As contact restrictions tightened last year with the developing pandemic, ever more colleagues began asking me for advice on “how to do digital ethnography”, knowing that I had been doing it since long before the virus transformed life as we knew it. Their immediate concern was “how to enter their field digitally” to transform their “conventional” ethnographies into digital ones. Unable to continue their ethnographic research as planned, they started looking for alternative ways to (re)enter their fields from a distance, for example, by interacting via social media platforms or messaging services. How to engage with people digitally, participate in, and immerse oneself in digital settings, has been at the center of recent debates, but the significance of these questions extends far beyond the current pandemic situation, as I aim to demonstrate with the following reflections on my own practices of using ethnographic research profiles in three different research contexts.
Report on the RAI conference panel “Critical play: Smartphones as a mode of creative engagement with crisis” during the RAI Film Festival 2021.
Smartphones are increasingly used in anthropological research, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. While their usage is not limited to the pandemic, situations of social distancing and online teaching have increased the dependency on digital media and triggered new engagement with the smartphone’s potential. Some of these endeavours in smartphone-based anthropology were discussed during the panel “Critical play: Smartphones as a mode of creative engagement with crisis” on March 25, 2021, during the online visual anthropology conference at the film festival of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI). The panel was convened by Mark Westmoreland (Leiden University) and me (University of Vienna), with participation of Laura Haapio-Kirk (University College London, UCL), Kana Ohashi (Tokyo Keizai University) and Daijiro Mizuno (Kyoto Institute of Technology). In this blog post I summarize some of the main points from the panel discussion, focusing on one theme of shared interest: the use of the smartphone for the dissemination of anthropological research findings.
Ethnography of and on social media, in which my own research on female influencers on Czech Instagram is embedded, presents a growing, diverse and exciting field of research. It also places the ethnographer in an intricate network of relationships that are both more distant, yet also more intimate than their offline counterparts. As was already noted in the introductory post of this blog series, these new types of intimacies call for new types of reflections, both methodological and ethical. I choose here to explore two issues related to digital intimacy as both the subject and method of my research: the methodological dilemma of getting to know my informants by scrolling through their feeds and the ethical dilemma of reciprocating this intimacy via my own feed.
In their initial post to this blog series, Monika Palmberger and Philipp Budka highlight, among other things, that “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”. In a STS or even new materialist spirit and building on previous conversations, I would like to devote my response in this blog post to such “research tools”. In order to explore more explicit collaborative research methods in digital ethnography, it is my contention that we first need to question how we treat and incorporate digital devices into our research practices.
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!