Mumsnet ethnography

October 29, 2011 | 17 Comments

I really struggled to upload this ethnography as it was originally in powerpoint and slideshare wouldn’t accept it. Have uploaded as a movie to youtube but, unfortunately it’s lost its soundtrack. Just imagine the theme to Charlie’s Angels in the first few slides and I’ll try and fix tomorrow!

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17 Comments so far

  1.    Austin Tate on October 31, 2011 12:22 pm      Reply

    Thanks for posting the Mumsnet ethnography Carol. I am glad in a way that we did not have Charlies’ Angels audio blaring out while I read the slides ;-)

    The comments about communities acting to socially exclude non-members or as a means “mechanism of oppression” was interesting. I will go back over the readings to see what other examples there are of that. Does it mean communities acting as a clique.. which many probably do, both on-line and physical communities.

    I noted the comments about the gransnet and dadsnet elements, and how dadsnet might be used (by women and men) to wind others up with the usual stereotypical comments.

    By the way, I wonder if “DH” is actually mean in a sarcastic or slightly derogatory way… like one might say “better half” in a sarcastic tone?

  2.    Carol Jane Collins on October 31, 2011 12:45 pm      Reply

    Hi Austin

    Many thanks for your comments. Yes, the theme could have been annoying although it was only in the first 3 slides then faded out! Yes, I think Bell is talking about where communities may exclude. He also talks about bunkering in to a avoid the variety (I can t remember exact word he uses) of postmodern living. The paper on Mommy blogging also talks about that phenomena as perhaps being particularly middle class and white (and heterosexual). I should have put references on the end of the presentation but was at my wits end with trying to upload to youtube and forgot! I’ll include a bibliogrpahy in my blog this week though for anyone who wants to find the mommy blogging stuff.
    Yes, I’d agree there may be something derogatory or at least ironic in the use of DH and other terms, like Ds (for Dear Son). I’ve had a quick look at your ethnography which looks really thorough! Will take a look in detail later (have back to back teaching today except for this brief break) and post a comment!

  3.    Siân Bayne on November 1, 2011 10:17 am      Reply

    This is great Carol – I’d never been into mumsnet before and I found this a really nice critical introduction.

    There were a few things I wanted to know more about – you mentioned at one point that the cultural and political capital of the site might bias the ethnographer, and I wondered in what sense you meant this – do you mean that its apparent politics are likely to alienate/prompt allegiance in particular ways? How would you see this as affecting a more sustained ethnography of the site?

    I guess a related issue is the one you raise on self reflexivity and the need to position ourselves as researchers – on this point it wasn’t clear to me what your own position was, as a mumsnet user or refuser! I’d have liked to have known more.

    I loved your reading of the logo btw – militarised images of babies are always likely to provoke and that seemed to sum up something of the site’s general ethos!

  4.    Carol Jane Collins on November 1, 2011 11:45 am      Reply

    Thanks for your comments Sian. Yes, the issue with cultural and political capital, as I see it, is that preconceptions might alienate the ethnographer (or, I suppose, prompt allegiance). Mumsnet have been characterised as middle-class, boden-wearing Tories by some and, in the Toby Young piece, as ‘a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies’ (even though they’ve been courted by both major political parties there is still a perception of them as representing middle-ground politics and middle-England concerns). When I mentioned to a friend I was doing a bit of research on them, she immediately said ‘Oh that Tory lot’. I suppose just from a short acquaintance with the site, it becomes clear that there is a wider spectrum of political beliefs evident so a more sustained ethnographic study might tease this out a bit more and clear any preconceptions. I suspect though that a deeper study of the demographic would confirm that the membership does point towards white, middle-class, heterosexual, but I may be wrong. Lopez writing on Mommy blogging has some evidence that there is a certain amount of exclusion from debate about mommy blogging of those from minorities of race/sexuality/relationship status/class.

    I’m not sure, being self-reflexive, whether I would position myself as either user or refuser, but I do feel an outsider. With grown up kids but a young grandson, I’ve looked at Mumsnet for advice but also know it through a friend with young kids who became quite addicted. I’m not a member and have never posted and I think, were I to look at a deeper study I’d have to think about whether I would do this as a lurker or as a member, probably the latter. I think this kind of study is always going to be a negotiation between our preconceptions and what we discover and, as long as this is acknowledged and dealt with within the matter of the study, then worries over objectivity are moot. Are we ever objective really in any research anyway…I know that my own beliefs, views etc. do colour the way I go about my own research but I do try to make a convincing job of it!

    There is another site in the UK called Netmums, which seems more popular in Scotland from what I can see, and it seems to be more concerned with the practicalities of motherhood, such as selling prams online etc. The general concensus among some mothers of young children that I know, is that it is more down-to-earth and relevant to them. It would be very interesting to do an ethnographic comparison!

  5.    Jeremy Keith Knox on November 1, 2011 8:56 pm      Reply

    This ethnography was fascinating Carol. I think some of the mumsnet forums would make a great site for a discourse analysis. Given that some of the research has identified ‘white middle class’, for example, as the predominant users of the site, I wonder how the specific language used defines what ‘type’ of person you can be on mumsnet: the kind of discussion that is permitted, and also shunned. How is ‘white middle class’ performed as a kind of ‘mumsnet identity’? I also liked the idea that the dadsnet forum might be used by participants as an anonymous place to perform a particular gender.

    Fascinating as well how this community has gone about legitimising itself (and its knowledge about motherhood and femininity) through association (good or bad it doesn’t matter!) with politicians and the media. Also, the question of *how* this kind of site has come to prominence seems very interesting; what does it tells us about what motherhood/class/gender might mean presently?

  6.    Carol Jane Collins on November 1, 2011 10:50 pm      Reply

    Hi Jeremy

    Yes, the site is ripe for a discourse analysis. I would certainly love to look more closely at it and do a more systematic ethnography. I looked very briefly at some research on language ethnography and was interested in the idea of language as ‘the key to culture’ –

    I do think though that there is some kind of combination of their courting of politicians, the identity of the Mumsnet founders (they are in the David Cameron Youtube clip), and the manner and matter of talk on there that gives the impression of ‘white, middle class’. There are a couple of interesting ‘critiques’ (beyond those I cite from newspapers) of Mumsnet on youtube – one by a teenager about Mumsnet and another site called MAVAV (Mothers against video games and violence) and another accusing Mumsnet of anti-men sentiments and attacking it as a site for feminists! The irony of the latter given the debate over mommy blogging, plus it’s spoken as an insult!

  7.    Daniel Griffin on November 3, 2011 10:29 pm      Reply

    Great piece Carol. I must confess to not having heard of Mumsnet before now but it sounds fascinating and extremely useful. I’d agree with your statement that since the network is perceived as having a cultural and political capital that this may bias the ethnographer, and I’ve also run into similar issues with my own study.

    Another interesting point you raise is that the typical user is perceived as being middle class and white. Could this be because that is the typical demographic with the necessary time and digital literacy skills to use such a network? Working class mums often don’t have such luxuries.

    •    Carol Jane Collins on November 4, 2011 2:30 pm      Reply

      Thanks Daniel! Yes, the political influence of Mumsnet was one of the reasons I decided to look at it as one could consider it as activism on the part of (a section of) mothers, or political opportunism on the part of politicians!

      I suspect you’re right about the demographic. I hate to be stereotypic, but I also wonder if there is something still more engaged about working class communites in terms of RL – I may be way off here though. I also think that a lot of working class (whatever that is these days!) mums might find they are alienated by the tone of the site.

      Would be fantastic to do a deeper study of this!

  8.    Neil David Buchanan on November 4, 2011 8:41 am      Reply

    Hi Carol, I thoroughly enjoyed this work as it is a subject I would normally have avoided. As a single, middle-aged man with no children, I have little experience with this aspect of either the real or the digital world and it was fascinating that so many characters (I’m learning not to assume that group participants are really who they say they are) are taking part in this online dimension of their real world.

    I enjoyed the way you led us through the set up of the study. I found myself wondering how hostile this group would be towards someone like me (yes, it’s all about me!) I’m fascinated by cultural attitudes towards identity and I find that the Gulf and Indian approaches to children raising are radically different to those I perceive in the UK. So another area crying out for study! As “mommy issues” are so politically relevant, it suggests that how parenting is carried out reflects deep issues within a community and, on a wider scale, on a society. (Sorry if I’m stating the obvious but this really is a new world to me!)

    I noticed when my sister’s children were small, that when I visited them in their Cotswold’s home, I was greeted warmly in Marks and Spencers, Boots et al when I took them out for walks or treats. When I returned to the same shops alone, I was treated far more stiffly and formally. My identity seemed to turn on whether or not I had children with me (and the dog really sealed the deal). It interests me how these interpersonal assessments play out online. For example, when I chat online with Indian people, I know the first 5 or 6 questions they will ask to establish who I am (in their context). Does the same apply with mommy blogging? Are you taken more seriously if you have younger kids – or treated differently if you’re older and have survived the teenage years?

    You’ve opened up a whole new realm to me! Many thanks!

  9.    Carol Jane Collins on November 4, 2011 2:44 pm      Reply

    Hi Neil – thanks for all your comments, they’re really interesting and useful. The mummy or parent identity is an interesting one isnt it? I found your comment about the reaction to you in shops really thought provoking – how far is our commercial world in particular geared towards an idea of the family (it certainly figures large in advertising). There seems to be some debate around Mumsnet and some comments outside it that if it is for mums then women who are not mums should not be coming on. I suspect that, similarly, a single man would not be well-received and yet there is no reason why anyone would not be able to comment on a lot of the threads which do not even deal with parenthood. Perhaps this is a question to consider in online communities – does the community depend on one binding ‘interest’ and, if so, is that restrictive? I have to say that, although a mother and now a grandmother (eek!, I dont entirely identify with Mumsnet but that may be because, since my kids have grown up, I am happy to take on another new identity – one not quite my old self but certainly different from the munmmy-me. I think it’s also interesting to think about our perceptions of how a mother should be. I think I was not a ‘mummy’ type and that is maybe why I shy away from Mumsnet a bit, but then maybe everyone on Mumsnet feels that way. As a young mother I did very much rely on a local community playgroup and, although I often felt I had nothing in common with many of the members, the need for contact and support was uppermost and I suspect that’s the case for many who dip in and out of Mumsnet as opposed to those who seem ever present.

    The youngerkid/teen kids question is interesting – Jeremy suggested that the site would be ripe for discourse analysis. Oh to have time to do that!

  10.    Grace Elliott on November 5, 2011 9:47 am      Reply

    Hi Carol,

    I enjoyed reading about Mumset and confess that I hadn’t heard of it before, nor of Netmums. If this had been on offer when I had my first child I would definitely have joined, as I was living quite far from my family and friends. There are probably lots of reasons why people do or don’t join.

    As for Toby Young’s comments, is this the same guy who wrote ‘How to lose friends and alienate people’?

    Like Jeremy, I wondered how language was used to pigeon-hole which class the user belonged to, and how sad for it to be used to exclude.

    Neil’s comment about being treated differently when he re-visited shops without kids and dog got me thinking about how differently I was treated when I was a SAHM for a few years. At dinners or parties it was definitely a conversation stopper. And this from professional people too.

    You’ve certainly given us food for thought Carol.

  11.    Carol Jane Collins on November 5, 2011 11:42 am      Reply

    Hi Grace

    Thanks for your comments – yes I too would probably have used Mumsnet when I was still at home with the kids and had one who never slept! I used to often wish there was someone to talk to outside those times when i went to playgroup as most of my friends were no longer in Glasgow and those that were didn’t have kids yet.

    Yes, that would be the same Toby Young! :)

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