It is Friday night in a youth centre on the outskirts of Vienna; the lights are dim, and loud local Rap music is blaring in the background. A girl sits alone on the old sofa, seemingly oblivious to the noise and chaos around her. Her face glows a bright red that reflects off her smartphone, painting the picture of a lonely teenager who has fallen under the digital spell.
I encountered many similar scenarios during my fieldwork in 2018 and 2019 after I began my ethnographic research on smartphones among youths. I was faced with a conundrum: how to understand this “digital” spell and the relationships with this intimate dwelling that seems so “hidden from the ethnographer”? Palmberger and Budka raised a similar question in their first post in this blog series: “(1) How can we observe and participate in increasingly “individualized” and veiled patterns of communication and interaction?” Although I was physically present in the field, the smartphone nevertheless “veiled” a part of the social reality by hiding it from my view. As I was to find out, however, the key to the puzzle lay hidden in the smartphone itself, in the potentiality of its likeness…to doors.
A black box in-between
For 11 months, I was a regular visitor to two youth centres in Vienna. These are open spaces, historically located near social housing blocks. Many young visitors have an immigration background, mostly from Turkey, Chechnya, and Former Yugoslavia. They can simply hang out or partake in free or subsidized activities for youths aged 5-21, such as playing games, sports or doing camping trips. Staff members organize activities and serve as confidants, counsellors, and translators – literally and in terms of bureaucracy. During my first visits, several staff members responded to my research interests by pointing out that the smartphone equals competition: “Once they are on their smartphones, our job becomes really difficult”, one staff member told me. “Our work has changed, it’s different now than it was 10/15 years ago. It’s harder to reach them and to connect with them”. The warning about smartphones competing with me as an ethnographer for the attention of my interlocutors soon began to settle over my fieldwork, as I began to hang out on the old, donated sofas of the youth centre and initiate conversations and games. Despite the playful environment, I sometimes found myself desperately trying to start a conversation with groups of teenagers who were understandably more interested in their smartphones.
So, why did the smartphones complicate fieldwork relationships? On the one hand, the smartphones felt distant – intimate objects that seemed so close for inspection and yet so far. This black box exuded an air of coldness and distance towards me, as it radiated warmth and intimacy towards its owner. On the other hand, paradoxically, the smartphone became a competitor, just as it was a focus of my study. It seemed as if the smartphone was a disturbance, something that stood “between” me and the visitors, interfering with my relationships in making. I found myself in an affective triad, struck by vague jealousy toward the phone. The smartphone had the attention and trust that I, as an ethnographer, struggled to attain. Descartes, for instance, described jealousy, as a“warmth that disposes the soul to undertake things that it hopes (or expects) it can attain because it sees others attaining them” (1988: 257). This warmth, translated into the ethnographic encounter, echoes the “90-year-old anthropological folk concept”, as Goebel (2019: 2) describes the anthropological preoccupation with “rapport”. Since Malinowski, rapport became an expected and naturalized requirement for successful fieldwork. Rapport and friendships were often romanticized and used to legitimize the insights as authentic and going to the core of the yet unfamiliar field (ibid.). The advent of smartphones in-between may further threaten this idealized process. If this warmth was drawn by the smartphone, what was left for the ethnographer?
From an enemy to an (ambivalent) friend
While hanging out on the sofas, at times I was confronted with my own discomfort of trying to engage in small talk, while also competing with the smartphone for attention. Like rapport, small talk is another aspect of ethnographic research that is mostly naturalized and rarely taught. As Driessen and Jansen (2013: 251) note, there are libraries full of books on interviews, but very few on small talk – an essential, yet taken-for-granted part of fieldwork. The smartphone had something I did not: an effortless rapport with the interlocutors. Unlike me, the smartphone appeared as a place of comfort and a cocooned individualized space, as Hjorth and Richardson (2014: 35) write. In such an encounter, the smartphone becomes an object of separation, rather than connection.
The smartphone provides an easy escape in socially awkward situations. Temporary escapism does not necessarily result from sticky screens that draw away attention by default; rather, it can follow a lack or loss of connection. As Tim, the 15-year-old regular visitor recalled: “I was once in a big group and was sitting at the end of the table, so I couldn’t get involved into the conversation, although I wanted to. So I went on Instagram, although I did not feel like it”. Sometimes, when I was sitting on the sofa feeling invisible, I longed to seek relief and comfort in my own smartphone. Discomfort, anxiety, and self-doubt are frequent, yet further rarely discussed companions of fieldwork, particularly for novice ethnographers (Hume & Mulcock, 2004: xxiv; Koning & Ooi 2013). My role in the youth centre was complicated. On the one hand, I was one of many, frequently changing interns, who came and went in contrast to the long-term staff. My relationships inevitably had a different quality, compared to staff who sometimes knew the visitors for most of their lives. On the other hand, my work was eased by the playful environment: playing table soccer or Mario Cart and earning pity points for miserably failing at all these games.
As I started to become familiar with the visitors, the smartphone, that black box, became an object that represented continuity rather than disruption. Sara’s transparent smartphone case, for example, displayed constantly changing printed images from her life – it was an excellent news bulletin and a conversation starter. As the relationships progressed, the smartphones became a natural part of the conversation: Arnel kept amplifying his vivid stories by showing me WhatsApp messages with the girl he was dating. The smartphone gallery served as a family album for Sina, a girl who had left her friends behind in a Turkish refugee camp and was now showing me their images. In other words, smartphones became woven into the intimacy of emerging relationships. Privacy, after all, was a relational process, rather than a one-off decision frozen in time. Rather than a threat, the smartphone became a link – a way to share bits of everyday life that might have remained obscure in the public, highly visible space of the youth centres.
At the same time, the privacy concern is not to be taken lightly in these circumstances, as Budka and Palmberger also note. After all, those pockets of comfort created by smartphones can also signal social absence and withdrawal. They may create invisible private spaces in those moments where physical distance is not possible. For example, Hirschauer (2005) wrote about people averting the gaze in the elevators, as the discomfort of physical proximity is managed with signals of absence and disconnection. In the context of media technologies, Tacchi (2012) has argued that radio listening, although a source of sound rather than silence, can be used to erase the (sound of) sociality. In her later work on smartphone radios, she concluded that digital technologies can be used in much the same way to create an aura of stillness – to erase sociality rather than invite it.
Where doors come in…
Here, one might think of smartphones in terms of doors. Doors (or their equivalents) are liminal/ in-between spaces of decisions and possibility (Schwarz, 1968; Vogler & Jørgensen, 2004). This is where decisions are made about whether or not to let a guest in. The metaphor of the door might seem simplistic at first – they are either opened or closed, with the latter signalizing a desire for privacy. However, a closed door might be waiting to be opened; and an open door might only indicate a wish for fresh air, rather than an open invitation. Its intentionality is not clear, and there is a potential for trespassing. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity of the in-between, this uncertainty inherent in the ethnographic relationship, now quasi-contaminated by the smartphone, that brings the strange into the familiar. This ambiguity and my own efforts to negotiate this affective triad and interpret the space of potentiality allowed me to better understand how sociality was negotiated around the smartphone. It made me pay attention to the ways in which smartphones were integrated into peer relationships and to the emic discourses around the smartphones, such as when it is appropriate to be on the phone – discourses that so-called “smartphone generation” is often accused of not having.
Learning from design
The ways in which the smartphone has hijacked the ethnographic encounter shaped my approach to the smartphone as a topic of inquiry. I became interested in how the porous and shape-shifting nature of the smartphone allowed me to become part of the relationship triad. I focused on what I called the in-between design of digital interfaces – the kind of design that would fill in the in-between moments of everyday life. Rather than witnessing spectacular stories of Instagram celebrities, the long hangouts at the sofa meant I shared many moments of dwelling in a casual leisure space with the door neither open nor shut: a space that did not distinguish between online and offline, between dwelling on the sofas or in social media feeds. Small talk with and within the smartphone co-existed with sofa chatter. The very design of smartphones allowed me to become part of “the everyday” through its permeability. Most importantly, those moments of shape-shifting small talk brought me closer to the persistent sense of boredom and stagnation in the lives of youths, among whom unemployment and waiting for a job, for an apprenticeship, or for the life to continue, were common. The young visitors were often stuck in the long periods of waiting, writing job applications, and losing hope with each day spent in waiting and uncertainty (Jovicic, 2020).
Mobile phones have long been the subject of anthropological and ethnographic enquiry. However, as Van Doorn (2013) highlights, they often remain discrete objects – somewhat separate from the ethnographic encounter, and yet they can profoundly affect the relationship in forming. They are both at the same time, an object that places an invisible wall between self and others and one that can intensify the ethnographic encounter. As COVID-19 hit and youth centres closed, smartphones became a lifeline, the only link between staff and visitors who had been separated for months. What was an enemy that seemingly changed the job to the worse, has now emerged as a friend.
It would be easy to dismiss staff and ethnographers’ concerns about smartphones as naively seeing pre-digital as more authentic. Yet, it is more complicated – but not because smartphones complicate things, but because ethnographic relationships have always been complicated and messy, even if polished, final ethnographies might imply otherwise. In my view, smartphones – or generally the new possibilities for doing ethnography digitally, will not necessarily revolutionize rapport by bringing intimate, or previously unattainable insights into the picture; they will not be a golden ticket to idealized fieldwork friendships, but they nevertheless inspire new ways of thinking about ethnographic encounters.
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- Driessen, H., & Jansen, W. (2013). The hard work of small talk in ethnographic fieldwork. Journal of anthropological research, 69(2), 249-263. https://doi.org/10.3998/jar.0521004.0069.205
- Goebel, Z. (Ed.). (2019). Rapport and the Discursive Co-Construction of Social Relations in Fieldwork Encounters (Vol. 19). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501507830
- Hirschauer, S. (2005). On doing being a stranger: The practical constitution of civil inattention. Journal for the theory of social behaviour, 35(1), 41-67.
- Hjorth, L., & Richardson, I. (2014). Gaming in social, locative and mobile media. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137301420_5
- Hume, L., & Mulcock, J. (Eds.). (2004). Anthropologists in the field: Cases in participant observation. Columbia University Press.
- Jovicic, S., (2020). Scrolling and the In-Between Spaces of Boredom: An Ethnographic Study of Youths on the Periphery of Vienna. Manuscript submitted for publication.
- Koning, J., & Ooi, C. S. (2013). Awkward encounters and ethnography. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 8(1), 16-32. https://doi.org/10.1108/17465641311327496
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- Tacchi, J. (2012). Radio in the (i) Home: changing experiences of domestic audio technologies in Britain. Radio Fields: Anthropology and Wireless Sound in the 21st Century, 233. https://doi.org/10.18574/nyu/9780814771679.001.0001
- Van Doorn, N. (2013). Assembling the affective field: How smartphone technology impacts ethnographic research practice. Qualitative Inquiry, 19(5), 385-396. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1077800413479566
- Vogler, A., & Jørgensen, J. (2004). Windows to the world-Doors to Space-a reflection on the psychology and anthropology of space architecture.
I thank Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka for their valuable feedback.
* This contribution builds on the questions raised by Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka in the first post of the blog post series “DEI Dialogues”.