Digital Ethnography and Its Challenges

In the interdisciplinary research field of digital ethnography researchers are exploring public or semi-public digital environments, such as social media (e.g., Miller et al., 2016) and virtual worlds (e.g., Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012), as well as personalized and intimate smartphone practices (e.g., Miller, 2019). In doing so, the methodology of ethnographic fieldwork and the relationship between ethnographers and research partners needs to be rethought and redesigned to meet the research challenges of an increasingly digitized and digitalized world. Smartphones, for instance, are not only currently the predominant device for digitally mediated mobile interaction: they also “create new worlds with new rules about availability, intimacies, appearance and privacy” (Rushkoff, 2019). Contemporary socio-technical realities and practices are thus not easily accessible with traditional ethnographic methods. They call for a wider methodological reflection and transformation (Faubion & Marcus, 2009) of digital ethnographic methods such as online ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation, mobile and visual media elicitation, digital media biographies, and digital video re-enactments (e.g., Pink et al., 2016). 

What We Aim For

Digital issues are at the heart of current societal and cultural developments. As the COVID–19 crisis has shown, there is an increasing interest in digital anthropology and digital ethnography. How to continue and conduct ethnographic research online and remotely in times of physical distancing? What concrete methodological approaches and theoretical concepts are out there? And how to adapt these methods for diverse research contexts? 

The Digital Ethnography Initiative (DEI) is the first step towards greater visibility of ethnographic work on “the digital” at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Vienna. It aims to establish an open space where department-based expertise, experience and research is visible to colleagues, students and the general public, thus also contributing to ongoing interdisciplinary dialogues and public engagements. Although DEI acknowledges and encourages the inherent interdisciplinary nature of digital ethnography, it also places particular attention on the in-depth understanding of historical developments within ethnography in general and its proximity to the discipline of social and cultural anthropology. 

DEI is an attempt to establish a space, where longstanding anthropological interest in ethnography meets interdisciplinary dialogue. We do not only aim to engage in the discussion of what digital ethnography means across disciplinary boundaries but also to address specific issues, theories and methods.  By providing an online open-access platform for sharing resources, making local expertise and research projects visible, and by organizing regular events, the initiative aims to provide orientation in a messy world of boundaries-crossing methods for researchers and students alike. 

Therefore DEI aims to (1) establish a website with a collective blog and sections on resources, publications and events, and to (2) organize talks and workshops.