What Room is There for Ethnography in a Digital World?


Written By: Jim Mott


What Room is There for Ethnography in a Digital World?

Digital technology poses a particular and very interesting challenge for ethnography. For all the years that anthropologists have claimed that ‘being there’ is an essential part of our practice, what does this really mean when the vast majority of the people we want to understand are physically present but digitally somewhere else entirely?

We have long since reached a stage where conducting a study into, say, ‘the lives of teenagers’ has become a laughable idea if what we propose to do doesn’t include some kind of digital element to capture what goes on online as well as whatever we encounter in the flesh. Yet it feels as though commercial ethnographic practice has yet to catch up in a way that remains true to the old ideals of ‘participant observation’ (learning about the people we study by doing the same things that they do).

Waiting for a bus and/or interacting online...
Waiting for a bus and/or interacting online…

Take for example the idea of using classic participant observation to understand what happens at a bus stop. What do we experience by standing at the bus stop, surrounded by people waiting for the bus and simply waiting with them? Bowed heads and absent stares, clumsy shuffles and awkward knocks from people whose spatial awareness is gone as they stare resolutely downwards at the tiny screens that flicker in their hands. Physical participation on it’s own reveals something oddly solemn, and almost funerary. Yet if we could overlay the digital and see the streams of data running past their fingertips, how it would all light up: loved ones planning meals; colleagues negotiating with clients; daydreamers gazing at images of distant mountains; hero’s winning battles and fighting tournaments… all this would be revealed. Pressures and emotions and dreams all stifled up in fingertips on smartphones.

How do we account for this dramatic contrast? How do we capture both the physical and the digital? Here are five tentative solutions which we suggest could be considered in ethnographic project design:

  1. Social listening is perhaps the most comprehensive way of ‘capturing the flow’ of digital information. In some ways it offers the holy grail of research, a totally organic natural record of all of the social interactions surrounding a particular topic. Connecting this data to a particular time of day or indeed any other stream of data you care to think of can yield fascinating results. However, social listening can’t capture general browsing (how individuals flit from one topic to another), nor can it capture the closed network of platforms such as Whatsapp or Snapchat.

  1. ‘Netnography’ offers another solution: simply take that idea of ‘being there’ online, go to the sites and apps where those people at the bus stop were, and interact with them there. Join their Whatsapp groups, their messenger, their Facebook and Instagram. Don’t simply lurk in the background but actively participate, like, comment, post on their wall and become a part of their online lives. Friends will emerge, curiosities will be stoked and hackles will be raised, but no more so than in any other ethnographic field site.

  1. Treat the digital as something physical. A smartphone is a physical device, so is a tablet and a laptop. Regardless of what we do on them digitally they still exist in a physical space and there is much to be learnt from the rules of how, when and where they can be used. People at bus stops using their smartphones are still choosing to do so right then and right there for particular reasons. Perhaps they are using them as social shields to ward off unwanted conversation? Perhaps that reduced spatial awareness that comes from being on a smartphone gives them the excuse to tactically wedge themselves even closer to where they think the bus door will be, so that they can guarantee themselves a seat?

  1. Another approach is to look at device usage in terms of device relationships. It’s a bit of a contrast to the way we usually think about devices as ‘just objects’, but it opens up some interesting areas to explore. The difference being that a relationship is a two way thing that must be maintained by both parties. How do we maintain our relationships with our smartphones? What happens when we forget to charge them or they run out of batteries? What about when we add a new app or accidentally delete a cache of photographs? Thinking in this way we can see that our devices dictate our behaviour as much as they enable us to act in new ways. Uncovering and understanding the impact of how the relationship works can reveal a great deal.

  1. Lastly, go a rather more radical step further and we can look at devices not as things that we have relationships with, but as part of us, a literal appendage of the self in the same way that an arm or a leg might be. This reading of what our devices could be questions the idea that there is a fixed line between where we end and where our devices begin. Would I really be ‘me’ without my smartphone? Can I function as myself without all of the capabilities that it offers? From this perspective that fundamental research idea of ‘figuring out who you are’ requires that the questioning is extended to the devices that we carry about with us in our day to day lives.

None of these responses are entirely adequate, and they probably (indeed hopefully) raise more questions than they answer, but we hope that they at least get some people thinking along the right track. Ethnography is by far and away the best way to truly get to grips with ‘what’s going on’ amongst people and within culture. As long as people continue to have a physical presence there will remain a strong rationale for ‘being there’. However the nature of ‘being there’ has already radically shifted. Ethnography needs to catch up.

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