Editor’s note: In this post for our ‘Being a Student Ethnographer‘ edition, Shireen Walton relays a conversation with David Zeitlyn at a special seminar on Digital Visual Anthropology (DVA) in Oxford earlier this month. As someone new to the online field, Shireen has been forced to think rather seriously over the past few years about some of the big questions concerning the visual sub-category of a contemporary digital anthropology. David Zeitlyn is based at Oxford University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and has been a key figure in the developing relationship between Social Anthropology and ICT – especially in opening up innovative pathways for the use of multimedia, visualisation and Internet technologies in social anthropological research projects.
The main issue faced by all digital researchers, it seems, is to think first and foremost about how the traditional practice of ethnography translates to the online context. They have to do this in a manner both faithful and rigorous enough to constitute ethnographic research, whilst being adaptable enough to meet fresh challenges stemming from new zones of (online) engagement: a challenging prospect. Leading on from this, anthropologists are then forced to consider what existing methodological tools they might rely on in order to even broach these new topics whilst creatively, and rather bravely, suggesting how they might need updating.
One of the broadest issues we considered in the seminar was whether digital anthropology can these days be regarded as a new, official sub-discipline within mainstream anthropology as Horst and Miller recently declared in the introduction to their edited volume, Digital Anthropology (Horst and Miller 2012). Following on from this, might we then propose that the visual sub-field of a digital anthropological project could then itself constitute a ‘sub-sub field?’ These issues require thinking about where contemporary DVA might sit within the mainstream anthropological canon, including its established methods and epistemological boundaries.
Defining DVA essentially involves two main considerations as either site of or method of research, (or both), as Sarah Pink has identified in her seminal article entitled: Digital Visual Anthropology: Potentials and Challenges, (Pink 2011). In the case of my own research for example, studying the Iranian ‘photo-blogosphere’ constitutes both a site of enquiry – i.e. a visual system of popular Iranian cultural expression on the Internet, as well as a method of enquiry, using the online medium to access these communities and conduct online participant observation amongst them. I rely on digital and visual technologies including the Internet, the digital camera, and a digitally-curated online exhibition, in order to situate myself in the field and conduct research in a technologically-relevant manner which befits the activities of my participants. Read More…