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Ethnography Beyond Text and Print:

How the digital can transform


ethnographic expressions
Yea, as a fellow with the City of LA
Department of Cultural Affairs, I have a
mission to innovate and technologize the
department. I’m spearheading the
department’s web redesign project —
Editor’s note: This is the final post
in Wendy Hsu‘s 4-part series, On
thinking about how to better articulate our
Digital Ethnography. Wendy asks what work, outreach to constituents, and
does an ethnography beyond text and digitize some of our services. I’m still
print look like? To answer this
question, she calls on us to reconsider wearing my ethnographer’s hat, thinking
what counts as “ethnographic about how to cull through the vast amount
knowledge.” Wendy provides
of data related to arts and culture here at
examples of collaborative multimedia
projects that are just as the city, and leveraging social media and
“ethnographic” in nature as a other mobile/digital data to better
traditional ethnographic monograph.
The first post in the On Digital understand the impact of our work. I’m
Ethnography series called for also working with the City’s Information
ethnographers to use computer
Technology Agency to join efforts in their
software, the second post introduced
readers to her methods of deploying Open Data initiative with the goal to
computer programs to collect augment civic participation through
quantitative data, and the third post
urged ethnographers to pay more innovation projects like civic hacking.
attention to the sounds, sights, and
Ethnography means fieldwork or field
other material aspects of our field
research. Wendy @WendyFHsu is an
research – a set of research practices
ACLS Public Fellow working with the
applied for the purpose of acquiring data;
City of LA Department of Cultural
Affair. She recently finished her term
but the term also refers to the descriptive
as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center
representation of one’s fieldwork. In my
of Digital Learning + Research at
series on digital ethnography so far, I have
Occidental College and completed her
dissertation on the spread of
discussed how digital and computational
independent rock music.
methods could enhance how we as
ethnographers acquire, process, explore, and re-scale field data. In this last
post, I will shift my focus away from field research to discuss the process of
“writing up” field findings. I ask: How might the digital transform the way
we communicate ethnographic information and knowledge?

I pick up from where Jenna Burrell left off in her recent post “Persuasive
Formats” to interrogate the medium of writing as a privileged mode of
expression of academic ethnographic practices. Early in graduate school, I
learned that the eventual outcome of doing ethnographic research is the
publication of a monograph. People around me use the word “monograph”
to refer to a book-length treatment of research of a single subject published
by an academic press [they looks something like what’s shown in Figure 1].
This is, however, one of many definitions of monograph (apparently
humanists have a definition stricter than scientists and librarians). Burrell
attributes the scarcity of academic publication to economic reasons, and
suggests online publishing as a potential solution to remedy the cost of
print-based publishing and to enable the integration of visual materials in
publications.
Figure 1: Ethnographic monographs in the stacks in the Occidental library

Ethnography, based on the Greek root of “graph,” means the


representation of field experience, findings, and analysis through the
medium of writing. But writing, denoted by the word “graph,” may have
always been used to refer to textual means of representation (i.e. what we
think of as writing), but there are instances of this root referring to non-
textual means such as photograph, lithograph, phonograph, heliograph,
etc. The ambiguity of writing as a medium that can be either textual or
nontextual has been with us since the invention of these words.

I’m not advocating for abolishing academic book publishing. Others have
and have discussed the economic and ideological structure that supports
academic publishing and valorizes the monograph.) Instead, I want to
make room for a serious consideration of ethnographic expressions that
are not strictly based in text, either in the form of a book or a journal
article, but are dynamically articulated in interactive and multimediated
systems afforded by digital technology. Some of you might find this claim
to be professionally irrelevant to you, if your preoccupation with
ethnography falls outside of the academy. But the concerns and techniques
that I will talk about may pique your interest as you consider the ways to
communicate findings and analysis to clients, collaborators, and
stakeholders.

If we open up the definition of ethnography beyond text and print, then we


can start to envision a media-enriched, performative, and collaborative
space for ethnographers to convey what they have encountered,
experienced, and postulated. Utilizing the affordances of digital media,
ethnographic knowledge can be stored, expressed, and shared in ways
beyond a single medium, direction, and user. In what follows, I will outline
a few computational practices, platforms, and projects to illustrate these
points.

Multimedia and place-based interactivity

Ethnographers of various disciplinary backgrounds including


ethnomusicology and anthropology have elaborated on the value of
extending their intellectual scrutiny to include the sensoria. In particular,
Paul Stoller claims that sensorial narratives in ethnography found in
earlier writing, for instance by Malinowski, have been overshadowed in the
analytical prose in problem-oriented ethnography. He suggests a close
engagement with the senses of taste, smell, hearing, and sight – a
privileged mode of inquiry in European societies – to make our
ethnographic accounts “more faithful to the realities of the field.”[1] There
is, of course, a longstanding tradition of ethnographic films and field
recordings within anthropology. Practitioners of film and sound
ethnography believe in the value in transmitting content in a medium that
is most proximate to the source of knowledge, and is otherwise inexplicable
in a different medium. Steven Feld, for instance, coined the term
acoustemology, an acoustic epistemology, to express a way of knowing and
navigating in one’s physical and social environment through sound.

To extend the ethnographic interest into the sensorial realm, we may


consider using digital content systems to aggregate these disparate
sensorial engagements. In these systems, users can interact with media of
multiple types, audio, video, text, as these objects are stored and displayed
in a relational structure via tagging or other meta-data organization. In
addition to audio-visual content, with the deployment of GPS and
positional systems, digital systems can associate content with geospatial
data. This enriches the content by providing a spatial layer. A spatial
rendering of data can lead to new research questions.

Field researchers navigate in physical (and virtual) spaces. But the


narratives they produce, by the time of publication, are often stripped of
their place-based association. Imagine an account of an urban ethnography
that is embedded into a place-sensitive narrative platform. The
ethnographer can treat ethnographic narratives within an embedded
spatial layout that interacts with other kinds of media content.

A successful example of a multimedated field-informed project is the Hi-Fi


Collection, a place-based multimedia story about Los Angeles’ Historic
Filipinotown (hence “Hi Fi”). Divided into ten chapters, the collection
contains a series of narratives as text, audio, and video, for instance about
the historical migration of Filipino immigrants across the greater Los
Angeles metropolitan area. Users may explore the collection by reading the
narratives displayed alongside indications of where and when the event
took place, or browse it by playing with the map or the timeline above it.
The Hi Fi Collection lives within Hypercities, a mapping platform
developed by faculty and staff technologists at UCLA for exploring city
spaces through historical map layers and other associated interactive
hypermedia. The content and research that drives the development of Hi-
Fi Collection is a result of collaborative efforts by UCLA faculty Jan Reiff,
students, youth participants in the PDUB Productions program, and other
partner community groups and organizers such as Public Matters and
Pilipino Workers Center.

Figure 2: Hi-Fi Collection in Hypercities

My most satisfying experience of browsing in Hypercities has been guided


by a spatial curiosity. That is, place first, and then contextual information
about the place. While the Hypercities platform can present content of
various types, the visual framing of the navigation window gives more
emphasis on the geographic (and to a lesser extent, the temporal ) [Figure
2] over other organizational schemes such as narrative or time. This
interface design, in my opinion, suits narratives driven by geography, but
can relegate textual and audio-visual content to a secondary position in
other kinds of narratives.

Making room for multimodality and vernacular epistemology

If ethnography is an investigation of how a group of people sense and know


their world, then how do we express that while staying true to its structure
of epistemology? A simple web map (like Google Maps), with its bird’s eye
view, may shed light the relationship between places, but it may not
illuminate how people experience and navigate in that space. A timeline
moves in a linear fashion, either forward or backward in time; but this
linearity doesn’t convey people’s sense of temporality and relationship to
the past, present, and future.

What I’m provoking is a content-form synergy that articulates


ethnographic knowledge in a structure organized by an emic sensibility or
knowledge system. While digital media may not be vernacular to the
community of interest, but they can be shaped to reflect a vernacular
sensibility or epistemology. Digital content systems can be programmed to
scaffold a multisensory interaction, meaning the ability to exhibit
information in a sequence, or in relation to other media objects in
meaningful ways. Designing an algorithm that predetermines the scenarios
in which a user interacts with content would shape the delivery of an
analysis or argument. It would also enable nonlinear argumentation and
narratizing. Tara McPherson has theorized database’s capacity of re-
presenting knowledge beyond the “subordination to a linear spine, [that]
often meaning that certain trajectories or trains of thought get pared off or
eliminated”[2].

Vectors is a web-based peer-reviewed journal that is developed by USC


faculty and staff, and affiliated with the Open Humanities Press. The
technologist staff works with academic content providers to design
multimedia systems to publish materials in modalities that engage with the
analytical, affective, sensorial, experiential, and multidirectional. Vectors
has published a few ethnographic projects. In a piece entitled “Digital
Dynamics Across Cultures,” Kim Christen explores alternative methods to
present digital photographs and videos that she created in collaboration
with the Warumungu men and women during her field research in
Australia. Working with Chris Cooney, staff designer from Vectors,
Christen devised a dynamic audio-visual system that follows and displays
the dynamic logic of knowledge transmission that is faithful to the kinship
and ancestral networks of the Warumungu people [Figure 3]. Her
ethnographic website presents and exemplifies an “internal logic [that]
challenges conventional Western notions of the ‘freedom’ of information
and knowledge sharing’ as well as legal demands for single-authored,
‘innovative,’ original works as the benchmark for intellectual property
definitions.”[3] This work exemplifies the strengths and flexibility of digital
multimedia media as a platform of scholarly ethnographic publication.
Through an engagement with multiple senses, the unique combination of
ethnographic content and form reflects the worldview and epistemological
specificity of the group of people that she interacted with during fieldwork.

Figure 3: “Digital Dynamics Across Cultures” — illustrating the


Warumungu protocol of secret knowledge

As ethnographers, we are interested in thick knowledge and descriptions.


Part of this thickness is related to the emotional and affective state of
human interactions. Sharon Daniel’s piece “Public Secrets” illustrates the
effectiveness of digital medium in articulating affective and polyvocal
registers of the ethnographic experience. Highlighting the experience of
individuals in Central California Women’s Facility Prison, Daniel’s work
explicates while illustrates the psychological complexity and ideological
contradictions of the prison industrial system. This piece grew out of
Daniel’s essay that was previously published by online journal Intelligent
Agent. Different from its linear counterpart, this nonlinear multimedia site
allows the viewer to select one of thee paths – namely, Inside/Outside,
Bare-Life/Human-Life, and Public Secret/Utopia – to explore site content
[Figure 4]. Designed by Vectors staff technologist Erik Loyer, this structure
reconfigures the “physical, psychological, ideological spaces of the prison”
while immersing the viewer within a stark environment that simulates the
confinement and finality of the prison. “The very design of the project – its
algorithmic structure – calls our attention to the shifting borders between
inside and outside, incarceration and freedom, oppression and resistance,
despair and hope. Throughout your navigation of the piece, the fine lines
demarcating such binaries will morph, shift, and reconfigure, calling any
easy assumptions about ‘us’ and ‘them’ into question. Rather, inside and
outside mutually determine and construct one another, sketching powerful
vectors of relation between individual experiences and broader social
systems.”[4]
Figure 4: “Public Secrets”, the stark multi-path index page design

One this site, the user can play back location recordings of conversations of
the inmates, putting these women’s voices in dialog with academic texts
about the prison industrial complex and theories of utopia, resistance, etc
[Figure 5]. Juxtaposing informants’ voices with texts by academicians such
as Angela Davis and Frederic Jameson validates the experience and
knowledge of these women. This epistemological parallel destabilizes the
social distinction between an imprisoned and a free person, deconstructing
notions of deviance in the society.
Figure 5: “Public Secrets”, juxtaposing informants’ and scholars’ voices

Another publishing platform to consider is Sensate, a peer-reviewed, open-


access media-based journal powered by Zeega, a multimedia storytelling
platform. More in line with the traditions of ethnographic film and field
recordings, Sensate has published a series of audiovisual ethnographic
research including Steven Feld’s recent work in urban phonography.
Similar to Vectors, Sensate embraces multidirectionality and query-based
navigation afforded by interactive interface and database design. The
journal declares the purpose of its unique platform as the following:
“avoids the rigid structures of chronology and provides readers with the
opportunity to explore the content in networked and associative ways,
offering a rich, intuitive experience.”

The Multi-tier archive – interacting between the raw and


interpretive

The intimate relationship between ethnography and archive has been


established for a while. With the recent development in database design,
ethnographic archives have been built to meet the cultural sensitivities of
field materials and preservation needs of the community and
ethnographer. A significant advancement in ethnographic archive is the
ability to present raw data and interpretive content at once. This multi-tier
display mode – of both primary and secondary sources – invites the users
to engage with content in exploratory and argumentative pathways,
respectively. Making available primary source materials encourages the
users to formulate their own interpretive lens on the materials, thus
making the “reading” experience more active and participatory. Further, it
expands the ethnographic aim of providing a thick description by ushering
in set of media-enriched field documentation. In this way, the multi-tier
digital archive engenders among the users an individual experience of field
materials as they are reanimated through a pathway chosen by the users
themselves. In other words, the multipath structure of the archive, and the
optional engagement with either the media objects or the annotations
heightens the sense of agency in the viewing experience.

The EVIA (the Ethnographic Video for Instruction and Analysis) Project is
a great example of a multi-tier digital archive that serves the three-prong
function of preservation, annotation, and publication. The EVIA project
staff and contributors work to further their ambitious goal of creating a
“support system and a suite of software tools for video annotation, online
collection searching, controlled vocabulary and thesaurus maintenance,
peer review, and technical metadata collection.” The site’s content is
clustered as video collections, each created and organized by an
ethnographer with particular subject speciality. A collection consists of a
series of event-based videos with detailed annotations, along with a long-
form narrative that encapsulates the scope of the collection and
contextualizes it in social, historical, and geographical terms. Within a
single collection, users could freely skip across events or scenes; or
alternatively, users may browse content at the pre-curated, collection level,
starting with the collection-level background narrative, then working their
way down to each of the video events that are further subdivided into
scenes. The media-enriched interface enables the users to read the
annotations and simultaneously use the fine-grained playback functions
for closely examine the recording [Figure 6].

Figure 6: EVIA Digital Archive, interface with annotations and fine-grained


video playback control

In an exploratory mode, users can experience the site using a query-based


search function to explore video based on metadata selection metadata
selection organized by geography and style of performance. This feature
makes possible the comparison of field recordings across geographical and
stylistic categories.

A brilliant example of a non-academic ethnographic archive is Afterquake,


a multimedia website that documents the process of field-based recording
and collaboration between American artists David Liang and Abigail
Washburn and the children in areas affected by the 2008 Sichuan
Earthquake in China. Liang and Washburn traveled to record the music
and ambient sounds of sites of earthquake destruction in Wenchuan
County in the Sichuan Province, a year after the earthquake struck. What
they found were sounds of post-disaster mourning, community
reconstruction of homes, and reflections of disaster aftermath among
youth who shared them in the form of songs. Liang and Washburn remixed
these field voices, narratives, and sounds into tracks that were then sold to
raise funds toward those were in need.
Figure 7, Afterquake, collaboration between US artists and youth in areas
affected by Sichuan Earthquake

Most of the site content is organized into paths based in individual music
track. While listening to the track, the user may read about the production
context of the song, and browse the credits and interview transcripts of the
local participants involved in the making of each of the tracks in both
Chinese and English [Figure 7]. These supplementary materials serve as
raw data that could enrich the interpretation of the song (the interpretive,
secondary-source content). Making available primary source materials also
encourages the users to not only imagine the process of creation. It also
enables the users to form an individual relationship to these raw materials,
while inviting them to join the remix of these geographically and
temporally situated cultural artifacts.

Unlike its analog counterpart, digital archives allow ethnographers and


users to continually engage with field objects rendering the notion of
archive unstable. The meaning of field documents including field notes,
recordings, transcripts, photos, can continue to morph and form new
relationships with other objects in a digital environment as new content
and metadata is added to the collection. This dynamicism stands in
contrast with conventional collections — in analog form such as a book or a
journal article in print — that are fixed and museumized. The reanimation
of field objects can prevent the rarification of culture, a risk that we take
while creating any ethnographic representations [Figure 8].

Figure 8: Sample pages in Secret Museum of Mankind, published in 1941

Jenna Burrell evoked the idea of“performing the fieldwork experience for
audiences – raw data, transparency, and visuals” in her recent post. I think
that this metaphor of performance can also be applied to the ethnographic
process. We can reconsider the ethnographer as a performer along the
fieldwork-ethnography continuum. If field research is a snapshot of a lived
and alive culture, then the ethnographic production is a representation of a
part of this lived culture at a specific time and place. Most researchers (I
included) revisit field materials to review, re-evaluate, and (re)-produce
analysis. Oftentimes, this process of re-view and re-analysis leads to
further field interactions and documentation, thus forming a cyclical
process from field interaction, collection, analysis, and then back to
interaction. Field documentation accumulates as researchers extend their
interaction in the field.

It may be useful to think about this accumulation in an interactive,


performative way — as a repertoire, not as an archive (drawing on Diana
Taylor’s theory). If the shape of our knowledge production allows the space
for flux, we could better articulate the changing nature of the source of our
knowledge. In short, a digital archive can be closer to life because it is akin
to the performative practice of building a repertoire from which agents
(informants and ethnographers alike) draw scripts, meanings, and
inspirations.

Multi-authorship, access, and collaboration

Social media including blogs, Twitter, and Instagram have transformed


how ethnographers communicated their research. Blogging ethnographers
have proliferated over the last few years. The use of Instagram to create
flash photo field notes is becoming more of a norm, thanks to Tricia Wang
who articulated convincingly the ethics and benefits of an open
ethnography. After my last field trip to Taipei, I experimented with Storify
to aggregate and organize field content that I produced across a number of
social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube,
and Tumblr into a coherent narrative. The digital capacity for instant
documentation and systemic content storage and organization makes
digital social media extremely appealing for fieldwork.

While social media ostensibly makes a promising gesture toward open


information and access, the question of to whom this content is open is still
contingent upon the communities and their access to and experience of
media. As an example, in my research, I hung out with a group of elders,
musicians, and other members of the homeless, impoverished, and
disabled underclass in the Mengjia (also known as Mongka) district in
Taipei. I collected field recordings of some of the ad-hoc street
performances by the nakashi musicians. I Instagrammed my observations
of performance and audience interactions. My documentation practices
informed peers of my networks about my field observations as these
documents instigated a deepened conversation about what I observed. But
none of the members of the community that I studied, it seemed, have a
life embedded in these digital social platforms. Increasing access is difficult
or impossible to realize depending on how embedded of your engaged
community is in the (same) digital world(s). Further, openness could mean
different things for various stakeholders in an ethnographic situation.
While I would like to communicate my findings to the world, my
informants may not be interested in and could be obversed to my sharing
of information about them with the world. Collaboration is an ideal, but it
doesn’t always equal openness. Transparency of research motivation and
sharing of research results and products with the engaged community is a
good thing. But an open access to information is not necessarily ethical in
all situations.

In light of the ethics and politics of access, I will talk about digital content
management system as a possible approach to democratizing access and
authorship in ethnographic knowledge production. A prominent feature of
digital content systems is the ability to allow multiple authors on a single
platform. The multi-author feature facilitates and organizes the sounding
of multiple voices. This has particular implications for the politics around
authorship and access in light of colonial practices associated with the
history of ethnography – probing at the problematic western/northern-
hemispheric/first-world representations of non-western/southern-
hemispheric/third world experiences.

After her Vectors-based project, Christen Kim continued her work in


developing technology and information design to empower indigenous
communities. Her most recent project, Mukurtu (Mook-oo-too) is a free
and open-source “community archive platform” built for indigenous
communities to preserve, manage, and share their own heritage content.
The name “mukurtu” comes from the Warumungu community that she has
worked with; it means “dilly bag.” Apparently, the elders of this
Warumunga community chose the name for the system because they
thought of it as a “safe keeping place.” Mukurtu comes with a set of fine-
grained levels of access affording the users to manage the flow of their
information based on protocols that reflect the social relations and values
such as intellectual property rights of the group. I’m particularly excited
about Mukurtu Mobile, an app that allows one to document and collect
stories in the field, and then upload and manage them within the archive
once connected to the network. The offline-online continuity fits the
dynamic, on-the-go spatial demands of fieldwork, and anticipates
unexpected needs for documentation.

Conclusion

Figure 9: the author, field recording the “Exhortation Tricycle” found in


front of the Lungshan Temple in Taipei

To conclude, I will tell you a little of dream that I have. After I came back
from Taipei, I became frustrated by my inability to contact the members of
the Mongka community that I befriended in Taipei. In particular, my main
informant, a grandma-aged woman who took me in as her “god-daughter,”
refused to give me her address and told me that she’s sick. I’m not sure
what that meant, but I could tell that she, along with others in the group,
prefers face-to-face interactions over other mediated forms of contact.

If I have the means, I would like to go back to Mengjia to set up a mobile


karaoke stand / Internet café [like the “Exhortation Tricycle”, Figure 9] for
this transient but socially intact community. I will make available a few
computers and help those in the community with an interest in digital
communication to get set up in digital platforms of their choice to
document their day-to-day, special events, and memories. I will also
introduce Mukurtu to them to they can think about access and come up
with protocols of information that suit their needs. Maybe these documents
will engender a space for a collective reflection as they face the silencing
effects of gentrification and urban renewal. Maybe the creation of these
documents will give them a sense of control over their changing
environment. Maybe they can then create a subset of the exhibition-ready
documents to rally for rights while they combat evictions.

[1] See Stoller, Paul. 2011. The Taste of Ethnographic Things. Philadelphia,
PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 8-9.

[2] See McPherson, Tara. 2009. “Introduction: Media Studies and the
Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, No. 2, Winter, p. 121

[3] Browse: Christen, Kim and Chris Cooney. 2006. “Digital Dynamics
Across Cultures,”Vectors. Fall, Volume 2, Issue 1, Ephemera.
http://vectors.usc.edu/projects/index.php?project=67 (accessed January
22, 2011).

[4] Browse: Daniel, Sharon and Erik Loyer. 2006. “Public Secrets,”
Vectors. Winter, Volume 2, Issue 2, Perception.
http://vectors.usc.edu/projects/index.php?project=57 (accessed July 9,
2013).