On Text, Method, and Technology in Ethnography

The question I’d like to think about is the way in which the technology of recording, and the technological ecology, shapes our views about research methodology, especially ethnographic research (although, I’m sure what I have to say affects other disciplines just as much!). In particular, I’m interested in the temporality of data, and will discuss that notion across these two themes.

First, the question of the technology of recording: in what way does how we take our information down affect what information we see as valuable? Even the metaphor I just used is revealing: the information we SEE as useful. Writing, the apotheosis of data in the social sciences, is inherently a visual medium. What counts as data, then,—for the mainstream—is information that is easily transposed/substantiated in the form of the visual text. While one is quick to point out the fantastic research on affect, auditory culture, etc. to counter the notion that the text is the end goal and only that research counts, we might go the level of labor in academia; what goes into the tenure file, and what is most valuable? The written word.

So, how does our technology affect our methods? It does so by rendering the purpose of method to render _____ into text. Be it the affect of walking down the street, or the sounds of video games, method’s end goal is to render the world legible; that is, both understandable and visual.

The second question is somewhat of a right-turn-to-nowhere from the first question; how does the technological ecology affect methods and the temporality of data? If the end goal of method is to render data written, what data gets collected and preserved? In anthropology, there is an insane amount of anxiety over data. In any methods class, there is a deep-seated urge to record EVERYTHING in written format: interviews MUST be transcribed, time-stamped, etc. And what if you didn’t record an interview? It’s as if one commits a mortal sin… and don’t even think about not recording an interview or something else.

These methods were developed in the early days of anthropology’s investment in the ethnographic method. Some anthropologists would come back from ‘the field’ with thousands of pages of notes, and we are encouraged to do the same. The understanding that is written into our minds is that if it’s not in the field notes, it didn’t happen, and it’s not tenable for analysis. But, the world has changed, quite a bit, since those days. I would argue that the information technological ecology has made contemporary ethnographers a little more relaxed about the systematic recording, but that this requires a new approach to the method of writing and the method of data collection.

In a world with increased flow of technology, it’s interesting how attitudes regarding data have changed. As an ethnographic researcher (confession time), I’m not at all interested in saving every scrap of experience. When doing research in Gibraltar on the diagrammatic nature of urban language, I typically spent an hour at the end of each day writing up a general nature of what happened. If I had an interview, I recorded it, but only listened to it a couple times over—rarely transcribing it unless there was need.

I spent about 2 months in Gibraltar last time I was there. The first four weeks, I collected data. The fifth week I spent beginning to arrange data and write the ethnographic article. In traditional anthropology, this is very much frowned upon (why? I don’t know actually) In many instances, I drew from conversations and discussions that I had actually failed to write down. To bring it back to the point, why hadn’t I written them down? Because, in a space where one is so bombarded with information, the act of writing lends to the possibility that a potential experience will slip through the cracks—not to mention make you look very anti-social. What makes it possible to feel this way, despite the interpellation of anthropological academia? I would say the Internet—the facebookz, the twitteringz, and the increased flow of information. In a technological ecology that is constantly presenting information, we have to become good at making choices—for better or worse—as to what is and is not worth getting distracted by. But, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t see the information. It doesn’t mean we can’t pull the words from the brain database.

What was different, however, is that I began writing in the field when the information that slipped out of the paper prison of data that was my notebook could still be verified and shared with people. My motivation behind writing in the field was to share, although with a select few, what I was actually working on and thinking. Their comments were fantastic, and often far more critical than my mentors’ at home. Where the technological ecology changes drastically the method of recording in the field, it also allows for the potential for a new way to be held accountable and responsible to the communities among whom we are guests as researchers.

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