Researching Online: A Multimodal and Ethnographic Semiotic Approach

Author: Myrrh Domingo

The MODE team hosted its first summer school this past July. There were five sessions in total and Gunther and I ran one of the training days, ‘Multimodal and Ethnographic Semiotic Analysis of Digital Communication Environments.’ We worked with international scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and explored the potential of the combined ethnographic and social semiotic framework presented to research online and digital environments. In what follows, I share a brief recount of key ideas shared during our session.

The aim of the session was to address two main methodological challenges:  (1) the issue of generating and collecting data in digital platforms, such as those appearing in blogs, various forums, and websites; and (2) analysis of textual materials (with some discussion of the notion of ‘text’) and of the social factors shaping the production of multimodal ensembles in ‘ephemeral’ digital environments.

With these challenges in mind, we shared an approach that integrates ethnographic and semiotic theory, method, description and analysis for ‘harnessing’ online materials in research on meaning and meaning making. Our data demonstration applied the framework and made use of digital data that ranged in scope and purpose from personal blogs, professional websites and organizational forums.

The affordance of the framework is its combined lens for exploring both the meaning making as materialised in text and the social shaping of technology involved in digitally enabled text making. For example, the social semiotic lens focuses on how modes are used in the materialisation of  ‘the social’ whereas the ethnographic lens focuses on the social uses of technology as realised in multimodal ensembles across digital platforms (see bulleted lists in Figure 1).


Domingo, M.,  Jewitt, C. and Kress, G. (in press, 2014) ‘Multimodal social semiotics: Writing in online contexts’ in K. Pahl and Rowsel (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Literacy Studies, London: Routledge.

Note: this work is carried out in the context of a ‘Collaborative project’ between MODE and NOVELLA, two nodes of (the ESRC funded) NCRM: “Using multimodal and narrative approaches to study food blogs: stories about food, mothering and fathering.” The MODE research team includes Gunther Kress, Carey Jewitt, Myrrh Domingo and Elisabetta Adami

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