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.
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.
We are excited to announce the presenters of the panel “Digital Ethnography: Revisiting Theoretical Concepts and Methodological Approaches” at Vienna Anthropology Days 2020 (VANDA2020), Sept. 28 – Oct. 1, 2020, which will take place online on Oct. 1. The panel will be chaired by DEI co-founders Philipp Budka and Monika Palmberger.
Our new website is now online. In the blog, we will be presenting and discussing various research activities, projects and events in relation to “the digital” at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna and beyond. Stay tuned!