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).

Ethnography

While my approach to online sources often seems historical to me, my goals often feel ethnographic. I do sometimes make a historical argument about a moment in time, but I conceive of most of my work as a naturalistic inquiry into culture. As van Maanen wrote “The trick of ethnography is to adequately display the culture in a way that is meaningful to readers without great distortion.”2 My intention, following Clifford Geertz,3 is to “uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts” and construct a (tentative) system of analysis. Even so, I feel like a particular kind of ethnographer. Just as historians permit multiple arguments about a topic, I welcome this as well. I do not concern myself with consensus and reproducibility, as some social scientists might. Because ethnographers, as social scientists, often had privileged windows into private worlds, they gave a lot of thought to the trustworthiness of their accounts and analysis; they wrote of prolonged engagement, checking the account with sources, and thick description.4 This is very valuable to me and it is why I opt for extensive quotation (when word limits permit) and make my work available for feedback from the communities being discussed. Yet, I also provide extensive references to all public discourse and readers can confirm for their selves what I write of. Hence, my accounts feel particular, situated, and historical. While I might anonymize a given source, I would not be keen to take on a project in which all such context is stripped away, as many ethnographers do.

I once asked an IRB staffer if historians and journalists do research? If so, why does her office not review their work? I was told “they don’t submit it.”

Human subjects or historical sources?

I often wonder, what am I? Am I a social scientist or a practitioner of digital humanities? As noted, my answer to this question is dependent on my field of inquiry, my inspiration, my sources, my approach, and my aspirations. Another factor in this quandary is my understanding of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). When I began my PhD, I presumed that I was doing social science research. Via the logic of the IRB, researchers might study a community and subsequently make generalizable claims. (“Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”5) And the IRBs I’ve worked with have been rather maximalist in their interpretation. (I once asked an IRB staffer if historians and journalists do research? If so, why does her office not review their work? I was told “they don’t submit it.”) However, because of my historical leanings, I’ve always chafed at this notion. Historians and journalists don’t contribute to generalizable knowledge? I think they only maintain this convenient fiction because it allows them to avoid the IRBs. Consider this FAQ from Northern Illinois University’s Office of Research Compliance and Integrity:

The definition of “research” refers to a “systematic investigation” designed to contribute to “generalizable knowledge”. While it’s true that journalists can engage in a “systematic” investigation, generally speaking, the end result of their interviews is simply reported (or quoted) and synthesis or interpretation of what was said is not offered and no attempt is made to generalize. This differs from a researcher who would attempt to analyze and synthesize the information in some way in order to be able to apply the newfound knowledge to others or for the benefit of others.6

They do not read the same journalism I do! Another FAQ, from the University of Mary Washington, focuses on the particularity of the work.

Because biographers, journalists and historians are often working on research that is particular to the individual or individuals they are studying, their activities are outside of the purview of IRB and do not require review. In other words, because the research is not meant to be generalized outside of a specific person or situation, it does not meet the definition of research as set forth in the federal guidelines. Oral histories have recently been excluded from oversight by the IRB and no longer require review as they have in the past. If you are uncertain about your project, please contact the IRB.7

While much ethnography is valuable despite the fact that the community and one’s sources are anonymized, my work is often with public persons in open communities. For example, when interviewing Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales, it felt weird to offer him a consent form explaining my “study” and stress that he had the ability to change or withdraw any comment he might make. Journalists and historians don’t do that. However, to say I offered no subsequent argument or analysis is wrong and weird.

I’ve very much appreciated what I’ve learned about ethics and the work of developing my IRB applications and consent forms. I still apply for IRB review when appropriate, and I always permit the private communications from my sources to be attributed to their public identity or a pseudonym. Nonetheless, I still become “verklempt” when asked to describe my discipline and method; but, as is plain, this is more from an excess of befuddlement than any overwhelming emotion.


  1. Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society of Friends (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1996).
  2. John Van Maanen, Tales of the Field: on Writing Ethnography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 13.
  3. “Thick Description: toward an Interpreted Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures and Local Knowledge, ed. Clifford Geertz (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973), 27.
  4. Yvonna S. Lincoln and Egon G. Guba, Naturalistic Inquiry (London: SAGE publications, 1985), 294–99.
  5. Department of Health Services and Human, “Title 45 Public Welfare Department of Health and Human Services Part 46 Protection of Human Subjects” (HHS.gov, January 15, 2009), http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/45cfr46.html#46.102.
  6. Research Compliance and Integrity, “IRB Frequently Asked Questions” (Northern Illinois University, March 04, 2014), http://www.niu.edu/orci/human_research/policies/IRB-FAQ.shtml.
  7. Institutional Review Board, “IRB FAQs” (University of Mary Washington, March 04, 2014), http://provost.umw.edu/irb/faqs/.

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4 Responses to “Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography”

  1. Taçlı Yazıcıoğlu
    July 23, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    Very nicely written auto-ethnographic piece!!

  2. October 7, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    Hi Joseph! Thank you for this reflection on the entanglements of historical and ethnographic work when studying online cultures. I think your point about the value of historical analysis when studying any form of digital media is important. Often times, social scientists studying the internet frame it in presentist terms, as if it is not the result of historical developments or embedded in a particular social context. My feeling is that, at least for communication researchers, this is the result of being pressed to keep pace with technological change in our own writing. I also appreciate the way you point to ethnography of the internet as a method that foregrounds history, given that, oftentimes, we are perusing texts published in the past or archived, as in your case with Wikipedia.

    I’m wondering, however, if the line between historical analysis and ethnography is really as blurred as you describe, when it comes to studying life online. History is an important part of any ethnographic inquiry, on- or offline, but I think there is a critical difference between history and ethnography. If you were to ethnographically study a Facebook group, for example, it would be important to get deep into the archives and textually analyze posts published in the past in order to get a sense of the group’s development over time. However, it would be just as important if not more so to spend time as a participant observer in the group, in order to build an understanding of the group’s discursive practices and later interpret the archived posts through emic frameworks. Geertz has that great passage on winks versus twitches, and how interpreting someone’s contraction of their eyelids as either requires contextual clues and the contextual awareness/fluency to interpret those clues. I think participant observation, and the contextual knowledge it can create, separates ethnography from history.

  3. October 7, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Rosemary, well said! I think you are right: if you are a participant you are not in the realm of history. (Even oral historians who interact with sources are not participating in the events they are studying.) So far, in my IRB applications, I use consent forms when I interact with folks. Even so, this sometimes strikes me as not quite right when I’m interacting with a particular person: this still feels more like oral history or journalism.

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