[Air-L] virtual ethnography and online fieldwork

D.Slater at lse.ac.uk D.Slater at lse.ac.uk
Fri Feb 6 04:59:57 PST 2009

This is such a nice break from what I'm supposed to be doing at the

I can certainly relate to John's description of muddling through, and
how to convey this style of knowledge construction to others,
particularly those who want clear answers, which generally means
filtering or translating 'findings' through precisely the categories we
have been so enthusiastically destabilising in the field: these will be
the categories that make up our shared and naturalised narratives, such
as the notion of virtuality as a way of making sense of new media from
the early 90s onwards.

However, the issue of what to do with observed similarities between
places that are both divergent and that one is committed (politically,
methodologically, personally) to addressing as unique particulars is a
profound one that has been obsessing me for a long time. It goes to the
heart of several issues, including the project of comparative
ethnography. At this point I usually turn to STrathern, as Gender of the
Gift is clearly the most sustained and meta-meta-meta commentary on
difference and similarity in encounters between cosmologies. What it
points to (I think?!) are multiple and strategic encounters between
similarities and differences, a wide range of ways of making use of
them, rather than a reductive or truth-oriented problematic. Overall, a
similarity between Malaysian and Toronto suburbanites maybe used to make
all kinds of sense, and needn't be reduced to 'we're all the same', 'the
technology determines', 'it's all about globalization', or 'that's
weird'. The similarities can only be perceived and articulated within a
long history of already-shared dialogues, which is underpinned by some
intention to share meanings as well as to emphasise (and sometimes
absolutize) difference. Ethnography was defined somewhere, sometime, as
a dialectic of closeness and distance, which is right so long as there
is a lot of stress on the word 'dialectic' or your preferred
alternative. As I understand it, one of Strathern's alternative terms is
'heuristics': in my cruder version, these observed similarities are
useful for leveraging a lot of potential meaning out of baffling
encounters so long as they are used strategically rather than simply as
undermining our sense of the uniqueness of different experiences. 

In that vein, rather than try to analyse an 'issue' into resolution,
some stray notes on what to do with it:

1. 'Alternative modernities': People I've engaged with *anywhere* I've
worked relate the internet to 'the globe' or 'the world', and we can
share an imagery of theoretically limitless connection, convergence of
spaces, etc. This doesn't mean either reduction to a northern generated
imaginary of globalization, or recourse simply to the spread of the
discourse of globalization (though that is clearly part of the picture,
and can be tracked through the media and personal encounters of people
all over the world - that language has spread wide). Rather, what we
share is that we all make connections, that these connections exist in
space at different degrees of remoteness and proximity, and that
therefore we are all engaged in scaling practices and in constructing
maps. Moreover representing our own particular categorizations of
connections in space (ie, making 'maps') involves conveying those
categorizations through (at least apparently) meaningingful
language/imagery. What seems to me fruitful - in the spirit of
heuristics, or leveraging these conversations - is to get at the
different notions of long-distance connection (which lead to imagery of
'wholeness' - the planet, the globe, the world, etc), which are also
notions through which people articulate visions and explanations of
where the world is going, what it is becoming (or in my sphere, what is
'development'), and how they imagine connections to people who may be
very different to them. There is also a clearly reflexive dimension to
this: through material cultures like internet, which crucially involve
the idea of connection at a distance, people connect new spatial
developments to their own narrated past and collective projects, making
internet through this unique history, and re-interpreting this history
through the internet as a new object. That's pretty much entirely what
Danny and my book on Trinidad was about. It is in the interplay between
affordances of the object and its specific assimilations that one can
leverage a wider, more open-ended sense of what 'global connection'
might mean (certainly wider and more democratic than the impoverished
versions of a Giddens or a Castells).

2. However wooly, the notion of affordances does nicely break with both
social construction and techno determinism, just as Bruno promised. And
similarities of technology use point us very appropriately to the
material properties of the object in question. I've got a weird
'observed similarity' for you that I've been pondering for several years
now: a group of young Moslem women in a UNESCO ICT project in Delhi, are
presented with computers which are framed as 'useful for learning and
marketing traditional crafts'. On day one of the project, they start
framing ICTs in terms of something much closer to graphic design than
embroidery, they explore multi-media story telling through Flash
animation, they turn the centre into a fluid, network, convivial space
of conversation, brainstorming, project-based cooperation and all kinds
of other new economy style modes of social organization. To its undying
credit, the project tears up its plans and responds to this. An enormous
range of factors play into this development (the girls had read women's
magazines with alternative images of sociality; they were very assertive
- and supported; because of age and domestic situation, I think they
were more excited by the possibilities of exercising imagination than of
generating income; etc, etc). However, the technology seems to play an
irreducible part in this little drama: as material culture, as
affordance structure, it was apparently 'good to think' ways of being
social and organized that were also thought in places like Silicon Alley
and MIT. So these apparent similarities may be deployed heuristically to
interrogate - and assert - the object itself.

3. Does the idea that suburbs have some similar properties (and
therefore (?) comparable internet practices) in Kuala Lumpur and Toronto
necessitate recourse to concepts of macro structure and global
processes? Don't think so, in which case I'm not that bothered. I've
probably got a very complicated process to unravel, and vast range of
contingencies to track, so that I can see how these similar properties
might arise from similar architectural and spatial arrangements,
work/life relations, domestic arrangements (nuclear family?), class
cultures, the practices of transnational corporations, and so on. And
on, and on. Many of us have found the notion of 'practice' very useful
in many of these studies as it posits an elementary unit of analysis
that embraces so many features of a social setting without reducing them
to structures. 

The problem is in many respects more pragmatic than conceptual, and is a
huge issue for ANT - given that I cannot (in one research budget, one
article or book-length text, one lifetime) reconstruct the actual story
through which all these things were assembled, how do I gloss it in ways
that are not reductive, and don't impute explanation to a structural
level. More simply, 'globalization', eg, might efficiently gloss all
this, and summarise it one word, which is great for addressing the
Swedish political scientist John mentions - but at what cost!!! Part of
the answer appears to be textual: whatever terms you use, the text needs
constantly to undercut and question them rather than naturalize them, so
that difference is an-always implicit possibility. Also textually, we
need to give as much voice to the way in which the researched understand
and explain similarities and convergences as to our own
concptualisations, rather than consign the researched to representing
'difference', whereas we the researchers - with our universalistic
conceptual languages - represent generalization and abstract truth -
identity thinking (or as many southern intellectuals put it, they live
in an international division of intellectual labour in which the North
does theory and the South provides empirical particulars - data). This
also means being very clear about the similarities and differences
between our use of terms like 'globalization' and its various uses by a
range of actors that make up our field.

Anyway you can see that John's remarks touch a very sensitive nerve in
my own work.


Don Slater
Reader in Sociology, 
Doctoral Programme Director, Sociology
London School of Economics
Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE
Tel: +44 (020) 7849 4653
Fax: +44 (020) 7955 7405

-----Original Message-----
From: air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org
[mailto:air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org] On Behalf Of John Postill
Sent: 06 February 2009 11:42
To: air-l at listserv.aoir.org
Subject: Re: [Air-L] virtual ethnography and online fieldwork

My own experience of doing ethnographic fieldwork on internet and
politics in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) chimes with Don Slater's
account of the open-ended and muddling through nature of ethnographic
research. Early during field research I was queried by a Swedish
scientist about what exactly I meant by 'local governance', since that
to be a key element of my research strategy. To his frustration, my
reply will
be familiar to other ethnographers - that it was still early days and I
have to see what local activists, residents, politicians, etc, made of
notion, if anything, and see where the research led me before even
whether this notion was even applicable to the actualities on the
ground. As
it happened, my findings led me in other directions. 

This muddling through can also reveal unexpected parallels in
practices across vast geographical stretches, sometimes cutting across
North-South divide mentioned by Don Slater. For example, I didn't set
out to
study suburbia but it turns out that the internet uses by local
activists in
suburban Kuala Lumpur are not that dissimilar to those in other suburbs
of Toronto, Melbourne and Tel Aviv) - they are all shaped by the
imperative to
build and sustain an environment conducive to the reproduction of
nuclear families. 

This is all very different from the kind of young urban transnational
described by Juris (2008) in his recent monograph Networked Futures,
based on
ethnographic research among Barcelona-based antiglobalisation activists.


Dr John Postill
Senior Lecturer in Media
Sheffield Hallam University
Sheffield S11 8UZ
United Kingdom
j.postill at shu.ac.uk

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