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Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies


As a mobile media practitioner interested in mediated everyday experience and urban space, my use of technology for collecting data, sharing impressions and observing cultural practices has shifted from using specialized equipment (high-quality portable recorders, professional cameras and video camcorders) to the smaller, more flexible and already at-hand iPhone (or equivalent Android, Windows, etc.). With a continuous stream of mobile applications and externals, both the design community and the community of ‘prod-users’ and researchers are adopting multimodal tools[i] in their practices. In this piece I want to present ‘sensory postcards’ as a model and method for do-it-yourself digital ethnographies that unite sensory ethnography[ii] and cultural studies[iii] toward questions around urban experience.

Sensory Postcards as method

Sensory postcards collage

Screenshots from the author’s sensory postcards using Soundcloud and dbBlox Check, posted on Twitter

So how are sensory postcards a method? Everyday mobile media production deserves study in its own right as a novel form of media literacy, signaled by participation in social media communities such as Instagram, YouTube and reddit (to name just a few). From a research standpoint, sensory postcards are a form of multimodal inquiry that engage sensory ethnography as an access point into urban life, place and human geographies, as well as power relations and models of situated learning. As an inductive approach, generating sensory postcards means sensing first, capturing second, and iterative interpretation as patterns settle into media artefacts. The metaphor of ‘postcard’ here is an attempt to evoke a ‘moment in time’ sensibility while de-emphasizing the visual component. In mobile videocam recordings the narrative of the event or action becomes central; removing that by using a static image and sound recording emphasizes instead the temporality of sound, allowing the listener to engage their imagination in constructing a scene without video filling in the blanks. Clean the palate, re-experience, re-engage. Below is a case study of the use of sensory postcards in one Vancouver neighborhood, starting with sound as a unique entrypoint.

Case Study: Yaletown, Vancouver, Canada

Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience. In particular, the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘Sailboat’ postcard below) when the actuality was much more busy and noisy (reflected in the ‘Seawall’ postcard below).

The above are literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open-patio restaurant, a lot of music and the sound of talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the seawall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Curiously, not only is the visual landscape different (and the atmosphere and connotation it carries), but crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels from the overall soundscape levels. One reflection here is that the perceptual convergence I experienced in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetic, rather than purely functional sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the mood or atmosphere of each image.Read More… Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography


VerklemptI’m not one to speak about theory and method in the abstract. But when I am asked about my method, I typically respond that I use historically informed ethnography. However, whenever I say this I think of Mike Meyers’ SNL character Linda Richman. On Richman’s public access show, she and her friends talked about “about coffee, New York, dawters, dawgs, you know – no big whoop – just coffee talk.” During their discussions Richman would often become “verklempt,” such as in recalling meeting Barbara Streisand; overcome with emotion, she’d turn to her guests with a prompt: “The Prince of Tides is neither about a Prince nor tides – discuss.”

Hence, while I might say “historically informed ethnography,” I think to myself that “my work is neither historical nor ethnographic – discuss.”

Historically informed

As a computer science undergraduate I loved (and minored in) history. I still do love history and find that while I am typically focusing on contemporary communities and how they work together, historical context is important to my developing understanding of the practices of today.

When I went off to graduate school for a PhD, I was very much inspired by a little known work about Quakers: Michael Sheeran’s1 Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society Of Friends. This was an ethnography of their consensus decision-making, but began with an introduction to their history, one that greatly informs the present-day. For instance, Quakers’ decision-making is a reflection of the origins of Protestantism. In short, under Protestantism it was thought that divine will could be discerned via the individual rather than through the church. However, the idea of individual discernment allowed for some unusual (and ill-favored) beliefs, such as those of the Ranters and the messianic Quaker James Naylor. This, in turn, brought increased persecution by the state. Hence, early Quakers faced the problem of how to represent themselves as moderate and nonthreatening. Their solution, in part, was to adopt a position of pacifism and community consensus. This historical context imparted a much richer understanding than if I had only read of their current day decision making. Accordingly, I tried to do the same thing with respect to Wikipedia collaboration by placing it in the historical context of what I called the pursuit of the universal encyclopedia.

Hence, even when I am focused upon the seemingly faddish phenomena of the digital realm, I challenge myself to ask if this is truly something never seen before? It rarely is, which then permits me to ask the more interesting and productive question of how is it different from (or a continuation of) what has gone before?

Is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history?

A digital interlude

Much of my quandary about history and ethnography relates to my domain of study. I love being able to immerse myself in the conversations and cultural artifacts of a community. Much of this is likely a reflection of my personality. I can be shy and I enjoy hunting through archives for something that is novel and leads to an insight. I am often happy to work alone as I read through blogs, wiki pages and email archives. Yet, is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history? (When the sources are dead?)

I’m fortunate that I tend to study open communities and geeks. This means that many of my sources are prolific self-documenters, publishing their thoughts and contributions in public. Consequently, I have many primary sources, and I want to share them with my readers. In fact, after a decade of work, I have over four thousand sources and as I’ve done this work, I’ve continued to develop a system by which I can easily document, find, and manage this information. I recently did a screencast of the two tools I’ve developed for this.

Of course, this is not to say that conversations and interviews with community members are not useful. I’ve attended many a conference, Meetup, and un-conference. Many times people have shared with me context and background that has been invaluable to my understanding and portrayals. Sometimes, I delight in a key insight or wonderful quotation I can use from an interview. However, I do take lesser pleasure in an insight communicated to me privately than one I can find publicly. I don’t attempt to rationalize or advocate for this position, it is simply my preference. (I suspect many of the lofty words spent on academic distinctions is to justify similar differences in personal sensibilities and social habitus).Read More… Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

Methods


Collage of apps used to make sensory postcards

Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

halftone album art zoomed in

On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)

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Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions


WendyHsu_pinecone Editor’s note: This is the final post in Wendy Hsu‘s 4-part series, On Digital Ethnography. Wendy asks what does an ethnography beyond text and print look like? To answer this question, she calls on us to reconsider what counts as “ethnographic knowledge.” Wendy provides examples of collaborative multimedia projects that are just as “ethnographic” in nature as a traditional ethnographic monograph. The first post in the On Digital Ethnography series called for ethnographers to use computer software, the second post introduced readers to her methods of deploying computer programs to collect quantitative data, and the third post urged ethnographers to pay more attention to the sounds, sights, and other material aspects of our field research.  Wendy @WendyFHsu  is an ACLS Public Fellow working with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affair. She recently finished her term as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College and completed her dissertation on the spread of independent rock music.

Yea, as a fellow with the City of LA Department of Cultural Affairs, I have a mission to innovate and technologize the department. I’m spearheading the department’s web redesign project — thinking about how to better articulate our work, outreach to constituents, and digitize some of our services. I’m still wearing my ethnographer’s hat, thinking about how to cull through the vast amount of data related to arts and culture here at the city, and leveraging social media and other mobile/digital data to better understand the impact of our work. I’m also working with the City’s Information Technology Agency to join efforts in their Open Data initiative with the goal to augment civic participation through innovation projects like civic hacking.

Ethnography means fieldwork or field research – a set of research practices applied for the purpose of acquiring data; but the term also refers to the descriptive representation of one’s fieldwork. In my series on digital ethnography so far, I have discussed how digital and computational methods could enhance how we as ethnographers acquire, process, explore, and re-scale field data. In this last post, I will shift my focus away from field research to discuss the process of “writing up” field findings. I ask: How might the digital transform the way we communicate ethnographic information and knowledge?

I pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of expression of academic ethnographic practices. Early in graduate school, I learned that the eventual outcome of doing ethnographic research is the publication of a monograph. People around me use the word “monograph” to refer to a book-length treatment of research of a single subject published by an academic press [they looks something like what’s shown in Figure 1]. This is, however, one of many definitions of monograph (apparently humanists have a definition stricter than scientists and librarians). Burrell attributes the scarcity of academic publication to economic reasons, and suggests online publishing as a potential solution to remedy the cost of print-based publishing and to enable the integration of visual materials in publications.

Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Figure 1: Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Ethnography, based on the Greek root of “graph,” means the representation of field experience, findings, and analysis through the medium of writing. But writing, denoted by the word “graph,” may have always been used to refer to textual means of representation (i.e. what we think of as writing), but there are instances of this root referring to non-textual means such as photograph, lithograph, phonograph, heliograph, etc. The ambiguity of writing as a medium that can be either textual or nontextual has been with us since the invention of these words.

I’m not advocating for abolishing academic book publishing. Others have and have discussed the economic and ideological structure that supports academic publishing and valorizes the monograph.) Instead, I want to make room for a serious consideration of ethnographic expressions that are not strictly based in text, either in the form of a book or a journal article, but are dynamically articulated in interactive and multimediated systems afforded by digital technology. Some of you might find this claim to be professionally irrelevant to you, if your preoccupation with ethnography falls outside of the academy. But the concerns and techniques that I will talk about may pique your interest as you consider the ways to communicate findings and analysis to clients, collaborators, and stakeholders.

If we open up the definition of ethnography beyond text and print, then we can start to envision a media-enriched, performative, and collaborative space for ethnographers to convey what they have encountered, experienced, and postulated. Utilizing the affordances of digital media, ethnographic knowledge can be stored, expressed, and shared in ways beyond a single medium, direction, and user. In what follows, I will outline a few computational practices, platforms, and projects to illustrate these points.Read More… Ethnography Beyond Text and Print: How the digital can transform ethnographic expressions

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)


Editor’s note: This report is the final post in the Innovation in Asthma Research series. It shares with readers how anyone can contribute to The Asthma Files’s research. Catch up on the first post in this series that explained the project history and the second post that took us into the project’s knowledge platform. In our ongoing efforts at Ethnography Matters to highlight innovative ethnographic research, we believe The Asthma Files is a great example of how ethnographers are tying insights to action. In this case, The Asthma Files is collecting data to advance asthma research and environmental public health work.

In our previous posts, we’ve talked about why we chose to study asthma ethnographically, and how working with the platform helps us rethink the way we do ethnography. In this concluding post, we’ll talk more about how other researchers and citizens can become involved with The Asthma Files.

Participating in The Asthma Files can take on many forms. Whether a researcher, student, or member of the non-academic public, it is possible to take part in the research project. Since its onset, the project was designed to draw in many kinds of participants.

The first kind of participant consists of ethnographers and other cultural analysts who want to work with materials archived in The Asthma Files, contribute new materials or create new asthma files.

For example, one researcher recently uploaded a series of photographs and images from Compton, CA, to document the heavy historical presence of chemical and petroleum refineries around an area heavily populated historical disadvantaged groups.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

A smog cloud over south Los Angeles, near the city of Compton. A historically African-American and Latino community, Compton is surrounded on all four sides by major highways, and one of its elementary schools sits between a cement plant and a major oil refinery.

Our repository is publicly accessible, and contains sections to archives such things as primary material, grey matter, and media files. We’ve provided step-by-step instructions on how to upload material to the site once you’ve created an account. This will allow your material to be easily available to anyone wishing to use it for research or informational purposes.

timelinessRead More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (3 of 3)

Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights


Editor’s Note: This post for the February ‘Openness Edition‘ comes from Jeff Hall, Elizabeth Gin and An Xiao Mina who discuss their project to facilitate personal storytelling by homeless youth from Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles. The team from the Media Design Practices/ Field Track program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California had so much success with the timeline structure that they’re packaging it for future use at Jovenes, Inc. and releasing it under a Creative Commons license so others can try it out in the field. This kind of repurposing of ethnographic tools is exactly the kind of sharing that we get excited about at EM and we encourage others to share their own tools and work processes in similar ways.

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jovenestimeline1

Photo by the authors. All rights reserved.

Ethnography has a lot to offer design, as evidenced by the growing field of design and design-related research informed by the methods and practices of anthropology.  Within this emerging interdisciplinary space, the design community and the anthropological community now have an opportunity to ask the question – “If anthropology has offered so much for design – what can design offer anthropology?”

We explored this question as part of our work with Jovenes, Inc., a center for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for youth to tell their personal stories and experiences. These stories would assist the organization in learning more about its constituency and support applications for additional funding to improve its programming and services. We worked in the vein of Participatory Action Research, by Alice McIntyre, taking a collaborative approach to the design and storytelling process, ensuring that both the youths’ untapped creative abilities and our expertise and research were consistently utilized throughout the experience.Read More… Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights

YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool


JSpyerEditor’s note:  In this post for February’s Openness Edition, Juliano Spyer (@jasper) explains how he created a video logging (vlogging) survey that took on a life of its own within the YouTube vlogging community, and discusses how his research instrument became valuable not only for the himself, the researcher, but for the researched community. Juliano has invited us to respond to his initial post and to experiment with this exciting new survey form. 

Juliano is a Brazilian ethnographer who is currently doing his PhD at University College London’s Anthropology Department where he is part of the Social Networking and Social Science Research Project.

Check out other posts from the Openness Edition: Jenna Burrel’s ‘#GoOpenAccess for the Ethnography Matters Community‘ and Sarah Kendzior’s ‘On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet‘.
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Think of a survey where the presence of the researcher is not required. Think of a questionnaire that is spontaneously answered and also recommended to others inside a network of friends and peers. Think of a situation where the research results do not go exclusively to the researcher, but remain within the researched community and operate as an archive of group knowledge. I have found that all this is possible through video tagging.

What are video tags?

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

Screen Shot of Juliano waving goodbye to viewers. 2013-02-20 at 3.13.03 PM

In 2011, as I conducted an ethnographic study of YouTube beauty gurus, I learned that the vlogging community uses roughly two genres of videos: tutorials, which are step-by-step instructions on how to create a makeup look, and “video tags” or just “tags”, a more personal type of communication which consists of questionnaires created and circulated inside the community.

The term “tag”, here, has at least two meanings: tag as the topic or subject of the questionnaire and tag as the action of inviting (“tagging”) your friends at the end of the questionnaire so they can also answer the questions and bring more people to participate. Levels of participation begin with watching and commenting, then answering tags created by others, then creating original tags.

I won’t go into why users do what they do here. It is enough to say that video tags are a way for participants of a certain community of practice to socialize, to get to know more about the people they admire, as well as to forge new relationships. And for those who decide to respond to the tags, it is a way of becoming known by others in this “informal realm” (Winkler Reid 2010) where a person’s reputation corresponds to the number of subscribers that person’s channel has.Read More… YouTube “video tags” as an open survey tool

On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet


sarahkendziorEditor’s note: In this thoughtful piece for February’s Openness Edition, Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) discusses the ways in which the internet has transformed the relationship between the writer and the people about whom he or she writes. Sarah has written extensively about open access to scholarly publications (‘one paper (she) uploaded to Academia.edu… helped Uzbek refugees find a safe haven abroad’, according to one interview). In this post, Sarah writes about a deeper question regarding the openness of the research process and the ways in which the internet has led to a leveling of the playing fields in a way that some anthropologists would rather ignore than confront. After all, when the “subaltern speaks” and anyone, not just anthropologists, can hear, who exactly is doing the exposing?

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist and communications scholar who studies digital media and politics. Her home blog is at sarahkendzior.com

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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In the hallway of my anthropology department there was a map of the world. The map was covered with photos of students in the field, their exact location pinpointed by an image on a string. Every year, the academic coordinator would send out a call to students for a representative photo to add to the map, and every year, I failed to respond.

During the bulk of my dissertation fieldwork, I lived in Missouri. The people I wrote about, Uzbek exiled political dissidents, lived all around the world — in Sweden, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, the United States, Turkey. Having fled a brutal crackdown following a massacre of civilians, they lived lives of constant upheaval, on the move and on the run. They thought less about where they were than they did about Uzbekistan, the one place they could not go. They spent most of their time online, talking to each other and talking to me. I could not go to Uzbekistan either, since my previous articles criticized its authoritarian regime.

birdamlik_computer

This picture shows the inside of the truck of the leader of the Birdamlik People’s Movement, an Uzbek opposition group. Birdamlik has branches in over a dozen countries (including Uzbekistan) but they are organized through the internet. The leader of the movement works in the US as a truck driver, and he calls this his “mobile office” — a communications center set up inside his 18-wheeler. The computer screen shows the Birdamlik website, which is banned in Uzbekistan. Pic by Sarah Kendzior (all rights reserved)

The online communities of exiled dissidents made for an interesting dissertation. But it posed a problem when it came to the department map. Should I mark every point on the map or none of them? Should I designate Uzbekistan somehow – a skull and crossbones, a circle with a slash? What was my “representative image” – an activist curled up with his laptop, updating his Facebook status? A blogger staring at Cyrillic on a screen? Me, alone at my desk, checking my email?

No one wants to see these things. No one wants to see visual documentation of their own online lives, much less the lives of others. It is the academic version of the tabloid reveal – “Uzbek dissidents – they’re just like us!” Such banality runs counter to anthropological advertising. The purpose of the department map was to show visitors that our research subjects are not just like us – but that we, for a time, could be just like them.

I was like the people I studied too, in that none of us have a place within the traditional conception of anthropological fieldwork. We were too much on the move, or we were not moving enough.Read More… On Legitimacy, Place and the Anthropology of the Internet

Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)


whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s note: While ethnographers sometimes encounter resistance from their research subjects, it’s not everyday that these subjects threaten to harm or otherwise humiliate the researcher. In her second guest post,Whitney Phillips @wphillips49  tells us how she responded to threats from the community she was studying. Whitney also shares with us how she adjusted her everyday life to her research, how she handled professors’ concerns, and how her analysis evolved over time.  

Whitney also reflects on earlier criticisms of her work, giving us an intimate sense of how she negotiated her position within her fieldwork. 

 Her second post is a fantastic follow up to her riveting post from last month about her ethnographic work on an anonymous community, internet trolls.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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As promised in my last post, this post will discuss my role as a participant observer in the 2008-2012 troll space. It was weird, I hinted, which really is the only way to describe it. Because space is limited, I’m going to focus on three points of overlapping weirdness, namely troll blindness, real and perceived apologia, and ethnographic vampirism. There are other stories I could tell, and other points of weirdness I could discuss, but these are moments that taught me the most, for better and for worse.

sagan trollsss

It’s Just a Death Threat, Don’t Worry About It

For the first few years of my research project, I kept the lowest public profile possible. I had published a short thought piece on trolls’ relationship to 2009’s Obama/Joker poster, but otherwise was conducting my research in stealth mode. My friends knew what I was working on, sort of, and whenever I could I angled seminar papers towards my dissertation project (an especially neat trick in the Piers Plowman class I took during my third year of coursework). So my work wasn’t top secret, but it wasn’t something you could easily find just by Googling my name — which was exactly how I wanted it.

This changed after I started working on Facebook memorial page trolling (RIP trolling for short), which could run the gamut from harassing so-called “grief tourists,” people who post condolence messages onto the Facebook RIP pages of dead strangers, all the way to attacking the friends and family of murdered teenagers. By 2010, and spurred by that year’s series of gay teen suicides (the coverage of which trolls were more than happy to exploit), memorial page trolling was shaping into a pretty major news story. Because my University of Oregon student bio had recently been updated to include information about my research on the subject, media outlets began reaching out. I did one newspaper interview, which lead to another, which resulted in my name and information being posted onto 4chan’s /b/ board, one of the internet’s most notorious trolling hotspots (my article on /b/ can be found here).Read More… Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (2 of 3)

On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Unlike other posts that start off text or images, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu opens up her third post in her guest series on digital ethnography with sound. She wants us to click PLAY before reading on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use sound in your fieldwork, you’ll still find this to be a useful exercise in opening your ethnographic ears.

After you click PLAY,  you’ll appreciate Wendy’s message: our fieldsites are rich with sound data that carries a lot of meaning. She closes her post with a great discussion theorizing digital ethnography as horizontal versus vertical immersion.

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Above is a field recording of mini pinball machines that I collected in the Lungtan township in Taiwan. In it, you can hear the sounds of the machines, scooters, and a conversation that I had with my father while we were trying to figure out how to play the pinball machines. This field recording is rich in texture and meaning.

I know that not all ethnographers work with sound. But I do think that it could be useful to reconsider the sonic (and by extension, the visual) dimensions of our work. I propose an engagement with the textures of human speech in its original sonic. This approach counters the traditional emphasis on text and its impulse to textualize sound in ethnography. This perhaps is most on conspicuous in the practice of transcribing interviews.

You all can probably recall moments of dealing with the complexity of meaning embedded in the tone or the delivery of oral content in interviews. There are sounds of the environment that the informant has chosen to carry out an interview or interact with. Do these sounds reveal anything about the speaker and her relationship to her physical and social environment? Are there other voices in the room? Incidental sounds? Does the tone of the speaker react to and interact with the sounds of the environment in anyway? Where are the points of dissonance and resonance?Read More… On Digital Ethnography, magnifying the materiality of culture (3 of 4)