Web view2017-11-14Martyn Hammersley. ON DIGITAL ETHNOGRAPHY There are two aspects to what this term and near-synonyms like virtual ethnography, netnography, cyber-ethnography, or online ethnography may ...

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7Martyn HammersleyON DIGITAL ETHNOGRAPHYThere are two aspects to what this term and near-synonyms like virtual ethnography, netnography, cyber-ethnography, or online ethnography may refer. The first is that peoples increasing use of digital technologies have generated new topics and settings for investigation: for instance, how the use of smartphones for various purposes interpolates with ordinary activities, the etiquette surrounding this, but also peoples participation in online communication in gaming, searching for health information, engaging in political mobilisation, etc. Indeed, it is sometimes impossible properly to understand peoples lives without taking account of their use of these technologies. The second aspect is that digital technologies for recording, communicating, and/or processing sound and pictures, as well as text, offer new means for doing ethnography and for presenting data and analysis to readers. I will discuss each of these aspects in turn, before considering how radical a development digital ethnography is, the opportunities it offers, and some of the problems associated with it.New topics and settingsPeoples use of digital technologies clearly opens up many new topics and areas of investigation. As well as the nature of peoples engagement with these technologies at home, work or elsewhere, how this affects their relationships with others, digital divides, etc, the websites they set up, blogs they write, their participation in chatrooms and on social media may all be of interest, from one perspective or another. Moreover, it is not just individual people on their own behalf who engage in these activities but organisations of various kinds: governmental, political, commercial, educational, charitable, etc. In this respect, the online world parallels the offline one. Furthermore, the sheer amount of material produced, and its range across many different topics and issues, has created endless scope for research. It is equally important to note that, almost whatever other topic is being investigated, some account will often need to be taken by the ethnographer of how people use these technologies, given that they have become so entwined in the lives of many, especially younger generations in the West and elsewhere. Whether one is interested in childrens relations with parents, the activities of marketing organisations, or peoples health choices, attention will be necessary to how digital technologies are implicated in these matters. The links between online communication and offline action may be crucial.Sometimes these technologies are used to carry out old activities in new ways: for example, the Internet provides much quicker access to a wide range of resources, including research reports and potential data, where previously information was sought via talking to people face-to-face, phoning them up, using a dictionary or encyclopaedia, or going to a library. Here, the activities are not new, even though how they are now done may have changed. Much the same is true of shopping on line; though, again, we should not overlook the distinctive features of this. However, in other cases, largely new activities have emerged, whether this is glancing through the posts of friends on Facebook or tweeting to people whom one has never met face-to-face, and in many cases whose identity one does not know much about. The fact that there is social interaction online among people who have little or no offline contact with one another, and perhaps never come to know one another in any other way, represents a significantly new phenomenon, even if there are parallels with mingling in crowds the centre of big cities or going to concert, dance, or sport venues. Another significant feature of online settings is that sometimes people are interacting with machines or with computer software rather than with other human beings. Indeed, in some occupations such interactions with robots, or indeed between them, have become central, as for example in the transformation of trading on financial markets over the past thirty years. Of course, we interact with machines offline, for instance with photocopiers or supermarket checkouts, but increasingly these amount to online interactions as much as offline ones, since they are incorporated to one degree or another, and in various ways, in the internet of things. This indicates a further range of topics; and, in addition, these processes may generate big data that provide important background information.New methods?Let me turn now to the role of digital technologies in providing new means of doing ethnographic work. If we start with the sorts of observation and interviewing that ethnographers have long carried out, we can see how the availability of portable audio- and video-recording devices has facilitated the collection of more detailed and more accurate data records of what is done and said in offline settings than were previously available, when all ethnographic data took the form of handwritten fieldnotes. It may even be possible to use a smartphone for recording purposes, and certainly for writing notes or speaking into it to produce a research diary. Also relevant here is the fact that, just as the telephone allowed contact to be made, or maintained, with people who are not within reach by face-to-face contact, so the development of email and text-messaging, and indeed of video communication, has increased the scope for remote contact. Equally import, it is possible to observe what people say and do online, in the various online contexts mentioned earlier. These may be publicly accessible, but even where this is not the case there can be scope for negotiating access, or for covert entry; though, of course, ethical and prudential issues are involved (discussed later). Thus, the new media by which people communicate with, and act in other ways in relationship to, one another (including buying/selling goods and services, advertising, challenging, etc) are also means by which social scientists can investigate this behaviour, both through participant observation online and by interviews via email, audio, or video communication.We can also note that digital recordings (of text, audio, photos and video) can be stored and accessed via computer or mobile device, and software programs can be used to search, organise, and tabulate the data, and even to provide rough transcriptions of the audio stream. There can also be interactive online presentations of ethnographic analyses, self-standing or supplementing print materials or online books or articles. Moreover, these can provide audiences with access to the raw data, audio or visual material not just online text or transcriptions and researcher descriptions. Access to much more data can be provided than where data extracts are included in printed texts, and readers can be given choice about what they wish to access, when, and how. Digitised data can also be archived for later use, including by other researchers. Here, again, there are of course ethical and prudential issues that will place some limits on what can be done. Nevertheless, there are significantly new possibilities here for data analysis and for ethnographers relationships with their audiences.A digital transformation of ethnography?While all this is true, it is important not to exaggerate the scale and character of the changes to ethnography brought about by the digital revolution in my view these are sometimes overplayed. Nor should we assume that those changes apply to the same extent and in the same ways across all kinds of ethnographic research: there are still places where only fieldnotes can be used to record data, for example; though they can be digitised later. And there are people, even in Western societies, who have no online life whatsoever. One way to keep our understanding of the changes brought about by digital media in proportion is to examine them against the background of previous technological and other developments that have shaped ethnography. These too have altered the opportunities for and requirements in doing ethnographic work. For example, there are significant differences between studying non-literate and literate societies, especially ones where printing has enabled the production of multiple copies of pamphlets, books, and documents of other kinds, and especially where paper records have become central to social organisation. Anthropologists had to adjust their practices when they began to study such societies: there were new kinds of data, and these raised questions about the relationship between oral and written communication, the effects of literacy on cognition and discourse, and so on. More recent technological developments than the invention of literacy from those in transport that facilitated the process of urbanisation to the invention of the humble telephone or the photocopier have also had their effects on ethnographic work. At considerable risk of caricature, we can say that urbanisation led to a shift from ethnographers researching small, largely self-sufficient villages to studying people living in, and travelling around, large urban areas. New types of setting emerged, indeed what was involved was described as a new way of life. At the same time, it became much more difficult for ethnographers to study peoples lives in the round, since people no longer spent all their time in one place with one set of others. We should also note that the digital revolution was preceded, around the middle of the twentieth century, by the development of portable audio and video recorders (initially analogue rather than digital), and the emergence of desk-top computers (not connected to the Internet), and these too reshaped ethnographic work even before the digital revolution took place. Online problemsBesides the new opportunities and resources, there are, of course, various problems associated with the use of digital technologies by ethnographers, including their investigation of digital worlds. One of these may arise from the very tendency to regard what is involved as newer than it is it may be forgotten that old issues still apply, even if they take on new forms. The emergence of digital ethnography has often come to be associated with a number of other changes in approach to the study of the social world, for example radical forms of constructionism, notions about democratising or decolonialising or de-masculinising research, and commitment to more participatory and activist forms of engagement with the people studied or with others. It is important to remember that these other ideas about how ethnographic work can or should be carried out have no intrinsic relationship to digital developments: they have long been used in offline or traditional ethnographic research. Moreover, much of the literature relating to these approaches is relevant to their online use. A second problem is that there are restrictions on what we are able to get access to online, perhaps even more than offline. Just as when participating in some setting offline what we see and hear is shaped by our mode of entry to it, what role we play there, how people regard us, and so on, similar selection processes operate online too. The data we get access to there will have been filtered not just by the nature of the technologies involved what they can and cannot do but also by the social processes that have arisen in and around those technologies. In particular, very often, the data will take the form of text produced by people about whom we have little background information. Our contacts with them may also be via text; and we should remember that there is a sense in which this is a restricted form of communication, as evidenced by the invention of emotes designed to signal aspects of face-to-face communication that are otherwise lost in textual communication (the use of these is not, of course, a fully effective substitute for what is lost). This problem can be reduced if it is possible to interview people via the audio channel or through video-communication, but here too substantial technological mediation is involved. There may be advantages to this, but there are also likely to be some disadvantages.It is a matter of folklore that no-one knows youre a dog on the internet, so that very often it is difficult if not impossible to get background information about participants online, sometimes it is not even possible to be sure whether someone is the same person on one site as on another, or whether they have taken on multiple identities on a single site. Of course, in some cases the people online are ones who are known in the public realm, for example they may be regularly in the news, or be on television or radio for other reasons. And even where they are less well-known there may be information about them that can be accessed online, via Wikipedia and other sources. Of course not all of what one might need to know may be available in this way, and we should bear in mind that many famous people have teams working for them who not only write their speeches, try to control information about them, and participate online in their name.Where the necessary information is not available online it may be possible to obtain it via email or other communication, or even by telephone or face-to-face interviews. However, as already noted, there may be problems in identifying people and therefore in contacting them, as well as logistical problems when they are located at great physical distances from where the researcher is based.A related point is that as in our observation of behaviour offline, but perhaps more so, we may not have access to the back-regions in which the presentations or performances we witness are prepared, nor do we always have access to data that can tell us about the intentions and motives behind these performances. There is considerable variation involved here. In some cases the work that goes into constructing a website or blog etc may be done online, and may even become accessible to the ethnographer. But, often, this will not be the case. Indeed, the use of digital technologies is frequently very closely integrated with offline activity, in the sense for example that the people communicating with one another also interact face-to-face indeed they may sometimes be co-present or by no means very distant, physically even while this communication is taking place. in such circumstances, unless the ethnographer can get access to their offline as well as their online activities it may be difficult to understand accurately what is going on.There are also ethical and prudential considerations relating to digital ethnography. Such issues arise with off-line research as well of course. Indeed, as with methodology, many of the issues are the same, even if they take somewhat different forms. For example, care must be taken to minimise any serious harm that could arise from the research, for example by disclosing someones identity, or sometimes even by drawing public attention to what they have done or written. However, the main focus in much discussion of online research ethics has been concerned with the invasion of privacy and gaining informed consent. Central to both is the question of what is public and what is private, and whether informed consent is required for using what is publicly available. These matters are by no means entirely agreed, and the line between what is public and what is private is fuzzy. Furthermore, there is a further argument to the effect that those who post material online own the copyright to this, ethically if not legally, so that re-use even of publicly available material for research purposes requires that informed consent is gained. This is a matter of dispute. Of course, there may also be practical problems involved in obtaining such consent: for one thing it is not always clear who needs to be informed and who needs to consent.As regards prudential issues, what I have in mind here, primarily, is risks to the well-being of the researcher. As with off-line ethnographic research, one may occasionally encounter distressing situations, images, or accounts, ones that may have a temporary or even a permanent effect on the ethnographer, negative as well as positive. The danger of actual physical harm befalling the ethnographer is perhaps rather less in the case of digital ethnography than online variants (aside from repetitive strain injury), unless face-to-face contact is arranged with people met online, in which case much the same precautions are necessary as with meeting strangers contacted in other ways.ConclusionDigital technologies have generated new topics and settings for investigation, and also provide new means for accessing, producing, and processing, ethnographic data, and for communicating ethnographic findings and providing access for audiences to the data on the basis of which these were produced. In these ways, the switch to digital audio- and video-recording, the creation of the Internet, and the development of mobile phones and, especially, of smartphones have been extremely significant for the practice of ethnography. However, I have argued that what is involved is not a complete transformation. Where, in the midst of urbanisation, sociologists declared that urbanism amounted to a new way of life, much the same can be said of the changes in social interaction that have been brought about by the use of digital technologies. But, just as life in the new big cities was not completely different from life in the towns and villages from which migrants into those cities came, so too the use of digital technologies has not led to a total change in patterns of social interaction or in ethnographic practice. Even those of us who make extensive use of these technologies nevertheless still spend much of our social life offline, dealing with people face-to-face: and our sense of place and locality has not been completely eviscerated. Equally important, we should not forget that many of the same methodological and ethical issues arise in online as in offline research. And, as with adaptations to other changes, we need to be careful that we do not drift into changing ethnographic practice in ways that are counterproductive. For example, given the difficulties in identifying and getting background information about people being studied online, it may be tempting to adopt a radical form of constructionism that denies the relevance of who people are offline for what they do online. While suspending the relevance of this may sometimes be fruitful, it is not (I suggest) a satisfactory general strategy.Furthermore, it is important always to consider the specific implications of digital technologies for any particular study. Digital techniques of recording and storing data are not the best for all purposes. Video-, and even audio-, recording can be intrusive, and may be impossible to use in some circumstances. Similarly, the software that allows for the storage, searching, organising, and processing of data, while often of value, is not always the best means available: it facilitates some sorts of analysis rather than others, and can obscure as well as assist interpretation of the data. And, as regards the use of digital technologies by the people being studied, we must be careful not to exaggerate the role of these in their lives, or to make false assumptions about how and why they use them.In short, we need to keep a sense of proportion in thinking about digital ethnography; certainly, it would be wise not to treat it as a new form of research and use of this label, and near-synonymous ones, tends to encourage this. The changes involved are certainly significant, but they can be, and sometimes have been, exaggerated. And their significance will vary considerably depending upon the topic and location of particular investigations. Not only does digital ethnography not incorporate the whole of ethnography, it may not be sufficient on its own even for studying peoples online lives.7


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