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Real gates to virtual fields: Integrating online and offline ethnography in studying cannabis cultivation and reflections on the applicability of this approach in criminological ethnography more generally

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>30/08/2017
<mark>Journal</mark>Methodological Innovations
Issue number1
Number of pages11
Pages (from-to)1-11
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This paper explores the interplay between online and offline approaches in criminological ethnography. Criminology has come to embrace online research: as well as offering numerous research benefits generic to the social sciences, the internet offers solutions to various problems specific to active offender research. Further, as many types of criminal or deviant behaviour increasingly have online aspects, so engaging in online research becomes both valid and vital to any
meaningful ethnography. However, online approaches should be treated with caution: they are subject to their own limitations, and to rely on online methods as an alternative to traditional approaches can be as problematic as failing to embrace online research at all.
Drawing on my experiences researching cannabis cultivation, I demonstrate some of the ways that offline and online methods complement one another. Online methods were useful in expanding my own study beyond the normal constraints of ethnography by generating a larger and more varied sample, and providing access to more data than traditional ethnographic approaches. They were also essential for exploring the various online aspects of cannabis cultivation. But offline methods proved invaluable in accessing and recruiting respondents online, and in providing the experience essential to participating in – and understanding – cultivation-related online interactions. Both approaches revealed findings not identified by the other, and research in each environment helped with understanding experiences and observations in the other.
I argue that while there are clear strengths in online approaches to criminological ethnography, certain pitfalls arise when online techniques are used without employing face-to-face research as well. Triangulation of online and offline methods can enhance the understanding of many human behaviours, but may be particularly useful in overcoming the difficulties inherent in criminological ethnography. For many (although by no means all) criminological topics, online methods can usefully enhance, but not replace, traditional ethnographic techniques.