Session Report 3 prepared by Tessa Bonduelle and Hannah Quinn with Andrew Gilbert
On Friday, May 22, 2020, the Ethnography Lab hosted the final of three sessions for our “Ethnography in/of the Pandemic” series. Session 3 focused on the “Methods and Tools” available to researchers undertaking ethnography in the pandemic. These questions emerged from the brainstorming session on May 1, 2020, but also peppered the first two sessions of the series. This third session, particularly well attended by both newcomers and seasoned practitioners of digital methods and platforms, served as a sounding board to discuss the methodological implications of undertaking ethnography online, as well as the practical tools needed to migrate and/or undertake a research project in virtual and digital spheres. It revealed the importance of drawing on existing resources and learning from those who have conducted their ethnographic research in the digital realm long before pandemic conditions required that many of us modify our modes of engagement and methodologies.
Collaboration to make the most of expertise
What became immediately clear in this session’s discussion was the wealth of resources and tools that already exist and could be used to undertake online ethnography. In fact, there are so many possible online tools and ideas that researchers unaccustomed to using the digital in research may feel totally overwhelmed. This, in turn, pointed to the possibilities of collaboration. Contributors stressed that this may be an opportune moment to challenge and rethink assumptions about the lone researcher working in a contained and pre-determined field site, in favour of more open-ended, multi-sited and collaborative research. Our colleagues from outside of socio-cultural anthropology addressed the value of working in teams and collaborating across expertise, by bringing together those with the training required to conduct qualitative data analysis through platforms like Twitter and Discord. The task of learning new programs and software is daunting, but doing so in a team opens up possibilities not only for learning a new toolkit, but for new kinds of analysis, new ways of thinking together. One contributor offered to test apps and software out that others might be interested in using, but do not necessarily have the time to try out. Distributing this technology-testing work across a group of interested researchers can be an effective way to speed up the learning process.
Moreover, we discussed the opportunity that a move to online ethnography provides for decentering the researcher—often represented as the expert armed with effective methodologies and knowledge. Several contributors suggested turning to collaborative research not only as a method, but as an ethic that allows us to understand our research participants as experts of their (digital) worlds. In many cases our research participants are already using social media, may be photographers, videographers, and connoisseurs of audio technologies. We can learn a lot from participatory action research and other research philosophies that center the knowledge of our participants and provide a space for them to determine how best to go about exploring research questions.
Ethnographic research on and not just “in” on-line worlds may also point us to thinking about collaboration when designing an appropriate methodology. One contributor, studying online journalism, spoke of undertaking studies that balanced both a broad analysis of Twitter data, including the mapping of Twitter relationships, with a more focused engagement with a limited group of Twitter users (journalists, in this case). For this researcher, following journalists’ online lives was as important as following their offline lives. Yet he also added that such Twitter-focused research did not feel quite ‘ethnographic enough’ and that non-Twitter interactions with participants felt necessary (such as interviews to discuss Twitter posts and threads). Incorporating all three of these methodologies in one study (quantitative social-media data analysis, qualitative social-media observations and qualitative interviews) can be a challenge for one researcher and may necessitate collaboration. This discussion surrounding methodological design raised a crucial question: how to provide an ethnographic sensibility in a study that will exclusively be undertaken online?
Ethnographic sensibility online
This question emerges out of the notion, perhaps anachronistic, that on-line research and interactions can feel “thin” for ethnographers trained in methods that presume broad and wide-ranging encounters with the people we learn from. Contributors to our discussion questioned what exactly providing an ethnographic sensibility entailed, and further, what constituted an ethnographic object. Could Twitter posts and relationships comprise an ethnographic object in and of themselves? Could Instagram and Instagram stories suffice?
One contributor proposed that what defined an ethnographic sensibility was deep contextualization, or “generating contextual knowledge”—that is, placing an image, words, and behaviour within the contexts of their production and circulation. She prompted the group to think how we, as researchers, can connect to the contexts of production and circulation when our modes of interaction are limited to the online realm. Another contributor noted how difficult it could be to identify and describe such “context” for the social worlds created by ephemeral social media (such as Instagram stories or Snapchat). Given this particular online social world is often disjointed from what’s happening in the offline social world, how do we find meaningful contextualization?
In response, one contributor suggested that one avenue to methodologically ensure the provision of “context” or “ethnographic sensibility” online entailed collaborating with interlocutors to provide that knowledge. In an example of study being run on COVID experiences, a team of researchers asked participants to complete one or two “homework” assignments a week: study participants film themselves shopping or cleaning their houses and then explain what they’re doing and why. The researchers, having watched the “homework,” then undertake weekly interviews to ask follow-up questions. Though the interlocutors certainly curate the content researchers observe, the researcher can also ask for further context and explanation: “Why did you show this (and not that)? What does this mean for you?” and so on.
Some session contributors problematized interlocutor-curation, especially when studying social media -that is, the process whereby interlocutors show researchers the parts of their social worlds they choose, and presumably that matter to them. Others pointed out, however, that such curation already occurs in offline research and we already have the tools to help us think this dimension through (see Goffman 1990). This particular point served as another potent reminder that our social science disciplines already have many theoretical and methodological resources to help guide us through the issues that doing ethnography in/of the pandemic can bring up.
Practical methods and tools
Much of the session’s discussion turned then to the practical tools at our disposal as anthropologists and ethnographers who are in the midst of either migrating existing research projects to digital platforms or designing new projects under pandemic conditions. Some of these tools include digital platforms such Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Snapchat (the latter two which can be screen-recorded on smartphones and archived for analysis), as well as software for data analysis such as NVivo, MAXQDA and Python. We learned about ways to aggregate and analyze data and to build connections through these platforms (especially MAXQDA).
How to build research relationships of depth and intimacy in online worlds was another concern that came up in our discussion. A few contributors observed that for those hoping to research an online community (a Reddit thread, Facebook group, etc.), creating an online presence ahead of research is important to build trust and facilitate recruitment. As one contributor astutely pointed out, online communities also need time to build trust with an outside researcher. However, if a study is not focused on an online community, other avenues for recruitment exist. One is to partake in online events where much social interaction takes place these days, including webinars, virtual conferences, and Zoom parties. These can be useful places to pose questions and reach out to other participants.
One contributor proposed a three-part typology of digital tools to undertake online ethnographic research. First, there are what might be called the “interview and/or observation” tools (Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts etc.) that can help researchers in undertaking observations and in asking interlocutors to show us their worlds. For example, when used on phones, the camera-view can be flipped around and interlocutors can take us on tours, narrating spaces and objects, as well as the feelings attached to them. Second, there are the “question and answer” tools, which include several apps like MobiQ and PACO (Google) that can gather survey data (and more). These apps can prompt users with qualitative questions, users can upload photos, GPS can be recorded and so on. Third, there are the “collective activity” type of tool. Contributors suggested a number of applications that could facilitate research activities with interlocutors remotely, including Jamboard (a free Google virtual whiteboard), and StoryMapJS (a story-producing web tool that can highlight the locations of a series of events so that interlocutors can walk through their communities and narrate their environment). Another suggestion was using apps to get interlocutors to draw their social worlds and relationships and thus provide the kind of data that can prompt further conversation. Virtual whiteboards can be used for this (e.g. Jamboard, but also AWW App, PENUP). All these tools facilitate different types of virtual interactions between researchers and their interlocutors, allowing for the gathering of rich and diverse data.
Goffman, Erving. 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Repr. London: Penguin.