Blog Post

A Long-due Introduction: Toward a Digital Ethnography

Hello, everyone. Hoping to start the new year with a solid HASTAC engagement.

I'm PhD candidate in the Critical and Comparative Studies of Music at the University of Virginia. My most immediate disciplinary home is ethnomusicology in which most researchers engage in ethnographic methodology. In my dissertation, I have explored two digital processes webscraping and mapping to further my ethnographic research on the Asian American experiences in indie rock music.

A key mission for me as a HASTAC scholar this year is to re-imagine the possibility of a digital ethnography. My main question are: how can digital technology facilitate field research and ethnographic writing? What might be the theoretical implications of these new methods?

Ethnographers' objects of intellectual interest are social interactions and cultural practices, rather than texts. Cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, whose primary mode of investigation has been participant-observation, have conventionally privileged the traditional, non-mediated, live, and experiential over the fixed, mediated, and textual, in their field participation. In the last decade or so, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists alike have started to see the value in studying non-physical and mediated, and oftentimes software environments, thereby extending the notion of the field.

How may digital tools facilitate the processes of observing and participating in these newly defined fields that are now digitally mediated? Email and engagement with social media are becoming a normative mode of interaction for many individuals in many societies. Many ethnographers use digital communication methods to find, reach, and contact their informants. In my dissertation, I spent countless hours locating musicians online, using either Google or social network sites such as Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, and Last.FM. How can we as ethnographers, besides hanging out in a chat room or on a discussion forum, take a snapshot of these digital social media interactions?

At THATCampVA this past December, I was inspired to experiment with the idea of incorporating mobile and GPS technology into field research, linking live and physical interactions in the field with virtual hubs of communities and information. In ways similar to what journalists have done using Twitter or other mobile platforms, ethnographers can generate and crowdsource instant field reports. Ushahidi comes to mind as another example. Mobile technology supports the gradual breakdown between the field and home in conventional projects and could potentially democratize the process of fieldwork.

What are the social, political, and institutional implications of such digital contacts, versus conventional methods of flying to a distant location and meeting someone face-to-face? Digitally mediated communication allows the user to reach far. It is a technology of horizontal expansion. What does in-depth fieldwork look like in the milieu where communication is often digitally mediated?

Ethnographic writing involves a set of processes distinct but related to field research. What technological extensions may further the tasks of documenting, analyzing, articulating, and representing field observations and interactions? I have witnessed an emergence of blogging as field note-taking among my peers in ethnomusicology. My friend Lee Bidgood blogged to document his field interactions with bluegrass musicians in the Czech Republic during his time abroad while using this blog as a way to forge transnational links between him and his musician-informants, dispersed across Europe. Another friend Ben Tausig uses his blog Weird Vibrations as a multimedia platform to archive and analyse his photo, text, audio, and video field recordings while he is doing field work in Bangkok this year.

Traditionally, ethnographers insert a single page map in the beginning of their monograph locating their narratives on a map. What happens when anthropologists investigate communities comprised of multiple sites, some on- and others off-line? A digital map could not only encapsulate the geographical coverage of these new projects, but also articulate the intricate dynamics of contemporary social across various geographical boundaries. For instance, The World Musical Map project by Ozan Aksoy based at the New Media Lab at the Graduate Center of CUNY explores the rupture between audio boundaries and actual national borders. Also, in my dissertation, I leveraged OpenLayers, a web mapping tool, to map the Myspace friend networks of the musicians in my study. These visualizations enabled me to see patterns of social linkage that I hadnt anticipated. They also allowed me to generate more questions about ethnic belonging and transnational communities.

So, what other digital methods could extend our capacities as ethnographic documentarians and analysts? What are the intellectual advantages (and disadvantages) of digitizing an otherwise live and non-mediated experience or interaction?

Digital humanists have developed an emerging set of sophisticated theories around the issues of texualization and archiving. To relate to those inquiries, I find that it may be useful to consider the act of ethnographic writing as a form of textualization. So in the instance of articulating field data, we may be creating an archive of texts that interpret cultural practices. If that's the case, my digital maps make up a cultural archive that documents and interprets the songs and performances of the musicians in my project. More flexible than conventional archive (a published journal article or book), a digital archive can be closer to life because it is akin to the practice of building a repertory from which performers and agents draw scripts, meanings, and inspirations.

I'm interested to hear what everyone thinks about the experimental possibility and pragmatic processes of the digital mapping of social and cultural practices. Let's collaborate in realizing a more digitally and socially engaged digital ethnography!

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