Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many scholars had to transfer their research into the digital. At first sight, this seems to tie in with a trend in social sciences that moves towards objectivist big data approaches and neglects personal interactions (Leurs, 2017, p.131ff). Against this trend, digital ethnographers have been practicing and calling for a mixture of online and offline research to capture the embeddedness of digital media in the everyday (Hine, 2017; Pink et al., 2016). In this context, some digital ethnographers have been using remote online ethnography to capture this embeddedness through online means (see e.g. Markham, 2013; Postill, 2017; Walton, 2018). When talking about remote online ethnography, I thus mean research settings that solely rely on material gathered through online interactions.
However, especially in postcolonial research settings – with “postcolonial” referring to the persistence of colonial power relations after formal independencies – physical ethnographic immersion has become essential for challenging Eurocentric normativity in research relations. From a digital ethnography standpoint, this also includes acknowledging the contextual embeddedness of online data and of research on them. This is even more important if we consider the colonial legacies of research in the Global South with a history of extracting knowledge from racialized “Others” (see e.g. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1999). Abandoning physical immersion for a remote online ethnography might then be reminiscent of the so-called “armchair anthropology” that has been criticised for its lack of first-hand experiences (Sera-Shriar, 2014). Doing online research in a postcolonial context thus raises the question: Is remote online research a move back into the (digital) armchair that precludes us from establishing power-sensitive research relations?
I faced this question myself when I started my doctoral project in 2016. During two previous on-site research stays in Mali (2010) and Burkina Faso (2012), I highly valued the embodied experiences and understanding that came with on-site ethnographic research. But since my doctoral research focused on political mobilisation through the transnational circulation of Malian-diasporic online news (see e.g. Hasenöhrl, 2019), this time I opted for interacting with authors and readers of those news via online media.
This post suggests that a remote online research design does not have to be a move back into the armchair. I rather argue that feminist approaches to remote online ethnography can reinforce the power- and context-sensitive values and practices of contemporary (digital) ethnographic research against the trend towards objectivist big-data approaches mentioned above. In the following, I will exemplify how I implemented such values and practices in my doctoral research through the three feminist moves of (1) acknowledging diverse standpoints, (2) practicing ethics of care, and (3) disrupting hierarchies.
Acknowledging diverse standpoints
As a first move, informed by feminist standpoint theories, feminist online researchers reflect on how socio-economic and political positionalities influence their research encounters (Linabary & Corple, 2018; Shaw, 2013).
In my case, my privileged position as a Western researcher who was affiliated with a university in the Global North meant acknowledging that my project primarily served my own academic education and standing. In addition, considering colonial legacies of covert research on marginalised social groups (as e.g. identified by Wilson, 2015), I considered transparency as one responsibility entailed in my researcher positionality. Before interacting with potential interview partners, I created a research website (see Figure 1) that informed on my project, my motivation, my personal and institutional background, and the extent of a potential participation. In addition, I used my own social media profiles (with a “researcher” disclaimer inserted in my profile name) in order to engage with research participants (for further reflections on the use of profiles for research, see e.g. Simone Pfeifer in this blog). Through my presentation on the research website, my own social media activities, and my reactions in personal interactions, participants could thus learn about my privileged socio-economic positioning as well as about my anti-colonial political opinions.
Another implication of feminist standpoint theories is to acknowledge the partiality of one’s own perspective and include diverse voices, starting from marginalised groups (Leurs, 2017; Linabary & Corple, 2018; Shaw, 2013). On the one hand, my remote research setting made this difficult because of the digital divide in Malian society. On the other hand, as my research was about the circulation of discourses through online news, I could access those who actively contributed to this circulation and use the temporal and spatial flexibility of remote online research to include as diverse voices as possible. For instance, the option to communicate online offered possibilities for transnational participation, including Malian-diasporic actors in Senegal, Malta, different parts of France, and one person located in a conflict region in the North of Mali. On the other hand, doing interviews online – and not leaving a physical field afterwards – enabled me to include two female users whose schedule did not fit with my imagined timeframe for data collection and who were only available later on during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
In doing so, I tried to counter my own partial view of online mobilisation and to include Malian-diasporic users with diverse standpoints.
Practicing ethics of care
As a second move, feminist online researchers suggest that practicing ethics of care enhances the accountability and responsibility of researchers. Privileging morality, compassion, and empathy over more “abstract ideas about rights, justice, virtues, or outcomes” (Linabary & Corple, 2018 p.5), an affective reflexivity by researchers attends to mutual dependencies between researchers and research participants, vulnerabilities of participants, and responsibilities of researchers (Leurs, 2017; Linabary & Corple, 2018; Linabary & Hamel, 2017). For shaping this moral engagement, I also valued the ambivalent interactions with my interview partners that unveiled their ideas of our relationalities, ranging from seeing my research as an extractivist endeavour to an opportunity for socio-political or economic change.
In terms of dependencies, since my project was embedded in academic structures with colonial legacies mentioned above, I took it as my responsibility to reflect on and potentially mitigate postcolonial elements in my research relations. For instance, I offered information and potential services on my research website. I informed on free digital resources I had been using for my project, including Trello, Skype, Google Docs, and Jimdo. And I invited participants to suggest services I could provide to them, proposing that I could, for instance, organise a virtual meeting with an expert, or some form of online exhibition that promotes my research participants’ point of view on current events in Mali such as the ongoing political tensions or international interventions. While my interview partners did not take up any of these suggestions, some aimed at establishing beneficial research relations themselves, for instance, by asking for support in networking or for finding funding for their social, economic, and political projects.
In terms of vulnerabilities, for instance, I valued the (historical) neglect of the privacy of persons in the Global South as well as their intersectional affectedness by a lack of privacy (see e.g. Linabary & Hamel, 2017). Therefore, I obtained a twofold informed consent from my interview partners, first before the interview started and secondly after the interview was finished, allowing them to reflect on their statements and on what they might want to exclude from my research.
And in terms of affects and responsibility, I acknowledged emotional experiences of my interview partners and factored them in my non-research related activities. For instance, research participants voiced their angers, fears, and hopes during our exchanges when they shared real-time online news. As Bintou Maiga told me after learning about a fire in a Bamako-based refugee camp:
Because this has shocked me so much that I started thinking about, this has hurt me so much to the point that I wanted to create an association for helping those unfortunate there. (…) We are in Europe, eh, walla, … we don’t know what to do. (Bintou Maiga [pseudonym], female employee in her fifties in Paris)
Acknowledging this emotional affectedness – and my previous dependency on Bintou’s participation in my research project – influenced my reaction to such messages, letting myself be affected by these emotions in spite of the physical distance, and seeing it as my responsibility to try to assist Bintou in her social engagement for residents in the burnt down refugee camp.
Through these practices, I thus tried to enhance my accountability and responsibilities towards my research participants.
The third feminist move that is reminiscent of anthropological values and practices is the disruption of hierarchies in the research relationship. Feminist online researchers suggest engaging in a dialogue with research participants in order to acknowledge their agency – and potential resistance – in the research process. Thereby, research participants should gain autonomy with regards to the process and content of their participation through more “control over how, when and in what manner” (Linabary & Hamel, 2017, p. 100) they contribute (Leurs, 2017; Linabary & Corple, 2018; Linabary & Hamel, 2017; Shaw, 2013).
In terms of promoting autonomy in the research process, for instance, I encouraged my interview partners to choose the medium for our interactions. As a result, we interacted via multiple media formats, including Facebook private messages (written and voice), WhatsApp messages (written and voice), email, phone calls, and Twitter private messages. Thereby, participants could choose which medium was most affordable, practical, and trustworthy for them. As Amadou Tamata stated:
Yes, I love Twitter, I love Twitter a lot, and do you know why I accepted your interview? (…) Because it‘s via Twitter, I trust Twitter more than Facebook, because on Facebook, there are many fraudsters and on Facebook as well the people send me invitations and I do not accept. (Amadou Tamata [pseudonym], male researcher in his thirties in Bamako)
Moreover, especially asynchronous forms of interacting allowed my research participants to decide on the rhythm and length of our interaction. In that way, interactions with some interview partners ranged from once every two weeks to several times per day (and night) and lasted from some days to several months. In this context, the affective experience of my not being there made me more aware of the gaps, imbalances, and uncertainties in online interactions. For instance, when I was waiting impatiently for interview partners to read my messages and started to worry if they had not seen them – or if they had seen them but did not want to or could not react, I was in a waiting position that challenged my rank as the “person in charge” of the interview.
In terms of content, asynchronous interview formats also enabled a reflexivity that could disrupt hierarchies. On the one hand, they allowed my interview partners to reflect on and potentially edit their answers (see e.g. Linabary & Hamel, 2017) and to gain more power over their contribution to my research. Some interview partners developed own narrations on their (political) biographies that were not related to my questions but enriched my understanding of their context and motivations tremendously. Others used our asynchronous communication to send me articles, videos, or memes and thereby contributed their own spins to our interaction. And still others sometimes reversed the interview roles as they started asking me questions about my family life and work, or giving me advice, e.g. on secure behaviour at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, asynchronous interactions also enabled myself to reflect on my inherent preconceptions, prejudices, and privileges when I formulated my questions and answers.
As we saw throughout this post, feminist approaches to remote online research can reinforce the power- and context-sensitive values and practices of contemporary (digital) ethnographic research in postcolonial settings through acknowledging diverse standpoints, practicing ethics of care, and disrupting hierarchies.
More generally, doing this remote research made me ask when do we have to travel to a physical field? This question becomes especially urgent as not only COVID-19 challenges the obligatory physical research trip, but also issues such as climate change and postcolonial, racialized mobility regimes that promote an ever increasing transnational mobility of researchers only for those from the Global North.
Therefore, I do not see remote online research as the way for building postcolonial research relations, but as another, additional way that might consolidate existing practices and open possibilities for future, more power-sensitive research encounters.
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I would like to thank Monika Palmberger, Suzana Jovicic, and Philipp Budka for their encouraging, helpful, and thorough comments on the first drafts of this post.
*Syntia Hasenöhrl recently completed her PhD at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. Her dissertation employs a decolonial-feminist view on possibilities for political mobilisations through the circulation of online news in a Malian-diasporic context. Between 2016 and 2020, she was recipient of a DOC-team fellowship of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and affiliated with the Vienna-based research platform Mobile Cultures and Societies. Her research interests include intersectionality with a focus on gender and postcoloniality, critical discourse studies, and (critical) mobility studies. Her recent publications include West African-diasporic social media users facing Covid-19: care, emotions and power during the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic (2021) and Affective Politics of Care during COVID-19: Feminist Views of Political Discourses and Intersectional Inequalities in Mali (2021). Lately, Syntia Hasenöhrl has been teaching courses on intersectionality in online media, Southern feminisms and international mobility politics at the Universities of Vienna and Salzburg.