“The Ethnography of an Electronic Bar: The Lesbian Café" by Shelley J. Correll is qualitative article that seeks to offer broader insights into what the term community actually means if it exists in an intangible location and furthermore, to describe the unique ideas, views, and positions that members of the community in question have in such a non-physical location. While her revelations are fascinating and grounded in ethnographic research, which is a suitable method of gathering data for qualitative analysis, the focus of this piece will be on how this article reflects the nature of qualitative research. In order to best asses the general quality of the article in question, three critical aspects of the research will be examined, including its statement and revelation of the problem both directly and through literature review, the methodology used to draw its conclusions, and finally, the quality and nature of the findings. This article fulfills most of the criteria necessary to serve as solid qualitative research and meets several obligations for reliable research before coming to its conclusions.
The problem presented is well-suited for qualitative inquiry and concerns issues of meaning, understanding and process, particularly in terms of how communities are defined, understood as legitimate and how they operate. The only weakness with Correll’s statement of the problem is that it takes several paragraphs before the reader is aware of what the central point of the research will be. At the end of the lengthy introduction, she situates her own research in the context of other scholars and directly states that she will be performing a sociological analysis of lesbian communities online.
Once the problem is made clear, it is directly stated and situated in the literature. Correll discusses how the literature, past and present, has defined community and discusses how the problem of electronic communities complicates and sometimes enhances their views. She implicitly makes it clear that the importance of her research is grounded in how the term communities is being reformed to apply to non-physical communities and how in turn, these notions of relatively anonymous communities completely revolutionizes the term and she seeks to explore this issue without bias. At the time this article was written, the internet was relatively new, thus the profuse numbers of new definitions to explore the phenomenon of electronic communities was itself new. In this way, her exploration using ethnography to define, understand, and put into procedural context the lesbian community would have been a valuable contribution to the literature. It is worth noting, however, that in the methods section, she says she is a member of this online community, but does not state whether this was because of the study or due to her personal interests—a fact that should be clarified as it might reveal some bias.
Her research design method is based on ethnography, which by definition means not only gathering the data based on the topic, but more importantly, formulating some kind of synthesis of the cultural information presented and interpreting it (Correll, 2002, p. 236). She defines her theoretical framework as consisting of “interactionist and ethnomethodological perspectives" (Correll, 2002, p. 241) thus this involves an examination of not only the “how" of this aspect of community, but the “who" and greater meaning of her findings. Her data collection consists of both observation of the community through participants who agreed and also carried out through group and individual interviews. These methods are perfectly in line with her statement of the problem because it permits her to view the community’s interactions objectively through observation of the goings-on and also allows the more personal, nuanced element wrought from personal interviews and group chats or messaging. It should be noted that this type of cultural observation is aligned with ethnography as form, which involves the documentation and cultural analysis based on these firsthand observations. Due to the fact that this community was secured and as anonymous as its participants desired, ethical and privacy concerns were minimized by sheer aspect of the nature of electronic communication. However, the author secured permission from the operator of the board, asked for volunteers publicly, and “posted a new note describing [my] study so patrons knew they were being observed" (Correll, 2002, p. 244). She then attempted to form a synthesis between her electronic data and “real" communication and community by meeting several of the members at an actual bar to observe differences and similarities. Her data were analyzed using an ethnomethodological approach where she formed assertions, assumptions, and ideas based on the wealth of cultural information given to her. The validity of her information she notes, was complicated due to the anonymity of the communication (for instance, how to indentify if one’s gender was actually the truth as stated on her forms) but she does note this as a limitation.
The participants in her study are described as much as possible, but due to that fact that few encounters yielded any interpersonal/face-to-face contact, she often had to rely solely on what they told her or expressed. The findings are clearly stated and involve assumptions the author makes based on the email, chat, message board, and personal contact from the meetup in Atlanta and they all seek to answer her initial questions about the nature of community online, especially for this group of people who often seek to hide or feel differently about interacting in society based on their sexual preferences. Her findings are well-positioned in the context of both her theoretical framework and literature review and seek to redefine many of the questions posed by other scholars and researchers about the nature of community. One of the main issues that emerges that is not directly related to what she describes as her mission at the beginning is her detailed exploration of the actual functions of the Lesbian Café for the participants. This leads her to make the assumption that the members are comfortable in such a community because they lack one of their own, often due to geographic circumstances. This does relate to her primary objective for the study, but again, she often goes on at length before the true meaning of what she is saying is completely exposed. Still, despite this slightly meandering research analysis, her data directly relates to her objective and her mission is accomplished by the end when she both reassesses the meaning of community and also takes a broad cultural look at lesbians in an intangible setting. She states explicitly, “Establishing relationships through an electronic medium can be both liberating and limiting" (Correll, 2002, p. 249) which answers the body of previous work she addressed at the beginning and does so before forming a basic typology of patrons in the café by breaking them down by subjective categories (newbies, lurkers, regulars, etc.). Her findings coalesce into a broad statement about how lesbians are driven to create their communities and how these communities operate apart from traditional definitions but provide the same benefits. She ties her ideas together by establishing that establishing communities online is positive, at least for this group, but that there are limitations to these relationships formed in addition to her theoretical findings about reality versus fantasy and how it operates in a community context. The author does not provide any explicit suggestions for future study or place any recommendations, which seems odd given the constantly-changing nature of the medium in question.
This article was an excellent example of qualitative research using ethnography as the primary approach. The author positioned her ideas in the context of both prior research and the literature, which included various works on more subjective, theoretical principles. She used several forms of data collection with respect to privacy and permission and behaved ethically in her data gathering and analysis. Her findings were congruent with her initial topic, although she had a rather meandering style that often deviated for long enough that it seemed irrelevant to the main question. This problem was particularly present at the beginning of the work as the author took several paragraphs to make her initial claim and statement of purpose for the research. Without an abstract to serve as a guide for this piece, this made the initial deciphering of the topic rather difficult. The author was able, even with what seemed at first like extraneous information, to pull all aspects together into a cogent whole that provided a solid interpretation of both notions of community recreated electronically and the lesbian community’s relationship with this new possibility—for better and for worse. She tied together the dual questions of community, both as it exists in the physical and intangible senses and what it means for a displaced group such as the lesbian participants in the study. It is also worth noting that the author did not provide explicit directions for future study, but nonetheless, this serves as a valuable ethnographic contribution by means of its general structure, support, contextual and theoretical positioning, and final analysis.
Correll, Susan. (2002). The Ethnography of an Electronic Bar In Merriam, Sharan B. (Ed.), Qualitative Research in Practice: Examples for Discussion and Analysis. Newark, NJ: Jossey-Bass.