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Ethnographic Fieldwork Online: Studying a Surrogacy Support Forum

By: Published: 2018 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2
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This case discusses the ethnographic challenges that the increased prominence of online interactions represents. Sociologists need to reflect on the nature of online forums and adjust their methodology if they want to understand new forms of social interactions. In my own work, I took up this challenge by exploring an online surrogacy support and information forum,, as my fieldsite. I spent a decade immersed in this online world, reading discussion threads on numerous sub-forums in which women discussed a wide range of topics, such as relationship with their couple, contract negotiations, embryo transfer practices, termination of pregnancy, and even non-surrogacy issues, including family, work, news, and more. I also contacted surrogates by posting on the forum; their responses helped me understand discussions and stances more accurately. I found that understanding the history and context of online discussions is important for comprehending the meanings people create together. Treating discussion threads, rather than individual posts, as the unit of analysis helps provide context for understanding data from online forums. Much as in physical life, meanings inform actions, and people never construct meanings alone. Long-term immersion in enabled me to see change over time; surrogates modified and renegotiated previous conceptualizations and notions. Looking for negative cases is just as important in analyzing online data as it is in any other ethnographic work. This case exemplifies the implementation of the interactionist insight that feelings, practices, and meanings are formulated collectively in interactions even in the context of online forums.

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