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

Embracing Technology: Fieldwork During COVID-19, By Isabella Daniele (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.”

Electronic devices (i.e. smartphones, laptops, cameras) and social media platforms (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Linked-In), are fundamental in conducting fieldwork during this pandemic. In ethnographic projects, technological devices usually take a passive role. They are simply there to record. However, given the circumstances, technology became an active medium that filtered most of our fieldwork encounters. A parish’s Facebook page became my primary fieldsite, and I recruited participants through Facebook Messenger. I used email to confirm appointments and send the consent form. I used various platforms and devices to talk with my participants – everything from old-school phone calls to zoom meetings. These devices and platforms were not in the background, used solely to coordinate, but at the forefront with screens literally separating and mediating the interaction between my informants and myself. It was these screens that served as small windows into their lives, often offering me a glimpse into their homes and personalities.      

Ethnographers were not the only ones to embrace technology during COVID. The Catholic Church and many other religious organizations took full advantage of social media and the internet to support their communities by conducting online rituals.  Monica, a well-spoken woman with deep faith, shared how the pandemic finally made technology an accomplice in the propagation of the faith.  As she states, “people within the church are learning how it can be used more effectively as an evangelization tool and not just to do office work.”

Technology in the church-October 2020-from researcher’s fieldnotes.

The parish priest I interviewed, Fr. K, a thoughtful man in his 70s, echoed that the pandemic forced him to embrace technology and become more tech-savvy.  When the pandemic started, he streamed the first Facebook live mass from his kitchen table using his I-pad. The priest now has cameras installed in the church, wears a microphone headset and streams Mass on YouTube.  This was a big step for this parish since pre-pandemic, they were still using an overhead projector with transparencies to display the song lyrics at Sunday Mass. In a matter of weeks, they were Facebook live-streaming and accepting e-transfers and “Go-Fund-Me” donations for the weekly collection in place of white envelopes in wicker baskets. Also, people continued supporting the parish’s food bank by sending Amazon groceries to the church.  These examples demonstrate how technology helps the community keep thriving spiritually and financially, even when at a distance.

For those who did attend the physical church once re-opened, seeing the exposed technological devices was bizarre. The presence of the devices disrupted the aesthetics of the church. Technology was usually hidden from Fr. K’s gaze since he requires all cells to be turned off in the church as a sign of respect and to limit distractions. He encourages parishioners to “disconnect” from the outside world during Mass and focus on their faith. So, I could not help myself from smirking underneath my mask when positioned in front of the altar was the laptop (used to record Mass) propped on top of the wooden confessional kneeler. The laptop on the kneeler captures technology’s newfound role in this parish and the change in narrative from a device that distracts to one that helps spread the faith.  

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