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Technology and Fieldwork: Ethnographic quandaries

mcmanusJohn McManus studies Turkish football fans in the diaspora at Oxford University’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society (Compas).

Editor’s note: This event report is the final post in the ‘Being a student ethnographer‘ series. It documents a discussion – the third of the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group’s (OxDEG) events this term – dedicated to ‘technology and fieldwork’. Open to the entire university, OxDEG draws students and faculty from a wide variety of departments but is led by students from the Oxford Internet Institute and the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. In this seminar, participants discussed what technologies are useful for ethnographers studying social activity in digital environments and recognized common concerns.

tech
Technology and Fieldwork, Fieldwork and Technology: this was a massive subject and we had only 90 minutes to discuss. Throw into the mix a broad range of disciplines (computing studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology), season with some striking subject matter (Wikipedia, ethnomusicology of the chip music scene, Uranium extraction in Tanzania) and what do you get?  A frank and wide-ranging debate on ethnography, in fact. The main “take away” message was, you are not alone. It was heartening to reach across the disciplinary boundaries and see that those in other departments are struggling with very similar theoretical and methodological problems.

Top on the list was the specialist language of computing – with its parsing, programming and algorithms – acting sometimes as a barrier to ethnographers engaging in innovative research methods. How to get over this hump? One suggestion was for a tweaking of anthropological methods training course. If you’re going to study Turkish village practices, you learn Turkish. Balinese Cockfights? Some sort of Indonesian might come in handy. Why, then, do we rarely hear departments exhorting potential digital ethnographers to go take a course in Python or some other programming language?  Read More…

Christine Hine on virtual ethnography’s E3 Internet

christine_hine_thumbnailChristine Hine is an early pioneer of virtual ethnography and has been at the forefront of movements towards redefining ethnography for the digital age. She is currently a Reader at the University of Surrey’s Sociology Department.

Editor’s note: In this post for our Being a student ethnographer series, I talked to Christine Hine about her forthcoming book, ‘Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday’ due out next year. In this interview, Christine talks about the current phase in virtual ethnographic practice, about what are her latest research interests, and about a framework that she believes can help ethnographers understand how to adapt their practice to suit multi-modal communication environments. 

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

Christine Hine recommends that ethnographers focus on the embedded, embodied and everyday Internet. Pic by dannymol on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

HF: What do you think are the key challenges that ethnographers face in trying to study the Internet today?

CH: Robinson and Schulz, in their 2009 paper, describe evolving forms of ethnographic practice in response to the Internet and digitally mediated environments. They divide this into three phases that include a) pioneering, where cyberethnographers focused on issues of identity play and a separation between online and offline identities 2) legitimizing (in which my own work is situated) where ethnographers explored the use of offline methods in the online sphere and, 3) multi-modal approaches where ethnographers are concerned with how participants combine different modes of communication.

I believe that we are still in the process of having to legitimize cyber ethnography and that multi-modal approaches are a worthy goal for virtual ethnography. The key challenge here is in understanding how to do multi-modal studies. This is especially challenging since the ethnographer’s toolkit changes with every new setting. We don’t know what that toolkit consists of because every time we do a new study, we have to choose what combination of sites, methods, writing practices and techniques we need to use. Read More…

Digital Visual Anthropology: Envisaging the field

Screen shot 2013-11-28 at 3.40.03 PMShireen Walton is a D.Phil student in Anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford and member of the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group. Shireen studies online communities of Iranian photographers with a special focus on photo blogs.

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…

Glorious Backfires in Digital Ethnography: Becoming an Urban Explorer

Screen shot 2013-11-11 at 12.53.11 PMFor four years, Bradley Garrett (@Goblinmerchant) explored abandoned hospitals, railways, tunnels and rooftops as part of his PhD ethnography studying an elite group of urban explorers. 

Brad has in many ways had it all: a book deal from Verso just after finishing his PhD, a position at Oxford University to continue his research, and numerous requests for media appearances and license deals. But he has also just had one of the hardest years of his life, struggling with a backlash from some members of the urban explorer community as well as attempts by authorities to stop the publication of his book. Last month, Brad gave a talk to the newly-established Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (@OxDEG) about some of the perils of doing public ethnography. His story is a counterpoint to the uncritical enthusiasm usually espoused about this form of engagement. Public ethnography, we soon learn, can be dangerous.

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Bradley Garrett’s book “Explore Everything” documents his ethnography of urban explorers

When Brad first started working on the urban explorer project, he realized (like so many ethnographers before him) that joining the community would not be easy. He couldn’t simply join other explorers without first establishing himself as trustworthy and serious. Brad needed currency. Photographs of him pictured in hard-to-reach spaces were that currency. Brad recounts that it took him about eight months of exploring mostly on his own, taking photographs of his explorations and then publishing them on his blog, Place Hacking and other forums to get an invite.

The very method used to meet the elite explorers who he ended up studying also led to exposure of a more problematic kind. Because he was sharing his photographs and field notes using his real name, Brad was increasingly seen as a spokesperson and leader of the urban explorer community among the press who, he said, “couldn’t deal with a leaderless community”. By the time him and his crew posted photographs of them climbing the Shard in London, his website crashed and he had “every national newspaper in the country trying to get photos”. Read More…

November 2013: Being a student ethnographer

THeather Ford his month’s theme is about what it means to be a student ethnographer and is edited by Ethnomatters co-founder, Heather Ford (@hfordsa), a current DPhil (PhD) student who believes that she will forever be a student of ethnography.

I remember the first time I adopted an ethnographic persona – very tentatively and with a great deal of trepidation. I’d applied for a job as an ethnographer with Ushahidi after graduating from my Masters degree and was miraculously accepted – miraculous because most ethnographer jobs require at least a PhD, not to mention loads of ethnographic experience. The stars were aligned… or were they?

This was the first time that Ushahidi had hired an ethnographer; it was the first time that the funding body that would help to pay my salary had invested in ethnographic research; it was my first ethnography job and my first ethnographic project. Firsts for everyone are really exciting, and I was lucky to be working for an organisation that supported me despite my lack of ethnographic experience. But ethnography doesn’t accord with the usual tenor of development projects and we faced a number of challenges that, looking back on it now, were bound to happen; challenges that, in the end, had really good results but meant that things weren’t exactly plain sailing en route.

In my first few months at the job, I heard things like: ‘You really need to have a PhD to say you’re an ethnographer’ or: ‘Only anthropologists can claim to do real ethnography’. This was all very interesting but I’d just received a job as an ethnographer and I couldn’t exactly ask for them to take it back. So I did what I always do when faced with a crisis: I gathered a bunch of much more experienced and knowledgeable people together to help me discover what exactly it meant to be an ethnographer. I knew that there were many of us who were asking similar questions and that the “ethnography + digital/networked/technology” space was burgeoning in many quarters. Read More…