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.