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On Digital Ethnography


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  • When Tricia asked me to contribute a series on Ethnography Matters, I thought that I would take this opportunity to bring together the notes on digital ethnography that I have collected over the last couple of years. I would like to push the boundaries of computational usage in ethnographic processes a bit here. I really want to expand the definition of digital ethnography beyond the use of computers, tablets, and smart phones as devices to interact with online communities, or to capture, transfer, and store field media.

    In this three-part series, I am going to discuss how working with computational tools could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I will stay mostly within the domain of data gathering in this first post. In the second post, I will talk about the process of field data interpreting and visualizing; and the last post, I will focus on how the digital may transform ethnographic narrative and argumentation.

Myspace friend distribution of The Hsu-nami

On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

halftone album art zoomed in

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

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

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

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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

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)

On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Can ethnographers use software programs? Last month’s guest contributor, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu, says YES! In Part 1 of On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography?, Wendy introduced her process of using computer programming software to collect quantitative data in her ethnographic research. She received a lot of great comments and suggestions from readers. 

Part 2 of of Wendy’s Digital Ethnography series focuses on the processing and interpreting part. In fascinating detail, Wendy discusses mapping as a mode of discovery. We learn how using a customized spatial “algorithm that balances point density and readability” can reveal patterns that inform the physical spread of musicians’ fans and friends globally. Geo-location data clarified her qualitative data. We are already in great anticipation for Part 3! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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The Hsu-nami's Myspace friend distribution in Asia

Figure 0: The Hsu-nami’s Myspace friend distribution in Asia

In my last post, I introduced the idea of using webscraping for the purpose of acquiring relevant ethnographic data. In this second post, I will concentrate on the next step of the ethnographic process: data processing and interpreting. Remember The Hsu-nami, the band that I talked in the last post? The image above is a screenshot of their Myspace friend distribution, a map that I created for analyzing the geography of their community. This post is about the value of creating such maps.Read More… On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography? (1 of 4)


Editor’s Note: While digital ethnography is an established field within ethnography, we don’t often hear of ethnographers building digital tools to conduct their fieldwork. Wendy Hsu wants to change that. In the first of her three-part guest post series, she shows how ethnographers can use software, and even build their own software, to explore online communities. By drawing on examples from her own research on independent rock musicians, she shares with us how she moved from being an ethnographer of purely physical domains to an ethnographer who built software programs to gather more relevant qualitative data. 

Wendy is currently a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College. She recently completed a Ph.D. in the Critical and Comparative Studies program in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, an ethnography of Asian American independent rock musicians, deploys the methods of ethnomusicology and digital humanities to explore the complex interrelationships between popular music and geography in transnational contexts. She implemented methods of digital ethnography to map musicians’ social networks. She tweets at @wendyfhsu and blogs at beingwendyhsu.info. She also plays with the vintage Asian garage pop revivalist band Dzian!.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Here are some ideas for how you can contribute.

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When Tricia asked me to contribute a series on Ethnography Matters, I thought that I would take this opportunity to bring together the notes on digital ethnography that I have collected over the last couple of years. I would like to push the boundaries of computational usage in ethnographic processes a bit here. I really want to expand the definition of digital ethnography beyond the use of computers, tablets, and smart phones as devices to interact with online communities, or to capture, transfer, and store field media.

In this three-part series, I am going to discuss how working with computational tools could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I will stay mostly within the domain of data gathering in this first post. In the second post, I will talk about the process of field data interpreting and visualizing; and the last post, I will focus on how the digital may transform ethnographic narrative and argumentation.

In this post, I’d like to foreground computational methodology in thinking about how we as ethnographers may deploy digital tools as we explore communities within and around digital infrastructures. I am particularly interested in how we use these tools to study communities that are digitally organized. How do we use and think about data ethnographically? How does one use computational tools to navigate in digital communities? What are the advantages of leveraging (small) data approaches in doing ethnographic work? While this post is focused on the study of digitally embedded communities, in my later posts, I will speak more broadly about how the digital may extend how we look at communities where face-to-face interactions are central.

Read More… On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography? (1 of 4)