A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Netnography: Redefined by Robert Kozinets

Netnography: Redefined by Robert Kozinets, Sage Publishing, 2015, 320 p. 

Brooke Covington, Virginia Tech

(Published April 8, 2019)

In 1984, Janice Lauer argued that since its emergence as a field, rhetoric and composition “has been marked by its multimodality and use of starting points from a variety of disciplines” (22). Consequently, boundary-crossing has become a distinctive feature of the discipline as rhetoric and composition scholars continue to bravely cross borders into other disciplines to deepen understandings of—and take risks with—methodologies that may not be familiar. Indeed, the ubiquity of social media has destabilized our traditional methods for studying communication, leaving many researchers to wonder, what methods are most appropriate for studying the contested and shifting spaces of online communities? These are the lines of inquiry that consumer culture researcher Robert Kozinets addresses in the second edition of Netnography: Redefined. Though not explicitly geared toward the field of writing studies, Netnography: Redefined offers insightful advice on how rhetoric and composition scholars might tap into the rich opportunity (and address the vexing challenges) of researching online spaces by using a new methodological approach Kozinets terms “netnography.”

Netnography: Redefined is the second edition of Kozinets’ Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Kozinets stages the book as a “methodological primer,” a research guide at the “workbench level” for anyone interested in studying online communities and cultures (1-2). Netnography: Redefined is divided into eleven chapters, but can largely be split into two main sections—the first half of the book addresses the theoretical and epistemological underpinnings of this research approach whereas the second half of the book offers guidance and examples on practical applications of netnography when researching online cultures and communities. Each chapter of the book also includes useful examples of published netnographies, guided exercises, and suggested readings from a range of topics and fields. Though not exhaustive, I would like to briefly trace the major takeaways from the text and encourage rhetoric and composition researchers and instructors to consider using this text in the field and the classroom. While the advice and guidance in this edition does seem both accessible and applicable to a wide variety of contexts and individuals interested in conducting research in online spaces, it is important to note that much of this text seems geared more so to novice researchers first entering the realm of online research.

According to Kozinets, the circumstances surrounding online research warrant a new term for digital ethnography since “online access to vast amounts of archived social interactions alongside live access to the human beings posting it entirely changes the practice of ethnography and, in fact, all of the social sciences” (4). Netnography, then, addresses this necessary pragmatic shift in ethnographic research of online spaces by adapting itself to new computer-assisted methods of conducting, collecting, and interpreting digital data. Working from the view that communities and cultures are neither fixed or stable but fluid, destabilized, and constantly redefined, Kozinets suggests that “realist tellings of ethnographic tales are outdated” (10) and instead argues for an approach to online ethnography (netnography) based on consocial identity and interaction. Unlike the strong insider/outsider community ties studied through traditional ethnographic methods, netnography helps researchers study consociations, or the social bonds built around what we share as common interests rather than who we are as an ascribed identity due to our gender, race, religion or class. Studying consociality also helps distinguish online communities as fluid and forever in flux.

In the same way that ethnography is used to gain cultural insight into physical locations, netnography, at its impetus, is a methodological approach that can be used to generate cultural insight into virtual spaces using digital archives and contextualized participant observation. Chapter 3 and 4 are perhaps most interesting and useful for developing this line of argument. Chapter 3 begins with a sound overview on the differences between qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method approaches to conducting research (again, moments like these in the text seem to reaffirm my estimate that this book is more appropriately directed towards students and novice researchers). Kozinets warns against the danger of becoming wedded to a particular method, and he reminds researchers to ignore “unreflective methodological-ideological evangelists” who argue that one method is superior to another (56). Instead, Kozinet advises focusing on those methods that work well in conjunction with netnography—including online surveys, online interviews (conducted through a variety of platflorms such as email, instant messaging, and video-chatting), internet journals, and social media analysis (56). For each complementary method, the author lists various research topics and questions that would be appropriate or useful for this sort of data collection technique in addition to projects that would not call for this sort of method. Truly these approaches to digital research prove exceedingly helpful for researchers and students unfamiliar with such techniques.

Defined by Kozinets as the key chapter of the book, the fourth chapter provides the full redefinition of netnography “as a specific set of related data collection and creation, analysis, interpretative, ethical and representational research practices, where a significant amount of the data collected and participant-observational research conducted originates in and manifests through the data shared freely on the Internet, including mobile applications” (79). Chapter 4 culminates with Kozinet’s 12-step process for netnography. Heavily influenced by Christine Hine’s ten “principles of virtual ethnography,” these 12 steps include introspection, investigation, information, interview, inspection, interaction, immersion, indexing, interpretation, iteration, instantiation, and integration. The rest of the book, then, is framed around these 12 steps, offering practical advice and examples of how to move through each of these steps when conducting a netnography.

Chapter 5 signals a major shift in the focus of the book, from theory to practice. Arguably, the remaining six chapters of the book contain the most applicable and useful sections of the book. Having traced the theoretical underpinnings of netnography, Kozinets begins to ouline the pre-research planning and preparation stage with its coinciding considerations and questions. Focused on the 12-step process, Kozinets begins by addressing introspection—the process by which the researcher engages in deep self-reflection to determine how she might enter the spaces she hope to research, what her biases are, and what her assumptions are. Kozinets then includes several exercises to guide researchers through the introspection and investigation steps of the process that help to define their research focus and research question(s). These exercises also help researchers determine if their research questions are suited to a netnographic approach. Inclusions such as these exercises make Netnography: Redefined particularly well-suited to the classroom.

Given the ethically gray area of research in digital spaces, the discussion of ethics in Chapter 6 is admirable in that it is both accessible and thought-provoking. Using spatial metaphors regarding terrains and colonization, Kozinets argues that we “carry our possessive nature with us, online” (128). Thus, people tend to carve out territories in online spaces, which often leads to strong emotional ties and language that suggests ownership and arguments over public versus private spaces. Kozinets makes clear that when dealing with people’s digital doubles, every decision must be made based on the ethical ramifications that may result both by what researchers choose to include and exclude (137). Chapter 6 also discusses the ethical (and legal) procedures regarding issues of privacy. These sections are particularly strong because Kozinets provides not just his professional insight from conducting his own netnographies, but also cites a number of other sources that researchers and students alike could turn to for further information.

As one of the strongest in the book, the sixth chapter challenges researchers to make important considerations over public and private spaces, informed consent, and the potential harm researchers may (unknowingly) inflict on participants, particularly in online spaces where the demarcations of public and private blur. Kozinets admirably covers a range of ethical topics from anonymity and citation of research subjects to legal concerns and the importance of researcher transparency when conducting research in online spaces. Also helpful is Kozinets historical overview concerning the formation of the Institutional Review Board (IRB)—which again, could prove useful in an advanced undergraduate or graduate research methodology course.

Like the chapter on ethics, Chapter 7 also offers good starting points for in-class discussions and exercises. After defining data, Kozinets provides guidelines on searching for and collecting data—along with tips for choosing a site and exercises for defining the specific criteria for finding, filtering, selecting, and saving data in netnographic research (168-175). Extending the discussions laid out in Chapter 7, Chapter 8 addresses the role of the researcher in data collection and the impossibility of researcher objectivity in netnography (or any research study, for that matter). Using examples from his own research, Kozinets owns that researchers must take into account their participation in the collection, interpretation, and creation of data. In fact, he recommends various strategies that researchers might use to navigate the risk of lurking in online spaces, such as creating a research website.

Combined, Chapter 7 and 8 describe the three forms that netnographic data can take: “(1) already recorded and stored, or archival, data, (2) communicatively co-created, or research-practice elicited data, and (3) reflective/reflexive immersive/participative authored fieldnote data” (165). The core of this chapter is Kozinets’ discussion of the reflective data (fieldnotes) necessary to a successful netnographic study. According to Kozinets, netnographic fieldnotes move beyond traditional ethnographic fieldnotes in that they force researchers “to consider variables new observations, new sights, sounds, smells, sensations, textures, colours, fonts, imagery. Mythic symbols, brand forms, design elements, and so on” (194). What helps Kozinets here are the many research studies he shares with readers to show how netnographic researchers have used these techniques in successful, published netnographies (even better is the fact that these research studies are relatively current, involving topics such as the mobile application SnapChat and even fan blogs for the once popular show America’s Next Top Model). These examples help to ground Kozinet’s explanations in a way that is both accessible and applicable to contemporary students and researchers.

Whereas the Chapters 7 and 8 focus on collecting data, Chapter 9 offers advice as to how to analyze and interpret collected data. According to Kozinets, much of this analysis occurs through hermeneutics and deep reading, methods that can be guided by seven analytic movements: imagining (building on initial reflective ideas), re-memorying (writing down whatever you remember when looking at the data), abduction (finding patterns or linkages), visual abstraction (attempting to make general abstractions from localized moments in the data set), artifying (visualizing data in a creative collage or visual web),  cultural decoding (assembling data based on cultural codes), tournament play (positioning your contesting ideas against each other to determine which theories and interpretations stick) (201-203). The seven analytic movements could prove exceedingly useful for inexperienced researchers who may be unfamiliar with such techniques. Indeed, even for experienced researchers, this section is a nice reminder of the various ways in which researchers might approach their data. The final two chapters, then, address representation and humanist netnography—a specific kind of netnography focused on how digital spaces are used to evoke social change. In Chapter 10, after moving through the historical representations of contemporary ethnography, Kozinets describes netnography as a representational practice—not just a method, but “an act of writing…writing about people’s networked social interactions” (242).

Certainly there are well-researched methodological works coming from established rhetoric and composition scholars in the field, including Heidi McKee and Danielle DeVoss (2007), Stuart Selber (2010), Lee Nickoson and Mary Sheridan (2012), and Katrina Powell and Pamela Takayoshi (2012). And while these works aptly address some of the approaches and concerns surrounding digital research, Netnography: Redefined is particularly useful as a single-authored monograph that follows one specific approach from theory to practice, offering step-by-step processes for the preparation, collection, analysis, and interpretation of online data—giving researchers the tools and techniques needed to catch a glimpse of the shifting sands that constitute online spaces.

Standing at the cross section of many different disciplines and platforms, Netnography: Redefined shares the same unique characteristics that define the nature of our discipline and those who study it. Though not appropriate for every researcher or every research project, this specific and guided text has the potential to give many researchers the courage to teach—and perhaps even employ—netnographic approaches when conducting research of online cultures and communities. As this book models, we must continually refine and revise the techniques used to conduct research—and Kozinets’ Netnography: Redefined is one attempt to do so.

Works Cited

Kozinets, Robert V. Netnography: Redefined. 2 ed. Los Angeles: Sage, 2015.

Lauer, Janice. “Composition Studies: Dappled Discipline.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 1984, pp. 20-29.

McKee, Heidi A., and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues. Cresskill, N.J: Hampton Press, 2007.

Nickoson, Lee and Mary P. Sheridan. Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.

Powell, Katrina M. and Pamela Takayoshi, eds. Practicing Research in Writing Studies: Reflexive and Ethically Responsible Research. New York: Hampton Press Inc., 2012.

Selber, Stuart A. Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Writing and Communication. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.