Collaborative Ethnography in the Digital Age: Towards a New Methodological Framework

research

Monika Palmberger & Philipp Budka

Digital ethnography has become a very vibrant research field, as the growing body of literature indicates (e.g. Hjorth et al., 2017; Pink et al., 2016). Nevertheless, we sense that methodological debates often fall short. With this contribution to the Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) blog, we would like to open up a discussion on key methodological and ethical issues. More precisely, we would like to start sharing a reflection process on theoretical and methodological debates in the field of digital ethnography that we have been engaging in over the last year. This resulted in (1) a project proposal to an Austrian funding body as well as (2) in the Digital Ethnography Initiative at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna that we launched together with our colleague Suzana Jovicic.

In this blog post, we propose and briefly discuss three key issues and questions that are related to the challenges of ethnographic research in times of increasing digitalization. They address
(1) the individualization of interaction via smartphones and other mobile devices, which is connected to
(2) new issues of confidentiality and intimacy that call for the development of
(3) explicit collaborative research methods involving research partners in the process of collecting, interpreting and representing data.

These issues led us to reflect on a possible new methodological framework for doing digital ethnography that builds on explicit collaboration and the inclusion of available technological tools and devices within the research setting of “design studios”. In a subsequent post, we will discuss aspects of our own research projects that are related to questions of collaboration in digital ethnography in particular.

Ethnographic fieldwork and its key method of participant observation have been a core component of empirical research in anthropology since its beginnings. While widely used social science methods such as interviews or surveys rely on what people say, ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation focus also on what people do, i.e. social and cultural activities and practices. Moreover, anthropologically grounded ethnographic research aims to describe and analyze the frictions and inconsistencies between what people say and do.

We are thus convinced that in the digital age, ethnographic research has the potential to dig deep into mediated personal relationships as well as into socio-technical relations between humans and technologies (e.g. Hjorth et al., 2017; Horst & Miller, 2012; Miller, 2018; Miller & Horst 2012; Pink et al., 2016). By participating in the everyday lives of research partners over a considerable period of time, ethnographers are able to establish personal research relationships. Such ethnographic relationships bear the potential to capture, among other things, the changing emotional, normative and symbolic dimensions of socio-technical relations, thereby opening up new knowledge horizons. However, despite this potentiality, we also identify challenges to ethnographic research in social settings that are increasingly characterized by digitally mediated communication via personal, mobile devices such as smartphones.

(1) How can we observe and participate in increasingly “individualized” and veiled patterns of communication and interaction?

Contemporary socio-technical realities and digital practices, including smartphone use are not easily accessible with traditional ethnographic methods, such as participant observation. Ethnographers are accustomed to observing, documenting and participating in the conversations going on around them. This, however, has become increasingly challenging in times of ubiquitous individualized and digitally mediated interactions, which often remain hidden from the ethnographer. At the same time, these socio-technical realities urge us to reflect on ethical matters.

(2) How can we address emerging issues of confidentiality and intimacy in digitally mediated settings?

Smartphones are currently not only the predominant devices for digitally mediated mobile interaction but they also “create new worlds with new rules about our availability, intimacies, appearance and privacy” (Rushkoff, 2019). New intimacies and privacies call for ethical reflections, including on the relationship between ethnographers and their research partners.

(3) How can we strive towards explicit collaborative research and the sustained inclusion of research partners in collecting, interpreting and representing empirical data throughout the research process?

Such a discussion on collaborative forms of research and representation includes further questions about how research partners can make their voices heard throughout the research process; and how ethnographers can facilitate collaborative forms of authorship and shared ways of disseminating research results.

In our attempt to address these questions, we found inspiration in established and more recent debates on opening up anthropology and ethnography. For example:

  • In Luke Lassiter’s (2005) call for “explicit collaborative ethnography” that deliberately and openly emphasizes collaboration at every point in the ethnographic research process.
  • In Arjun Appadurai’s (2002) conceptualization of “deep democracy” as a local and community-driven response to questions of (global) governance, hierarchy and participation.
  • In Jean Rouch’s (1995) idea of “shared anthropology” in the context of filmmaking that is based on a collaborative relationship between researchers and research partners.
  • In Johannes Fabian’s (1983) critical reflection upon the contradictory use of time in ethnographic fieldwork and in anthropological discourse, where research partners tend to become the spatially and temporarily different “other” rather than partners in dialogue.
  • And in Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999) call for decolonizing research, and in particular research methodologies, for instance to give indigenous people and communities control over the research process.

These and similar reflections, we believe, should also be considered in the context of ethnographic engagements with digital practices and in digitalized research settings.

With this blog post we aim to kick off a discussion on rethinking the relationship between researchers and research partners in digitally mediated social settings. Such a debate could build on those initial ideas by critically exploring the first steps towards a more explicit collaboration between ethnographers and research partners in digital ethnography.

For future research, we suggest a methodological framework that builds on explicit collaboration and the deliberate inclusion of contemporary digital tools and devices such as smartphones as well as apps (e.g. Favero & Theunissen, 2018; Dattatreyan & Marrero-Guillamón, 2019; Pink et al. 2016). Such a framework, we believe, could best be developed in “design studios”. We understand these studios as creative research spaces that are defined by the social relationship between ethnographers and research partners and which aim to facilitate explicit collaborative research and shared knowledge production and transfer. Ultimately, design studios can contain many different forms and formats of encounter and collaboration, such as physical and/or online labs, workshops and meetings. We thus extend the purpose of such studios from being an educational context, as proposed by Paul Rabinow, George Marcus, James Faubion and Tobias Rees (2008), to an ethnographic research context. We believe that these studios would facilitate collaborative forms of collecting, interpreting and representing empirical data as well as shared ways of critically reflecting upon the entire research process. Furthermore, the incorporation and integration of technological devices and apps as “research tools” have the potential to contribute to new modes of collaboration by “democratizing” the relationship between researchers and research partners.

Lastly, this aspiration to work towards an explicitly collaborative ethnography in the digital age also requires collaboration among and close exchange between ethnographers. We therefore invite you to join the discussions and debates we aim to initiate via the Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) and this blog post.

References

  • Appadurai, A. (2002). Deep democracy: Urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Public Culture, 14(1), 21-47. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-14-1-21
  • Dattatreyan, E.G., & Marrero‐Guillamón, I. (2019). Introduction: Multimodal anthropology and the politics of invention. American Anthropologist, 121, 220-228. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13183
  • Fabian, J. (1983). Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Favero, P., & Theunissen, E. (2018). With the smartphone as field assistant: Designing, making, and testing EthnoAlly, a multimodal tool for conducting serendipitous ethnography in a multisensory world. American Anthropologist, 120(1), 163-167. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12999
  • Hjorth, L, Horst, H., Galloway, A., & Bell, G. (Eds.). (2017). The Routledge companion to digital ethnography. New York: Routledge.
  • Horst, H. A., & Miller, D. (Eds.). (2012). Digital anthropology. London: Berg.
  • Lassiter, L. E. (2005). Collaborative ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, D. (2018). Digital anthropology. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Social Anthropology. http://doi.org/10.29164/18digital
  • Miller, D., & Horst, H. (2012). The digital and the human: A prospectus for digital anthropology. In H. Horst & D. Miller (Eds.), Digital anthropology (pp. 3–35). London: Berg.
  • Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., & Tacchi, J. (2016). Digital ethnography: Principles and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Rabinow, P., & Marcus, G. E. (with Faubion, J. D., & Rees, T.). (2008). Designs for an anthropology of the contemporary. Durham: Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822390060
  • Rouch, J. (1995). The camera and man. In P. Hockings (Ed.), Principles of visual anthropology (2nd ed.) (pp. 79-98). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Rushkoff, D. (2019, December 29). We’ve spent the decade letting our tech define us. It’s out of control. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/29/decadetechnology-privacy-tech-backlash
  • Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Acknowledgment

We thank Suzana Jovicic for her feedback on this text and her valuable suggestions.

Read more >