Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Knowledge 2020 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Balancing Research Hats, By Sabrina Wu (Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2020: Focus on Knowledge.” It was originally posted in the category “Producing Ethnographic Knowledge.”

Conducting participant-observation involves wearing more than one research hat, specifically juggling two primary research roles: the participant who is actively engaging with the field and the observer who steps back and evaluates the findings in accordance with theories and contextual information. These two roles can merge with each other and be separated, but what happens when more hats need to be managed in the field? How might anthropologists work with their positionality when balancing multiple roles?

During my digital ethnographic research on textually curated authentic personas on LinkedIn, I found a particular role bursting into my everyday participatory research life: the user. Unlike the participant and observer, the user was a role I embodied before the onset of my project and for other purposes. This made the user’s position difficult to pinpoint, as it lurked during research and non-research hours. While overlapping with the participant hat, the user was vulnerable to slipping into detached routines. This is the hat that must be reconfigured for anthropological methodology but also clings onto familiar spaces. The user operates online sites, using previous habits to consume or produce media content. Nonetheless, the user is not a passive actor in the digital space, as users are deemed essential for intentionally and unintentionally generating the data that fuels social media. The user provides the participant access to sites while occasionally producing obstacles for the observer as its constant online activities become harder to step back from to examine.

As a frequent user of LinkedIn, I struggled with finding ways to make the familiar strange so I could wear all of my research hats. The first step was anchoring myself with LinkedIn’s structural, spatial details such as page layouts, highlights, and steps taken to navigate certain pages or links. For example, I had not previously noticed the proportional sizing of the three columns on LinkedIn’s desktop version. The widest centre column uses an endless scrolling space to highlight user-generated posts in its timeline. This was the beginning of unraveling a naturalized routine for the user, allowing the participant to be immersed in this narrative-heavy interaction.

Continuing to digitally make the familiar strange was a challenge as it involved entering new spaces and forcing the user to step outside of its typical comfort zone of routine mouse clicks and scrolling motions. Participating in a field of personal branding required me to have a consistently curated profile to enter the arena. My personal profile was an established contender; however, my timeline was already organized according to the algorithm’s perception of my personal profile. I experimented with the user hat by embracing its abilities to navigate the digital space and its settings, landing me in LinkedIn’s feed preference feature of a “Follow fresh perspectives” tab, which shows new pages, hashtags, and companies to follow. This helped me alter my feed so that I could maintain an openness to other everyday circles while keeping my built profile and connections as a pass to these spaces. Accepting the struggles and questions that arose while wearing my user hat allowed me to turn familiarity against itself and make it strange. The field site is a place where interlocutors engage in daily interactions, but it also enacts an interplay of non-static researcher roles becoming enmeshed with each other.

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