than discourse (people don't usually say things like, "we've decided we like you enough that you're a regular here now"). It's a great tool of ethnographic methods to read the discursive representations you encounter while doing field research constantly against changing levels of intimacy (marked by practice) with the people you're working with. This allows you to get beyond some of the problems with simply relying on what people say as an index of what their position is (the classic Malinowskian dilemma).


Sorry, the earlier comment about discourse communities was mine. I accidentally left the name field blank.

Mr. Malaby, on Intimacy: "Changing levels of intimacy with different groups are more often marked by changing practices (in a Greek coffeehouse, at a certain point you begin to be able to ‘treat’ others) than discourse (people don't usually say things like, ‘we've decided we like you enough that you're a regular here now’)."

By ‘discourse communities’ I wasn’t referring specifically to speech. Both practices and vocabularies are shared within particular social groups. As an academic, you are taught not only how to express yourself appropriately in a number of academic arenas, but also a series of normative practices. You know how to act toward undergraduates, how to properly reference other people’s work, how to pretend to be interested in other people’s conference papers, etc… All ways of acting that reflect your belonging in a particular social group.

Also, I’m not sure I agree with the second portion of your comment, I think people do say that they have decided they like people enough to consider them ‘regulars’, or insiders. It would be incredibly pompous to say those precise words, but I think it’s pretty obvious that groups of friends have ways of including and excluding individuals through speech.

I do agree that good research cannot entirely rely on what people say, and the idea of levels of intimacy is useful. I don’t think it solves anything in the process of producing ethnography, however. The presence of the researcher will affect practice as much as it affects speech.

To me, the important point is that the researcher has a particular project aiming to satisfy an external inquiry, whether journalistic or academic. The central concern is an act of translation, meaning that social structures, the meaning of speech and practice, need to be made accessible to non-participants.


I wasn't saying that they never use words to include or exclude, John. I was just pointing out the incompleteness of framing things as about discourse (which as it is used in academia means speech, not practice).

As for "solving anything in the process of producing ethnogrsaphy", I take you to be talking about the writing process (sensible as an act of translation), as opposed to the research phase, which is to what I was referring. There, this approach is a way around the key methodological problem I mentioned. The presence of the researcher does affect practice and speech -- in ethnographic research, it's supposed to, in a sense -- but that's not the point about the divergence between what people say and what they do. People do that whether the researcher is there or not.


I think we may be talking past each other. Perhaps i shouldn't have used the technical term 'Discourse community' since it seems to have caused more confusion than I intended. Just for future reference:

James Porter defined the discourse community as: “a local and temporary constraining system, defined by a body of texts (or more generally, practices) that are unified by a common focus. A discourse community is a textual system with stated and unstated conventions, a vital history, mechanisms for wielding power, institutional hierarchies, vested interests, and so on.”
- from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discourse_community

I don't think I'll bother going through a postmodernist ramble on the possible meanings here of 'text', but considering the literalism with which you have read my previous comments I presume it'd be time wasted.

I do appreciate the clarification of how terms are used in academia. What department of the Academy are you teaching in?


John --
While critical theory's sweep across the academy was welcome, in my opinion, one of its excesses is precisely the promotion of "text" (and "representation") over other aspects of human experience. Hence my touchiness over the still-regnant conceptual habit of saying "discourse" and meaning "everything". This is not "literalism", it is a conscious effort at judicious care about the terms we use.


Oh, and I teach in the qualitative or humanistic social sciences, anthropology specifically.


Thanks, Thomas. That explains why the social constructionist lingo was not particular helpful. I have this same issue (dogma v. praxis) teaching in the religious studies department, particularly when dealing with the history of protestant scholarship on other religions, which tended to privilege scriptural and philosophical works as the definitive expressions of religious identity.

In this particular case, I am more concerned about the nature of the report produced by the 'outsider' or 'native' ... an issue too closely tied to the nature of the audience and their categories/language to avoid the idea of discourse communities in my way of approaching things.

Leaving this aside for the moment, and returning to the basic context of the game researcher's work in online environments: When focusing on practice to "read the discursive representations you encounter while doing field research constantly against changing levels of intimacy", do you foresee problems arising from the limitations imposed by the interface, or the heterogeneity of the cultural/social identity of the gamer populace?

On the one hand, forms of intimacy and social expression are imposed by the game designer's provision for interaction (chat channels, emotes, blacklists, etc...)

On the other, the game itself is not a source of secondary socialization, it does not provide any unifying normative basis to replace the gamers' learned values about markers of intimacy.

In the game I play, there is an ongoing argument between many japanese and north american players about examining other players' equipment, The NA crowd enjoys showing off their gear, the japanese side of the argument considers it obnoxious to /check someone's equipment. The /check function of the game, on the english client, sends the message "So-and-so examines you.", In the Japanese client, the message translates something like "So-and-so stares at you intently."

Generally speaking, the two cultural groups also create parties differently. The NA stereotype is to have an open ended party wherein people stay for as long as they are able, and are replaced as needed from the pool of people looking for a group. The Japanese stereotype is to form a party of six people who all agree to grind experience for a set amount of time, everyone stays the entire time, and then the party disbands completely, even if certain individual could continue, they return to the city and form a new party.

This is leaving aside the other cultural communities in the game, and differences within these two groups.

These two factors, the hardwired potential of the game interface, and the different cultural approachs to teamwork and respect, have caused some problems for everyone in the FFXI environment. How do you properly use practice to 'read the discursive representations' when there is interference from the game design, and the gamer's themselves come from diverse communities?

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