Tori’s response to Question 4: Modern Languages and Digital Ethnography

In preparing this blog post, I have enjoyed taking a look at two new books relating to the topic of digital ethnography, which I will draw on in my reflections here (and highly recommend to readers!): Christine Hine’s Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday and the introduction to Sarah Pink et al.’s Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice (introduction freely available online here).

For many in Modern Languages, moving into ethnography, and studying digital culture through ethnography, is a departure, of some kind, from the methods we were trained in, and how we are accustomed to thinking about texts and their authors. Digital content such as blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, and digital videos (to name just a selection) is mobile, mutable and multipliable. It is also often produced by people whose names do not appear in library catalogues, or figure in lists of the literary canon for a particular language or country/region, but it might also be that one chooses to study the social media output of a well-known author, artist, or filmmaker, for example.

In deciding to ‘follow’ digital content, we watch texts in progress as they emerge, circulate, and generate responses in a variety of settings, not necessarily only on the internet. Our lens widens beyond the texts, to the practices and motivations involved in their production and circulation. We need to find ways of capturing and analysing this material as we go along, but also appropriate and possible ways of interacting and developing relationships with the authors of digital content, being visible to them as well as present with them, in one way or another. This is a central part of studying digital culture, ethnographically. This type of engagement also requires us to think carefully about research ethics at all stages of the research process, from initial approaches to potential participants, to writing up and disseminating our findings.

In making this departure, then, we need to develop an understanding of the origins and principles of ethnography, as well as an awareness of how ethnography itself is being changed and challenged by digital technologies, so that our choices are well informed. We need to think carefully about where these origins and principles converge with ways of working in Modern Languages, and where they diverge – and how to handle these divergences. As Pink et al. emphasise, this type of disciplinary negotiation and encounter is important and necessary, since ‘ethnography is not a very meaningful practice by itself; instead, it is only useful when engaged through a particular disciplinary or interdisciplinary paradigm and used in relation to other practices and ideas within a research process’ (2015: 2). Employing (digital) ethnography within Modern Languages, then, offers us an opportunity to think about what Modern Languages, or a modern linguist, is, and does.

The methodological reflexivity and adaptiveness of (digital) ethnography, and the emphasis on documenting and reflecting on choices made in response to the conditions of fieldwork – ‘making moves and exploring connections that help to answer strategically significant questions’ (Hine 2015: 69) – is a valuable addition to Modern Languages, where we do not always make explicit how we have reached our interpretations of texts. The textual analysis skills we learn in Modern Languages, and the linguistic and cultural skills we acquire to enable us to do this in a language other than our own, are crucial tools when making a departure into digital ethnography and finding ways to do digital ethnography within Modern Languages.

If a departure can be understood as an innovation, we can turn this around and remind ourselves that an innovation is also an alteration of a pre-existing trajectory. Innovating in Modern Languages by adopting digital ethnography as a way of studying digital culture changes how we understand texts and the basis on which we analyse them. It requires us to expand our focus to include not just practices, but also people. It asks us to write research on the basis of the relationships constructed in the process of fieldwork and to reflect on the decisions we took. This is not an easy undertaking, and can sometimes be unsettling and messy, but it is always provocative and challenging.


Hine, C., 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday. Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Pink, S., Horst, H., Postill, J., Hjorth, L., Lewis, T., Tacchi, J., 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. Sage Publications, London.


2 thoughts on “Tori’s response to Question 4: Modern Languages and Digital Ethnography

  1. I really enjoyed Tori’s thoughts on this topic, I’d like to pick up on a couple of the aspects that she highlights – aspects that, as a Modern Linguist, I have found to be particularly challenging when dealing with digital culture. The first of these is what Tori has very eloquently set out regarding the need to ‘follow’ digital content, and the fact that we need to pay attention to practices as much as to the ‘text’ itself. This entails shifts in our understanding of what a ‘text’ is, and how we approach it. We can no longer assume that we have the definitive version of a ‘text’ in front of us (in the same way that we might have done with, say, a print novel in the past). And as Tori aptly reminds us, we need to find ways of ‘capturing and analysing this material as we go along’. I’m not sure we have perfected the tools for either yet: capturing is a painstaking process, which often (and I speak from experience here) feels like the boring, laborious bit we want to skip in our anxiety to actually get on and engage with the content we’re looking at. I certainly know that I’m guilty of speeding through content, enjoying it, rather than making sure I capture that vital page – and there’s nothing more frustrating than, having identified a particularly wonderful case study that ticks all the boxes, discovering a week later that the webpage no longer exists, or that the excellent image you were going to use to illustrate your point has now been deleted… I wonder whether others contributing to this Writing Sprint might have some experiences to share here?

    The second aspect which I find particularly challenging is that, as Tori says, this type of engagement ‘requires us to think carefully about research ethics at all stages of the research process, from initial approaches to potential participants, to writing up and disseminating our findings’. Those of us in Modern Languages – probably still the majority? – who were brought in a philological tradition of study are generally trained to have an understanding of a ‘text’ as a fixed entity (notwithstanding various editions of a work) and an ‘author’ as a public figure. And I would hazard a guess that many of us, back in our own doctoral days, would have had virtually no training on, or at best a hazy understanding of, research ethics. But when content creators are human subjects, and, perhaps just as crucially, when our own interventions into the (digital)field site might have unintended consequences, ethical considerations have to be taken into account at every stage of our research process. We can build on the helpful recommendations set down in the AoIR ethics reports, but might we need to think about how best to adapt or inflect these to our ML purposes? For instance, are there particular issues that arise when dealing with content creators in other languages and geographical locations that aren’t covered by the AoIR guidelines? Might we even need to develop our own ML digital ethical code of practice?…


  2. Response to Tori’s and Claire’s responses to Question 4: Modern Languages and Digital Ethnography

    I’ve really enjoyed both Tori’s and Claire’s responses to this question and would like to add my tuppence-worth to some of the points raised.

    I think digital technologies are crucial in forcing us in Modern Languages and other humanities disciplines to reconsider what the object of study might be. With the advent of social media and other forms of participatory culture our traditional Ivory Tower approach to the study of culture understood as difficult -to-understand cultural products which suitably well-trained academics like us can make sense of and relay to others (probably other academics and a few students…) looks more flimsy than it ever did. I have frustrated myself over the last ten years by designing research projects which see me trying to find examples of high-cultural production online, albeit rejigged to dialogue with their new, high-tech contexts, while at the same time wanting with increased urgency to find a way to study other phenomena that occur using the same technologies but that cannot realistically be shoehorned into the same categories as or hypermedia fiction.

    I also think that it is highly appropriate that Modern Languages scholars take this challenge on board and deal with it as a way of overcoming the hang-ups of our own disciplinary foundations. Rather than trying to emulate our colleagues in disciplines like English literature with their research interests in a still very slowly evolving canon of high cultural production, we need to function as Modern Linguists who have a healthy interest in all forms of cultural production and the languages/registers that they are written in.

    With regard to ethics, I think the increased need to work with ethnographic methodologies in our study of digital content creation can also be very healthy for Modern Linguists. As we realise we have strayed far enough into social sciences to warrant making applications to our institutions’ various ethical approval boards, we should then look back on how we behave when we are dealing with more traditional objects of study. My hunch is that far too many Modern Linguists still have not woken up to the fact that, while cultural producers who publish their works might be quite resilient people, they are also still people and therefore it is still important that we engage with what an ethical research practice might entail, even when we are ‘just interviewing an author’.

    In general, I have found the AoIR recommendations on ethical decision-making to be extremely helpful, not as a source of clear-cut answers to each and every ethical dilemma I have, but as a document that encourages me to always be alert to the ethical implications of my actions. Again, ethics is not just a (rather onerous) hurdle that we need to get over before we can get started on our projects, what we need is a ‘dialogic, case-based, inductive and process approach’ (AoIR 2012:5) and the AoIR are also quite clear about the need for ethical approaches to adapt to be context specific. This being the case, I’m not sure that we would need an ML-specific set of ethical recommendations. Perhaps what we really need is to make sure that more ML colleagues are aware of the AoIR recommendations and that we provide an easy-access synopsis of these that draw out the relevance for research in Modern Languages and provide ML case studies to illustrate.

    Association of Internet Researchers (2012),‘Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0)’,


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