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Notes on the 6th digital ethnography reading (Pink, Horst, Postill et al 2016)

January 18, 2016

Digital Ethnography

By Allister Hill
PhD student
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

On Tuesday 15 December we wrapped up the last of the Digital Ethnography Reading Sessions (DERS) for the year by reading the introductory chapter to ‘Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice’ by DERC’s own collective of esteemed academics – Pink, Horst, Postill, Hjorth, Lewis, & Tacchi (2016). As a concise argument (or perhaps even befuddlement), engaging with this collaboration was a way for to celebrate ‘the reason for the season’, aka why we are all here at the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC).

Being the first major collaborative book that focuses purely on digital ethnography this was a chance for the group to get stuck into what is essentially a primer for the expanding discipline. First up we all agreed that the intro chapter gave a nice accessible introduction into digital ethnographic practice. One of the group suggested that it encapsulates the meta process of the mediatisation of ethnography, that is being matched with shifts in the analogue world. This is reflected in the notion of an approach that has both a non-digital and non-media centricness, recognising that the digital is enmeshed with the wider landscape, but at the same time something that we have to account for.

The introduction to the various ‘turns’ that ethnography itself has taken as it has evolved in the digital age, is helpful for the novice ethnographer, while the five key principles of Multiplicity, Non-digital-centric-ness, Openness, Reflexivity, and Unorthodox were seen as useful rallying points. These principles were discussed in some detail, with points of interest raised around matters, including ‘to what extent can we have a level of openness?’ For example, at some point, a researcher needs to have an end point to his/her research. Though it was acknowledged that the authors are more likely pointing towards being relatively open to other ideas, a question is still raised: When one combines openness with multiplicity, how does one assess when the end point is reached in a research project? Or even when one gets to the point when what he/she is practicing / doing is no longer ethnography?

Two talking points that we discussed, in relation to what could have also been considered in the chapters, were:

1. The actual digital mediation of the writing process itself – as ethnographers we produce our ethnographic writings using both paper and digital means, sometimes using less analogue and more digital. This could have been explored a bit more.

2. Humans are seen to be static in the face of these rapid changes – while the book, and much of the writing around the digital, talks about how the field is rapidly shifting, there is not as much of a focus on how we as humans are changing alongside the digital.

Next the seven key concepts (corresponding to separate chapters in the book) were discussed: experiences, practices, things, relationships, social worlds, localities, and events. At first it was suggested that the concepts seemed like a bit of shopping list. Under further discussion, however, it was put forward that the concepts could be a good way of thinking about issues – either as a starting point for research or post analysis. The discussion then considered that, while in the field, ethnography requires researchers to be open ended, flexible and follow leads (not necessarily a certain agenda) to see where they are taken. It is perhaps better to be lead by key concepts, when writing, but less so when conducting ethnographic fieldwork. This is perchance the very essence of the openness and reflexivity of ethnography – that is, to go with some ideas but ‘expect the unexpected’ and be guided by research participants. With agendas being driven by what is found in the field as opposed to what researchers take to the field.

A side issue was explored that considered how the, somewhat, serendipitous nature of reflexive ethnography fits with algorithmic digital worlds. For example, as our digital experiences are increasingly mediated by algorithms, do we see a corresponding reduction in opportunities to be physically present, potentially missing out on data significant to our research? Perhaps the algorithmic effect has always been there, but is much more noticeable now. Furthermore, does a focus on the digital exclude more traditional diachronic historical research, were the history of changes in movements (such as the uses of social media) are tracked? Much digital research is based on the here and now and there is an inherent concern that one’s research and positionality can become immediately obsolescent. Though, perhaps, it is also worth noting that there has been some explicit focus on tracking digital metaphors and how they change over time.

Lastly, it was suggested that a good follow-up DERC book could be about the actual process of writing up one’s ethnography in the digital age. This could explore the work and skill employed when taking varieties of information and information sources and turning them into something coherent. There is the potential that, with practice, evolving engagement with these different forms and sources of information could better enable researchers to bring information from various data sources all together.

Due to be officially released in 2016 ‘Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice’ is a good read, so you would do well to get yourself a copy (and you’ll be supporting our very own DERC).

The next reading session will be in February 2016 (giving everyone a bit of break in January) and back to the usual schedule of the second Wednesday of the month.

The February reading will be ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication’ by Garcia et al 2012.

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2016 12:22 am

    Reblogged this on Info-iteracies and commented:
    Another title to add to my readings in digital anthropology in contexts. #icqi2016

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